Mike Tietjen likes thin ice. No, he isn’t keen on falling through it. What Tietjen likes about thin ice is the action below it.
“Early ice can be the best fishing of the season,” said Teitjen, a member of the Wild Dakota pro staff, a television show which specializes in producing great fishing shows centered in the Dakotas.
For Teitjen, who lives in Brookings, South Dakota, early ice means 2 to 4 inches. Most often, first ice is in place by the first weekend in December. It’s during those first cold days that fishing for perch, crappies, bluegills and walleyes can sizzle, he said. That’s when Teitjen heads to shallow, fertile lakes in his neighborhood. Anything with 16 feet of water or less is best. “They have the best ice early and they typically have the best fishing,” he said.
Teitjen also prefers lakes with stained water and clarity of 5 to 6 feet. Fish can’t afford to be too particular in this off colored water. As a result, they’re more aggressive. “They have to catch, grab and destroy,” Teitjen said.
Another advantage of darker water: fish bite all day rather than just in low-light times which is typical of clear lakes.
Early Ice Fish Location
As for location, Teitjen has this to say: “Think scattered weeds and the open sand/mud areas.” Begin by checking out the Department of Natural Resources web sites for your state. Most offer maps of the lakes. Or, buy a map at area bait shops.
What you’re looking for is weeds which still have some green vegetation. The weeds give off oxygen and ignite the food chain while giving panfish or walleyes a semblance of security. If you’re unconvinced, simply drop an Aqua-Vu underwater camera down and see for yourself.
The best weedbeds are large in size, on structures that reach all the way to deep water. It’s a bonus if rocks are present. Expect to find panfish, walleyes and pike.
Teitjen said a good flasher unit like the Humminbird ICE 55 can be a great tool. With its dual beam transducer, it gives you a wide view of the bottom in 6 feet of water where jumbo perch and ‘eyes love to hold.
Crappies, an early-winter favorite, will be where you left them during the past autumn. In shallow lakes, they’ll cruise the weedlines and become active at various times during the day. In deeper lakes, they haunt the deeper holes where the baitfish roam. If a point juts out to the hole, it’s nearly a given it will hold fish, he said. Look for balls of bait. They huddle up for protection from hungry predators. It’s a sign that crappies are close by.
“If the lake is shaped like a big bowl, you’d better have a good auger, ‘cuz you’ll be drilling a lot of holes looking for them,” laughed Teitjen. “On early ice, though, a hand auger will often do just fine.”
The key is to stay mobile. Use light, portable fish shanties. These portable units will allow you to keep moving until you find fish, and you’ll be more likely to move again once the action slows.
St. Croix makes a great line up of ultra sensitive rods. Match the proper rod action to the size of jig or lure that you are using. Try spooling up with some TUF Line Duracast Ice line. It is a super braid with a special coating which deflects most of the ice build-up you get with other braids.
The best lures include a Lindy Frostee Jigging Spoon or a Slick Jig. Try tipping them with a small waxie or minnow.
Perch love to patrol shoreline areas with structure, such as points (bars) that crisscross an area. They also surround themselves with minnows, crustaceans and invertebrates. As a result, look for transition areas that offer a variety of bottom types. The best spots will prove to be drops that feature both rocks and mud. Perch will also be found in weeds.
As the calendar turns to a new year, they move to detached rock piles, which are small humps in the middle of nowhere. They’re there to enjoy the mid-winter snacks of insect hatches that occur near the full-moon phases. “The mud comes alive,” Teitjen said.
Early in the morning and later in the day, the flasher will reveal active perch suspended 2 to 3 feet off the bottom. They drop down and become more inactive during the day. They don’t rise as high off the bottom during cold fronts, he added.
Later in the winter, perch move again to big flats away from structure. Anglers abandon the shanty towns over structures that were once widely popular. This is the time when friends come in handy. Dissect the lake, drill holes until you see fish on the screen and fish the spot thoroughly. Call your buddies when you connect.
For bluegills, go with smaller jigs. Teitjen’s favorites are Fatboys and Toads dressed with spikes or maggots. Or, tear a wax worm in half and let its insides spill in the water as an attractant.
Bluegills feel safe in the vegetation so look for clumps of green weeds. They like the deeper holes in the weeds so start there. Crappies will be mixed in.
Early-ice walleyes love to cruise the breaklines on points near hard-bottom areas. They can be as shallow as 4 feet. Also try the mouths of bays and over old river channels when ice is safe. Punch a lot of holes looking for them.
Try a Rattl’n Flyer Spoon or a ¼-ounce Frostee Spoon dressed with a minnow head. Cut the minnow by the pectoral fin so its insides help draw fish. “You want some of the goodies in the water,” Teitjen said. Hook it through the skull and out the bottom of the jaw so it will stay on the hook. Snap jig aggressively using a motion like a hookset, let it fall, then repeat.
He uses a “dead stick” for walleyes, too. Set a slip-bobber so the bait is just off the bottom. On your dead stick, loosen the spool so the fish can pull the bait out without feeling resistance.
Walleyes also like to cruise weed edges in search of panfish. “Any perch or bluegill that sticks its nose out is riding home on the bus,” Teitjen said.
Early Ice Safety
Remember, safety first. Thin ice is inconsistent. A spring underneath, even a flock of geese, can create a dangerous situation. Carry a set of spikes to stick into the ice if you break through. “When you’re on ice 2 to 4 inches thick, you don’t know where the trap door is,” Tietjen said.
Stay warm. Try wearing an Ice Armor Xtreme waterproof suit that features extra padding on the rear and the knees. Wear something non-slip on your boots to prevent serious head injuries in a fall.
First ice can be a bonanza for the adventurous angler!
Image courtesy Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson