Probably my favorite time of year to chase walleyes is on early ice.  While I know many guys who prefer the spring, that’s usually when I’m chasing snow geese so I spend most of my focus early in the winter.  The strong sun rays of the spring deteriorate the ice quickly, so you’re window of opportunities in the spring can be short.

Catching walleyes the first few weeks of the season isn’t rocket science, you just have to know their tendencies.  And I will share the 3 tips that I follow when fishing most any lake in November or December for walleyes.

Fish Shallow

I think the biggest mistake most walleye anglers make early in the year is they fish too deep.  While it’s true that walleye spend a lot of their lifespan deep, but early in the winter they go shallow at feeding times.  And when I say shallow, I mean they can go really shallow (at times in 6 feet or less).

My general rule of thumb is to start at 12 feet of water and work my way in.  If the lake you’re fishing has weeds shallow, try searching for where the weeds end.  That can be a prime spot for feeding walleyes.

The main reason why I don’t like fishing in the thick of the weeds is that it can be hard to mark walleyes on my Vexilar flasher.  The weeds can clutter up the screen, making it hard to not only see your bait, but incoming fish as well. No matter what I do with zoom and gain, if I’m fishing blind I lose interest fast.

But don’t be afraid to try as shallow as you can, you’ll be surprised at what you find, especially in low light periods of the day and night.  You’ll need to be quiet and not create a lot of commotion when fishing real shallow as that can spook fish.

Chris Hustad Walleye Ice Fishing

The big walleyes like to go shallow early in the winter.

Look in the Bays

More often than not, when I’m fishing a lake early in the winter I’m usually starting in bays off the main lake basin.  Inward from the mouths of the bays is a good starting point, and don’t be afraid to go back into the shallow bays off of deeper water.

Before I hit the ice, I’m always scouting lake maps on my phone for the key structure that sticks out.  Points, humps, and bottlenecks in the bays are usually winners for finding walleye early in the year.  And early ice is when you can find a lot of the big walleyes in these spots. Most of my bigger fish I ice each year are shallow in the bays before the new year.

Fish are usually aggressive during early ice, and it’s not unusual to have the majority of the walleyes you mark slam your baits.  When I was out the other night, I found that pretty much everything I marked made a run at my lure. I typically fish with aggressive presentations too, such as jigging spoons and minnow baits such as the Northland Rippin’ Shads.

While colors don’t usually matter, as I’ve stated in other articles that red/pink are my go-to colors during this time.  It’s a personal preference, although on the right day or night literally anything aggressive can work.  

Note the Water Clarity

Here’s my general rule of thumb for water clarity early in the winter.  If the water is clear, the action is usually in low light. If the water is murky or cloudy, you’ll probably get most of your action during the day.  While I’ve found opposites to these rules, more often than not, this holds true on early ice.  

The key is to know the water you’re fishing and to be set up during peak feeding times.  For example, if you’re on a crystal clear lake and you arrive mid-morning…it’s going to be a long day.  Lots of anglers lose interest and just assume the fish aren’t biting. But the reality is they were just fishing the right places at the wrong times.

No matter how much I ice fish each winter, I’m always learning.  I like to fish as much new water as I can, and not get stuck in a rut of just fishing the same spot (unless it’s dynamite).  Don’t be afraid to travel and explore, but please do it with caution. Knowing the ice thickness before you venture far is key to staying safe.  I personally don’t like to step anywhere that’s under 3 inches of good, clear ice. It’s just a gamble that I’m not willing to take (and I have kids).

So try these 3 tips the next time you go ice fishing early in the winter.  If you follow them precisely, there’s a good chance you’ll be in for some good walleye action.  And as stated earlier, this is the best chance, in my opinion, at catching a pig.

Tight Lines and Good luck!

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