If you're anything like me, you have probably been at the public access checking the ice every night after work. I keep a chisel in the back of my truck and stop on the way home. My rods are rigged and tackle boxes organized. First ice always leaves me feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. While I primarily spend my hard water season chasing panfish, first ice has me dreaming of walleyes. It can be a short window of opportunity but during the first few weeks of the hard water season the planets align. The walleyes bulk up for the long winter ahead. Oxygen rich waters and large baitfish call for aggressive tactics. My favorite of which is the jigging spoon. Jigging spoons drop down fast in deep water allowing you to put the miles on necessary to ice some walleyes.
A handful of jigging spoons is all that is needed to get started. Different spoons can be used to impart different actions. Some are meant to be fished with bigger jigging motions, while others respond to the slightest movements. I learned a lot about how to fish different spoons by watching them on my underwater camera. The general rule of thumb is to jig more with thicker spoons and less with thinner ones. I would recommend something with a rattle like the Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon or Lindy Rattl’n Flyer for a search lure. These lures make a lot of commotion and call fish in for a closer look. While you may have to switch to a less aggressive spoon to get a commitment, these spoons will give you an idea if fish are present in the area. A second choice would be a thin flutter spoon like the JB Weasel. These impart a much different action than their bulky counterparts and are needed to seal the deal some days. My third choice, and an absolute classic, would be Bay De Noc’s Swedish Pimple. I caught my first winter walleyes using these spoons and never leave them behind to this day. Lastly, I wouldn't be without the Northland Macho Minnow. The small flicker tail can keep a walleyes attention with a simple squeeze of the rod handle. While you could add many other effective choices to your arsenal, this will give you plenty of different actions to tempt even the most discerning of marble eyes.
My favorite part about spoon fishing early ice walleyes is that they allow you to fish fast. Even in deep water you can quickly drop a spoon down, jig a few times, reel up and move. This allows me to sort through several pieces of structure along with previous hot spots in a single outing. I no longer spend long periods of time camped out in last years “hot spot” waiting for the sun to set. I have been burned by that strategy before. Spoons allow me to work through an area. If no fish are present I keep searching. If I am seeing a lot of fish on my electronics but not getting any to bite, I make a way point on my hand held GPS and return once the sun slides behind the trees.
Standard jigging for me consists of dropping my spoon to the bottom. I then reel up 1-2 ft off bottom and hold for five seconds. I then raise my spoon about a foot with a sharp motion and return to my original position, letting the spoon fall on a slack line. I then pause again and repeat. When a fish is seen on my electronics I switch to much smaller jigging motions.
I make a point to fish every hole that I drill even if no fish are present on the flasher. Walleyes don't school up as tight as panfish. Many times I will walk up and stick my transducer into a hole to discover nothing. After dropping my spoon to the bottom a fish will appear. I don't recommend committing large amounts of time to holes that are void of fish. Drop the spoon to the bottom, reel up a foot, hold for five seconds, jig, hold, and move on. Before leaving the hole I usually swing the transducer in the hole like a pendulum in order to see what’s happening outside of the beam or cone. If I notice a suspended line, I will give the hole a little more time.
When a fish comes into view 1 of 3 things will usually happen. #1. The fish will rise up to the spoon and crush it. This is everyone's favorite scenario and happens more during early ice than any other time. Walleyes have typically had several weeks without pressure. Combine that with nature telling them to bulk up for the long winter ahead and you have a receipt for success. #2. Is what we like to refer to as a stand off situation. The walleye will rise up, or come in suspended, and sit right below your spoon. Just like a police swat team, I try to avoid a standoff at all costs. The best avoidance technique is to keep working fish up and up and up. I refuse to let walleyes get too good of a look at my presentation in fear they may realize it is an imposter. One technique that can produce is to squeeze the rod handle and lift at the same time. It imparts just enough action to get the treble hook to swing back and forth in a very tantalizing manner that marble eyes can't resist. Another technique that can work is to place you index finger on the rod blank and lightly tap while lifting at the same time. We refer to this technique as the smoker, as it mimics someone ashing a cigarette. While smoking is terrible for your health, the only effect you will feel from this method is violent strikes from passing fish. My standard technique is small 1- 2" jigging motions while either lifting slowly or holding right above the fish. #3. The third scenario is when a fish comes in for a look and drops back down to the bottom. In this scenario, I always feel like I have nothing to lose. One big jigging motion followed by a pause will often cause the walleye to turn around for one last look. I have not had great success with dropping the spoon down to the fleeing walleye. When a fish turns around for one more look I will usually lift the spoon an additional foot. A quick lift sets off the predatory response and forces them to make a decision before their meal escapes.
The wait is finally over! It’s time to get out and catch that first walleye meal of the season. Experiment with some different jigging motions. The tips here are only guidelines to get you started. Each fish needs to be “read” and coaxed individually through the use of your electronics. If the fish don’t seem to like what you are doing, change it up until you find something that works for you. Working on my dabble is what keeps me coming back and keeps me dreaming of first ice.