A One-Two Punch for Early-Ice Success
LIVETARGET pros share tips for locating and catching more walleyes, crappie and perch
Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON (November 12, 2019) – There’s frost on the ground, ponds are beginning to freeze and deer hunting is here. The next step in nature’s calendar? Fishable ice on larger bodies of water. It’s an exciting time for anglers, because the early-ice period often offers the most epic bites of the entire season.
The first consideration for fishing early ice is safety. Always err on the side of caution. It’s a good idea to wait until there’s five inches of ice for fishing on foot and eight inches for ATVs and snowmobiles. For the first few trips on foot, carry a spud bar to test the ice ahead of you as you walk out. Ice picks are also a must-have for this time of year and should be worn around the neck during each outing. And don’t forget that each angler should also carry a good length of rope. Apparel manufacturers also now offer ice suits with flotation technology for an extra level of safety on early ice. The advantage of a float suit may seem obvious, but the bibs are especially key, as they keep your legs buoyant should you break through. This lower-body buoyancy makes it much easier to crawl back onto the ice.
“If you don’t have a float suit, it’s a good idea to wear an inflatable PFD or life vest,” says LIVETARGET ice pro Scott Brewer of North Dakota-based Brewer-Agre Outdoors. They’re so small and comfortable now you can wear them underneath your outer gear. It could save your life should you break through.”
LIVETARGET ice pro Kyle Agre, the other half of Brewer-Agre Outdoors, says it’s important to fish in a group. “When we talk early-ice safety, we strongly recommend that trips be in pairs of anglers or larger groups,” he says. “If you have a buddy or buddies you can fish with, that’s strongly recommended. Also, always let someone know where you’re going and when you’re going to be back.”
For Brewer and Agre, first ice is a favorite time to capitalize on walleye, perch, and crappie bites. The LIVETARGET pros agree the most beneficial thing you can do to locate early-ice fish is to begin in the same locations where you fished in the fall. Pull GPS waypoints from boat electronics and put together a plan based on those spots. Walleyes, crappies, and perch should be close to the same locations as they were found during the last month or so of open water.
“I’m thinking about the last places I found walleyes and other species the last few times I was in the boat during late fall,” Agre says. “If it’s on a big lake like Winnipeg or Lake of the Woods, it’s going to be near rivers, which adds an added level of safety concern because current can play a significant role in how safe the ice is. On your local lakes, it might be some of the steep breaks that transition into shallow flats. During first ice, fish might be right on that break, close to the top side of the break, or on the bottom side of the break. The walleyes are going to be around that structure. It just takes some experimentation to find out exactly where.”
The edges of decayed weedbeds and drop-offs are always high-probability walleye areas on most lakes. “During early ice, there are still a lot of walleyes that are hanging out on the most pronounced drop offs in the lake – the ones that go from 40 to 20 feet or 30 to 10 or 20,” says Agre.
Time of day also makes a difference during early ice. A lot of anglers will go out and cash in on aggressive fish during in the morning and evening hours only, but don’t discount that middle-of-the-day period – even if it’s just to locate fish in deeper water. “A lot of those walleyes might be sitting tight to the bottom, so you have to get them to move in order to confirm their location on your electronics,” Brewer says. “Using the right baits, you can raise some of those fish off the bottom and catch some, or at least get a reaction so you know they are there and come back to them later. From there, if you’re in deep water you might want to move into the top of the break for that sundown bite. This time of year, early ice, you can get those fish to show themselves during the day, which will help you maximize that opportunity when the sun starts to go down.”
Keep in mind that early-ice walleyes are still in their fall patterns, and that’s why the fishing can be so good. Crappies will also still be close to those depths and locations found during late fall.
“Crappies are headed toward holes,” Brewer says. “If you can find a hole on a flat somewhere – a 10- or 15-foot flat that’s got a 20- or 25-foot hole, those crappies are going to be there already during early ice and are likely to remain there a good portion of the winter. Same thing with the weedlines; they’ll be hanging around there, too.”
