Early Ice — One Time When Finesse Isn’t Your Friend


December can be cold, but it’s often a hot time to hit the ice. Why? Gamefish of all sizes and shapes are on the bite, and in most cases, they haven’t seen lures or live-bait offerings for many weeks. So, no matter whether you’re after panfish, pike, walleyes or trout, this is the time to get out and enjoy one of the hottest bites of the year.

Here’s my mental approach to this first-ice opportunity: There are times to use tiny finesse presentations, but this isn’t it. To make the most of early ice opportunities, I recommend living large — fishing faster, and with larger lures, than during any other time of the winter.

Arm yourself with a fistful of fast-dropping lures fit for flashy, gaudy, noisy presentations. When targeting walleyes for example, think LIVETARGET Golden Shiner Rattlebait, Northland Fishing Tackle Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons, and Puppet Minnows. To keep yourself light and mobile, keep the selection simple enough to fit inside a pocket-sized box.

LIVETARGET Golden Shiner Rattlebait
Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon

Limit the rest of your gear as well. After all, you’ll likely be walking on hardwater and pulling a small portable shelter, or perhaps just towing a sled and fishing in the open air. If the ice is thick enough, you can use an ATV or side-by-side. Remember: Safety first!

A couple of ice rods, a flasher, bait and lightweight auger are all you need for fast-paced, first-ice action. Anything else only slows you down.

StrikeMaster Lazer hand auger

And speaking of the auger, all you really need for first ice is Lazer hand auger; I prefer the model for cutting 6-inch-diameter holes. This lightweight drill is perfect for punching holes in a hurry through ice measuring 4 to 6 inches. As soon as I can drive an ATV to my spots, I’ll switch to a lightweight power auger, but stick with a 6-inch hole.

After choosing a high-percentage fishing area for the species you’re seeking, drill a handful of holes and slip into search mode. Use sonar to look for fish. When blips appear onscreen, drop a lure just above the level of the fish and get busy with a mix of quick, aggressive lifts, short pauses, twitches and other tempting moves.

MarCum LX-7 sonar

If the fish look but don’t bite, throw down a slightly smaller bait (rigged on the second rod) and tone things down a little. Follow up these subtle jig strokes by pounding bottom to kick up a little dust.

Just don’t spend too much time trying to tempt a reluctant fish into biting, because there are plenty of active ones around. After a minute or two of coaxing, it’s time to move on.

If no fish are present when you drop your transducer in a hole, you can still try to attract biters to the strike zone. Drop a big flashy jig or spoon 5 feet off the bottom and fish it down with a series of flashy attraction strokes interspersed with short pauses.

Give these attraction strokes a minute or two to lure nearby fish. If nothing responds, reel up and continue your quest for early ice success.

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