Jason Mitchell Outdoors - Hunting Walleye at First Ice

Hunting Walleye at First Ice

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By Jason Mitchell

The first ice period often offers opportunities to catch aggressive walleye in shallow water.  On many fisheries… prime time is typically around sunrise and sunset.  Ice anglers often anticipate this prime-time period and experience great fishing.  While these fish can be aggressive and easy to catch, landing in the right place at the right time is the key to finding and catching walleyes.  What so many ice anglers underestimate is the importance of landing on the right place at the wrong time… let me explain.

Aggressive walleye bites at first ice often happen in shallow water. If the prime bite window only lasts an hour, that doesn’t give you much time to find fish.

The sunrise and sunset windows are often short and intense.  Maybe an hour of prime time.  Doesn’t leave you with much time to find fish.  If there is one thing I have learned over the years, the reality is that you can break down a lot of water and find fish during the day.  What you can find during the day will pay off when the sun begins to set.

The key to finding fish during the day on fisheries that are notorious for producing low light bites is to simply cover water and hit as many fresh spots as you can.  The reality is that if there are a lot of fish on any piece of structure, you can often catch a few and see fish on your electronics during the middle of the day.  Use the entire day if possible so you land on the best spots come evening.  This holds true in shallow water.  On Devils Lake for example, we often find wild shallow water walleye bites in less than seven feet of water and the best time is usually around sunrise and sunset.  Moonrise or moonset can swing that window earlier or later and there are of course exceptions but that is the base line… first hour and last hour of the day.  Even in shallow water, we can often pick off fish during the middle of the day.  The bite might not be good or intense but it is revealing.  If there are a lot of fish somewhere, you can find them during the day.

Now the reality is that you can miss fish on spots by hitting good spots at midday.  Especially when looking for them in shallow water but what I find is that I am in a much better place come sunset if I eliminate some water during the day and sample as much water as possible for activity.  The reason I believe that using the entire day to look for fish is so important with shallow water walleyes is the simple fact that most bites only seem to last for maybe three days.  You just can’t camp out on the same spot over and over for multiple days and expect great fishing.  You wear out your welcome, the fish spook and everything changes.  Finding fresh fish is the key to having great success on the ice.  The hour of prime time just doesn’t leave an angler with enough time to find fish at times.

So, we have a couple of strategies with shallow sunset walleye.  We can roll up to a good spot and drill a bunch of holes and wait or hope that the fish do what they are supposed to do.  This strategy can work and might be the only option if you are short on time.  There is definitely some merit to this strategy.

Here are some other realities.  When word gets out on a shallow bite and people begin to gather, the bite is often doomed. You put all your eggs in one basket and wait for the bite.  I have been burned with this strategy more times than I care to admit.

For eliminating water during the middle of the day, aggressively pound and work the same lures that you expect to catch fish during the prime bite windows.

My most successful strategy by far is being much more aggressive before the sun gets low and simply hit what I consider as many good spots as possible long before the fish should be there.  If you can hit a dozen spots long before sunset and crack a few fish off one spot, you are usually going to catch way more fish off that location come sunset. You might have time to check several spots versus just a single spot if you simply get out of your head that you can’t catch walleye during the day.   You can catch walleye during the day.  You can eliminate a lot of water during the day and find fish.  You will be in a much better place come sunset if you do.

There is a general rule of thumb that fish slide up on tops of reefs, points or move shallow when the sun gets low.  Keep with that mentality when you are looking for walleye during the day.  Hit the same spots during the middle of the day where you would expect to find them come sunset when you are trying to find fish.  During the hunt, the key is to keep hitting new spots with fresh ice where there has been no pressure yet.  If there are a lot of fish on a spot, there will be a few that slide up shallow much earlier than they should.  Don’t get bogged down with fishing the deeper adjacent water or the sides of the structure.  Use that strategy after you find fish and want to pick off a few more fish as you wear out your welcome or the sun gets higher in the morning and you need to extend the bite window.  When looking for fresh fish, focus on the money spots and hit as many as you can.

The reason this is so important so often is simply because shallow walleyes often don’t slide deeper during the middle of the day, they often simply seem to lay on the bottom and quit cruising.  That is why you often can’t sit in one spot and catch multiple fish out of one hole during the middle of the day.  The fish must keep moving underneath you for you to be able to do that.  Come sunset when fish are cruising on the prowl, you can catch several fish out of one hole.  That is why fishing much more aggressively during the day is important… you must go to them and land a lure nearby.

I have often stated and still believe that I can usually extend a bite window by downsizing after the primetime period is over.  The first hour of daylight for example, the fish might be smoking a ¼ ounce Rattlin’ Blade Spoon.  As the sun gets higher, the fish get tougher to catch and simply downsizing can account for a few more fish at the end of the bite window.

When I am hunting, I like to err on the side of big and aggressive because fish that are laying on the bottom often must get turned around.  The odds of landing right in front of a fish is slim.  The odds of landing within twenty feet of a fish are much better.  The fish might be facing the wrong direction and laying on the bottom.  Finesse just isn’t going to move that fish or turn it around.  Hard pounding however can get these fish to respond.  When I am looking for fish during the middle of the day, I like to use the same lures I expect to use at sunset.

Use the entire day to find aggressive walleye bites in shallow water. The author, Jason Mitchell explains some strategies for hunting down shallow fish during the day.

The very best bites for early ice walleye in shallow water usually indeed happen at sunrise and sunset but by utilizing the middle of the day and using that time to hunt for new spots with fish, you can be in a much more fluid position of staying on good bites.  Don’t just sit and wait.  Hunt for fish and use the rest of the day to get you on the hot bites happening when the sun hits the horizon.  You will be amazed at the schools of shallow water walleye you can find during the middle of the day.  You will also be rewarded with some epic and aggressive bites in shallow water once the sun gets low.

Jason Mitchell Outdoors airs on Fox Sports North at 9:00 am on Sunday mornings.  Follow Jason Mitchell Outdoors on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook or go to their webpage; http://www.jasonmitchelloutdoors.com 

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About Author

Jason Mitchell is a professional angler, and outdoor writer. Host of Jason Mitchell Outdoors Television, he is a renown multi-species and ice angler, and owner of Devils Lake, North Dakota's, Mitchell's Devils Lake Guide Service.