In central and northern Minnesota the “fishing jury” is in. The verdict? The most popular ice fishing walleye/perch destination lakes are: Mille Lacs, Leech, Upper Red Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish (“Big Winnie”). Although all of these lakes are “primo” walleye/perch waters, because I pretty much grew up on “Winnie,” I spend the majority of the ice season chasing walleyes and jumbo perch on what we call the “Big Pond”…Big Winnie.
Even though “Winnie” sprawls over 68,000 acres, it is well known for having some of the best early ice. This is a definite plus because it makes the lake accessible for four-wheeler travel and snowmobiles as early as mid-December and by New Year’s Day it usually has ice solid enough for larger vehicle travel.
If you want to go “early ice” here are three very important things on which to concentrate in order to “ice” some nice walleyes and jumbo perch. These are not, however, “Winnie-specific.” They will work on any lake that has Minnesota’s “gold” fish: the wily walleye.
The first area is safety. When traveling on any early season ice sheet, always check local bait shops and resorts for ice updates. Even though last year was a warm aberration, I have found that on Big Winnie by December 15 there is usually enough ice for four-wheelers, snowmobiles and side by sides. The recommended ice thickness for travel from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is 2″ or less STAY OFF; 4″ ice fishing or other activities on foot; 5″ snowmobile or ATV; 8″ – 12″ car or small pickup; 12″ – 15″ medium truck. These recommendations should be used as guidelines, but always keep in mind that ice can vary from lake to lake. Your motto should always be: safety is always first when ice-fishing and any ice can be dangerous.
There are two very important tools for checking ice conditions: an ice-chisel and ice pics. When venturing out on early ice, be sure to drill some holes to check ice depth as you head out on the lake traveling to your fishing spot. You might also want to go to your favorite sporting goods dealer and look at the “float coats” which are specially designed for ice fishing. They come equipped with glow sticks, ice pics, studded sleeves, and a sewn-in rescue strap that could be a life-safer.
The second area to focus on is location. Big lake fishing for walleyes can be some of the best ice fishing you will find all winter. Being able to move around on a four-wheeler will definitely help you locate more fish. I like to target the shorelines with under water points and inside turns with deep water near by. As the ice gets thicker, I gradually move to break-line structures and mid-lake humps.
To find my favorite fishing locations, I look at my gps electronics. I use a Lowrance HDS8 with an internal mapping module and a power cord alligator clipped to a standard small sonar unit battery. Power cords that plug into “cigarette lighter” plugs are fine, but when the vehicle is shut off, the gps unit follows suit.
Using this method allows me to see a clearly displayed map of my favorite fishing locations. It may also be conveniently placed on the handlebars of a four-wheeler or snowmobile or on the dashboard in my vehicle. After locating preferred fishing structure, I start by boaring holes on the shallow side and then go deeper. I will also punch a line of holes closest to the steep break lines.
If I am on a small hump miles off shore or on an underwater point, I’ll drill a hole on top or in the middle of the hump and work my way to the edges. By doing this you can jump from hole to hole and cover more ice. Our fishing family has been doing this since back in the days of “hand augers.” “Hole-jumping” is an ice fishing tradition. Keep in mind, however, just because you drilled these holes, they are not yours. If somebody pulls in on them, there is really nothing you can do, just grin and bear it.
Once I am where I want to go, I will then use my Humminbird 55 or MarCum V (I like both for different reasons) sonar unit to check depths and look for life on the bottom. Using new sonar units, it is difficult to miss walleyes. They make pinpointing fish a breeze. If you are using an old unit, consider buying a new one, they are well worth it.
While reading the sonar, I will drop a Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon tipped with a shiner head to the bottom. I use a rather brisk jigging technique for a couple minutes in each hole. Using this method will allow you to attract fish that are just outside your sonar cone. Watch carefully for marks to fill in on your sonar below your bait. Remember, even if the fish you are marking aren’t feeding at that moment, when it gets close to the “prime time” walleye bite at sundown, those fish you were marking at 12:30 may be more active by then.
After finding your favorite fishing location in the morning or having moved around enough to settle in for the evening bite on the location you found the most action, here are a few tried and true fishing strategies that will help you put more walleyes on the ice.
I always fish with two rods. One is my jigging rod. The other is my “dead stick.” On the jigging rod, I use a variety of Northland Tackle’s Macho Minnows, Buck-Shot Spoons and Rattling Buck-Shot Spoons tipped with a shiner head or half a shiner. I jig one up to three feet off the bottom and then I drop down and bounce them off the bottom, changing the cadence to catch the attention of a fish and trick it into biting.
On the second fishing rod, the “dead stick,” I will use a Northland Tackle Buck-Shot Dropper Spoon, rigging the hook with a fathead chub hooked behind the dorsal fin or in the tail. Both will give the minnow different swimming activity to attract fish. I prefer a Frabill 28” Dead Stick fishing rod and fish it with no bobber (it can also be easily fished with a bobber).
This rod has enough flexibility at the tip to see the bite and plenty of backbone to finesse in a 28+ inch walleye. When fishing the “dead stick” method, try spoons at different depths. You could even drop the spoon right to the bottom and let the minnow swim freely just out of the mud or the sand or rocks. Then, lift a half-foot up and move up from there. Again, I rarely adjust this rod very much when using this method. It is, however, very important to have the rod placed where you can see the tip and be able to reach it when there is a bite. To accomplish this, I place the rod on a five-gallon bucket (open side up) so the rod tip is sitting perfectly horizontal to the fishing hole and the line is vertical.
Most importantly, when venturing out for the day, always tell someone where you are fishing and your intended time of departing the lake. I prefer to pay the few dollars and go out of a resort. Be sure to get the resort’s phone number. They will be glad to help you if you need assistance. If you are planning on staying until after dark, always carry extra batteries for your gps unit and remember you can never have enough lighting, so carry extra flash lights.
Be safe and have fun. I hope the “early ice” is “nice” to you.
Nik Dimich is a fulltime, year round Grand Rapids, MN and Lake Winnie area fishing guide. To book a trip, please contact him at Dimich Outdoors or “like” Dimich Outdoors on Facebook.