During early ice, Brewer and Agre almost always utilize a one-two punch of a LIVETARGET Golden Shiner Rattlebait or Yellow Perch Rattlebait on one rod and a spoon like the LIVETARGET Flutter Shad on a second. They use the larger rattlebaits during search mode, attracting fish and catching the most aggressive individuals. Once they find numbers of fish, they’ll switch to a smaller size rattlebait or Flutter Spoon as a throwback bait, almost like muskie fishermen do. “When you get a mark that comes in and the fish is looking but won’t commit, reel it up really fast and drop down that smallest size Golden Shiner Rattlebait or the Flutter Spoon – the latter with a minnow head. Going from a horizontal to a vertical presentation often seals the deal. A lot of times just a different look, a different size, or a different profile is what it takes to trigger that bite,” says Agre.
“But you don’t want to get caught in that trap of thinking you have to use small baits and finicky presentations right off the bat. I highly recommend using an aggressive approach each time you go out during early ice. Especially using baits like the LIVETARGET Golden Shiner Rattlebait and Yellow Perch Rattlebait. The two-inch 1/4-ounce size is great for walleyes and we’ve found they’re dynamite on crappies, too. Even during the day when you’re not necessarily marking fish when you’re looking around. They sit belly to the bottom and they’re hard to see on electronics. But if you use a loud search bait, a lot of the times you can get them to show themselves and that lets you know you’re in the right area. Even if they don’t hit it, it gets the fish off the bottom so you can drop down a second presentation like the LIVETARGET Flutter Shad with a minnow head and catch them in a one-two punch,” says Brewer.
“The Golden Shiner Rattlebait and Yellow Perch Rattlebait have the reputation of being big fish baits on big bodies of water. On some of our smaller lakes that might have ice fishing opportunities earlier in the season, we might not necessarily think of using the bigger, louder baits, but they can be very effective at both attracting and catching fish,” says Agre. “Most of our bodies of water we can fish two lines. Having two different presentations – one that’s loud and will bring in the fish, and the Flutter Spoon on the other rod, you’re giving those fish two different options – a horizontal and a vertical presentation, which in my mind is huge, until you know what they want for that particular day.”
Electronics are the key to gauging the mood and reactions of the fish. Make sure your flasher or sonar is on and you’re watching the way fish respond. A flasher in combination with an underwater camera is an even better way to judge mood and match your presentation accordingly.
When it comes to choosing a rod, Agre recommends a medium-light power rod for the smaller rattlebaits and spoons, but is quick to point out a medium is more appropriate when fishing those bigger bodies of water with trophy-sized fish. In those situations, a little extra backbone is important. For ripping larger rattlebaits, a medium-power rod should be on the heavier and stiffer side for controlling the bait, while maintaining a sensitive tip.
With regards to line type, Agre believes anglers should stick to what fish during the open-water season. “If you’re a guy who fishes mono, fish mono; if you’re a guy who fishes superline, fish superline. In terms of one’s going to catch fish and the other isn’t, I don’t believe that. What I believe is that if you’re fishing all summer with mono and switch over to superline once first ice hits, it’s a different feel; it’s a different action. All the properties are different – the shock absorption, how you’re going to fight the fish, etc. And so, in my mind, stay with what you know and are experienced with.”
For Agre, what he knows is superline with a fluorocarbon leader. “On some of the bigger bodies of water guys will tie direct, but I prefer a quality barrel swivel and a foot-to-foot-and-a-half fluorocarbon leader to prevent line twist,” he says. “On my local lakes, I’m probably using six-pound test. If I’m going to Lake of the Woods or Lake Winnipeg, I’m going to bump that up to ten pound. And I usually use the same weights for the fluoro leaders – six with six pound and eight or ten with the ten-pound superline. I can’t emphasize enough, you might think that a barrel swivel is nothing but if you hook up with the fish of a lifetime you don’t want some cheap piece of terminal tackle. Pay the extra 28 cents and get good terminal tackle.”
