By Kyle Agre & Randin Olson; Brewer-Agre Outdoors
As the long warm days of summer wane and fade to fall and lakes are finally locked in the icy grip of winter, weeds in any body of water begin to slowly turn brown and die off. Those weeds slightly hardier than others remain and provide a key to early ice success. Stands of coontail and cabbage typically keep their green color longer than other species of aquatic vegetation, oftentimes well into the early ice season. These areas are certainly thicker and more plentiful in the early season prior to heavy snow cover, but can remain alive for a good part of the winter season if there is minimal snow cover and sunlight is allowed to penetrate the ice. The cover, oxygen, and microorganisms provided by the living vegetation protect and feed baitfish, and in turn, game fish from panfish to walleye, pike, and bass.
Although there is almost always a population of walleyes living in shallow weeds throughout the year in early winter, we often see a stronger presence and higher population of fish that are still actively feeding and not ready to settle into the sluggish routine of winter. These fish have likely been hanging out in these areas since mid-fall and will remain there until their food source moves to deeper water.
We have found that the most productive areas to target are weed flats adjacent to deeper water. Shallow is a relative term when it comes to these weed flats. With many lakes experiencing the presence of zebra mussels, the clear water allows weed growth deeper in the system. We’ve found walleyes scattered in these weed flats anywhere from 10 to 19 feet of water through the ice. Within the weed flat look for standing vegetation, which appears quite recognizable on your Vexilar. If you are fishing on clear ice the standing green stalks may even be visible as you explore the target areas on foot. Much like we do in the open water season, success is found when we have the ability to dissect the weed bed we are targeting. Each area has its own series of pockets and alleys throughout that predators use to travel, stage and set up to ambush their prey. If you fished these areas earlier in the year you may already be familiar with where these key “spot-on-the-spot” locations lie. Check your GPS, the same coordinates you fished during mid-October are great spots to start once the ice is safe enough to fish.
Speaking of early ice, any time we are venturing out onto the ice warrants a discussion of safety. There is no fish worth risking your life over. Know how to recognize when the ice is not safe and stay off. Early ice can and often is safe ice, if we know what to look for. Be familiar with the recommended minimums for safe ice thickness to travel on foot, ATV and vehicles and remember that these recommendations are for clear, solid ice. When venturing out check the ice as you travel and not just near the shoreline. Carry ice picks, a length of rope and a floatation device. Life preserver/PFDs are effective, but you may also want to consider purchasing a float suit if you don’t already have one. These parkas and bibs, such as the Eskimo Keeper and Legend, provide warmth, breathability with the added security of an Uplyft floatation liner. They are no bigger or bulkier than any other piece of ice fishing outerwear out there but can be a lifesaver in the event of the worst-case scenario ever taking place.
Having identified a probable weed bed, we like to get out early, before prime fishing time if possible and drill our holes for the outing. If we have a good “lay of the land” under the ice and are confident in where the pockets and alleys we mentioned earlier are located we will be very strategic with our hole placement to take advantage of these key areas. In other scenarios, we focus on being mobile and exploring the weed bed as we go. A lightweight efficient auger like the drill adaptive Eskimo Pistol Bit fits the bill quite nicely, allowing us to keep gear weight to a minimum yet drill all the holes we will need to find pods of active walleyes.
While the remaining weed growth provides cover for baitfish and predator alike, walleyes will often utilize the shadows of snowdrifts on the top side of the ice as additional ambush cover within the weeds. Take advantage of this by utilizing a flip shelter to both cast a shadow and provide the opportunity to better see what is beneath the ice. A flip shack like the new Eskimo Apex with Illumidark Grey interior provides transportation for tackle and other gear as well as quick shelter for an angler to peer down the ice hole or drop a line to explore what is beneath. Move and move often until connecting with active fish. Often, these moves may only be 10 to 50 yards at a time. Don’t feel that you need to move a half-mile when the objective is to pick away at the weed bed to identify where the feeding walleyes are located. They may only be a few feet away and a small move could land you right on top of them.
Being active and fishing the holes that you’ve drilled when you arrive allows you to cover water quickly and efficiently. Utilizing an aggressive approach to triggering bites will help to pick off the active feeders much like a fast, active presentation does in the open water. If the bite slows, we can always go back and fish the holes that produced fish or fish sightings with slower finesse tactics. Some of our favorite lure choices for this aggressive style of fishing include Rattle baits like the LiveTarget golden shiner, spoons such as the Northland Buckshot Rattle and Macho Minnow and LiveTarget Flutter Shad and jigging baits like the Puppet Minnow. Having a combination of horizontal and vertical presentations tied up can be a big benefit as you explore the nooks and crannies of the weed bed. Some days the fish will be triggered by one or the other and presenting both helps you to know which they prefer on that particular outing. A good multi-species rod/reel combo help to prepare for the diversity of conditions and presentations that might be used during the outing. One of our favorites is the Tuned Up Custom Rods Fusion 32-36” rod paired with a quality spinning reel.
The signs will become obvious when the fish move out of the weeds. As winter progress and/or snow cover accumulates the weeds will continue to die off to a point where sustainable baitfish populations move on to other locations. At this time the game fish will follow. Until this happens though, there is an opportunity to capitalize on some great walleye action.
Early season outings can be a blast when we key in on these last remaining underwater green forests. When targeting walleyes in the weeds don’t be surprised at what you might bring up the hole. Crappie, bass, and pike are likely keying in on the same baitfish and can provide you with a bonanza of action throughout the day and into the twilight hours.