First-Ice Walleye Tactics

There is a good chance that when you are reading this for the first time, there is already snow on the ground. Which also means that the water temps are low, and the ice is starting to show itself. And when it’s safe enough to walk on, the fun begins.

When first ice comes around, the fishing can be a crazy fest. During this time, the walleyes are still moving around with the food—or looking for food. This is a very big, key factor for understanding early-ice walleye behavior and tactics. So let’s get into it.

As you well know, when the water temps start to cool down, the fish start their usual feeding frenzy to fatten up for the winter. Which in turn makes them fairly easy to catch, and here is why. The walleyes are on the move and quite literally eating everything in their path. So, if you are presenting something that’s easy for the fish to grab, they are going to take it. When they are pushing around a school of baitfish, it’s much easier to grab the most vulnerable bait first. So you need to do the same.

If you want to catch these early-ice eyes, there is a wide selection of options to choose from. But for now, we are going to narrow it down to a few tactics.

Let’s kick things off with a water-coverage tactic. During the early-ice period, it is important to have a wide spread of baits in different depths and locations. This is where tip-ups and rattle reels come into play. When we’re out on the ice, we create a spread of tip-ups that cover a wide array of depths. We like to set a least one bait in about 20 feet of water and step all the way up to 3 feet. This way, you can follow the fish as they change depth as the day goes on.

When you have tip-ups in the water, there are several lure/rigging options to choose from. These are some of the most effective ones:

The simplest way to go is to use a hook, like a beak hook and a heavy split shot. If you want to spice things up a bit, add a glow bead to the line for added attraction. For jigs, try smaller-profile jigs that provide a vertical presentation. This will aid in a better hook-up ratio and will keep your minnows at a better vertical angle.

Now, if you are like me, you have to be doing something productive, like having a rod in your hands and jigging. I can’t just sit around in the cold and do nothing. So, here are a few jigs that you need to have in your tackle box.

During early ice, there are really only two styles of jigs/spoons that you need. There are non-rattling and rattling. For the non-rattling, a good starting point is just a simple round head jig in a smaller size. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to go big. Sizes under ½-ounce are more than enough. If you are willing to spend a bit more money, tungsten jigs are worth a try. Again, tungsten costs a fair bit more than lead. But it is worth it for the size-to-weight difference from lead.

Spoons are a great way to take a more aggressive approach. Small spoons in your traditional shapes are the way to go. Also, don’t be afraid to try something new like a round spoon or a oddly-shaped one. Trust me when I say that I have caught walleye on some pretty interesting looking spoons.

For your rattling jigs, you will find that jigging spoons are the more popular and abundant rattling jigs out there. Just like your non-rattling spoons, you can very likely get the same exact spoon—just with a rattle. You can find and most certainly use rattling round head jigs, but the spoons are a go-to for most anglers, including myself.

Most jigging spoons come with a treble hook. One tip for using jigging spoons is to invest in some dropper hooks or stinger hooks. These are very effective for when the fish miss the hook but are taking your bait, like your minnow. Attaching them to your spoon is as easy as snapping it onto the split ring that holds the main hook on. Then, just hook up your minnow with the main hook, as usual, and the secondary hook towards the tail of your bait. It’s just that simple.

Now for the important part: color. Color is the biggest factor between fish and no fish. And this time of year is no exception. Always have a wide array of colors with you. I seriously can not stress this enough. Fish can be as picky as my dog when choosing what toy to play with next. Every time we hit the ice, we have to have at least five different colors in the water until we can narrow it down by what the fish tell us. We have had times where the walleyes bit on a different color every hour. So, make sure you can adapt to the fish’s color preference.

Just like color, it’s important to present your lures in different ways. For tip-ups and rattle reels, this means having your minnow hooked in different ways, like through the tail, lip or dorsal fin. For jigging, use different actions, like ranging from an aggressive snap to a small twitch. Last year, we had a week where one night the fish were biting on glow red rattling spoons with an aggressive snapping action, to the next night when you had to have a glow purple eye candy on a tip-up or under a bobber. Over the rest of the week, the tactics changed every night. Play with your different options and go along with what the fish demand.

During the early-ice season, walleyes are on the move and will eat anything they can catch. Make sure you have plenty of different options to fish with so you can have fun. Remember, if you don’t listen to the fish, you won’t catch them. Have fun and stay safe on the early ice.