Brewer, on the other hand, is a monofilament guy, generally fishing six-pound mono. Even when he visits Lake Winnipeg and Lake of the Woods for large walleyes, he’s fishing light. “I never use anything above eight-pound mono. A lot of anglers use superline and there are good reasons for both, but I’m fishing six- and eight-pound mono. It’s what I’m used to and comfortable with,” he says.
Brewer likes longer rods, especially when fishing outside during early ice. “I like a 38” or 42” rod because it helps minimize mistakes. When you have the room to go with a longer rod, it gives you the added benefits of a little more backbone and more forgiveness,” he says. “And with the longer tip the line doesn’t go slack so you can fight the fish a little more efficiently. Having that longer tip also allows you to drop your line size one size, because if you fight the fish more efficiently, you can get by with a little lighter line. And that might put a couple extra fish on the ice. Every little thing you can do can like that will add to your success and if you can do two, three, or four things like that, it’s going to make a noticeable difference in your day. Line size is just one of those factors,” says Brewer.
In terms of favorite rattlebait colors, Agre and Brewer differ a bit, too. “When we fish Winnipeg we use a combination of the two bigger sizes of the Golden Shiner Rattlebait and the Yellow Perch Rattlebait,” Agre says. “Personally, I caught more fish on the perch and glow white patterns than I did the silver and black or silver and blue. Part of that is when you start getting confidence in a bait, you obviously use it more.”
For Brewer, he’s a fan of the off-shelf shiner color in the LIVETARGET Golden Shiner Rattlebait. “It matches the hatch extremely well. You go up to Lake Winnipeg or Lake of the Woods and they’re eating emerald shiners so the silver and black has been really good for me. From there, you may want to tweak it a bit if the fish are coming in but not hitting it. That’s when changing to the blue silver or the glow white makes a difference. And the perch pattern Yellow Perch Rattlebait works really well on lakes where perch are the main forage,” says Brewer.
How to Work ‘Em
“Generally, if I’m using one of the LIVETARGET rattlebaits as a search tool, I’m not going to put any live bait on them. From there, it depends on what you’re seeing. If they come in and they’re not hitting it, you might want to tip it with a minnow head on that bottom treble,” says Brewer. “The beauty of these baits is being able to call fish in and get a reaction. It might not always be a feeding reaction but it’s going to be a curious reaction. I like to fish them aggressively. I’ll drill a hole, jig it for five minutes, and if I don’t see anything, then move on to the next hole,” continues Brewer.
“I’m ripping them pretty hard. If I’m in a muddy or a hard bottom I’ll generally let them drop all the way to the bottom and you get a little puff of silt out of them and then rip them up two to four feet and do that three or four times and let it sit for 10 or 15 seconds and then rip it again,” Brewer explains. “I want to be able to hear that bait above the ice when I rip it, which is not very difficult.”
Early ice is a great time to capitalize on some of the season’s best fishing opportunities before the heart of the winter sets in and fish go neutral or negative. Always make safety your first priority, then work on increasing your efficiency. Target the areas where you caught fish during the late fall and use your electronics to locate fish that may be glued to the bottom. Determining the mood of the fish is important. The one-two-punch of a larger, searching LIVETARGET rattlebait followed – if necessary – with a smaller LIVETARGET Flutter Shad spoon can provide a great way to enjoy success on early-ice walleye, crappie and perch, no matter where you fish.
Since its launch in 2008, LIVETARGET has grown into a full family of life-like fishing lures that Match-the-Hatch® to specific game fish forage, with an expansive library of lure styles and colors for both fresh and saltwater fishing. The lures feature industry-leading designs in realism and workmanship that closely mimic nature’s different prey species. Headquartered in Ontario, Canada, LIVETARGET won ICAST Best of Show awards in the hard and soft lure categories in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.