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Cheating on That First Ice Rush!

Posted by Walt Matan, Chief Product Designer for Custom Jigs and Spins on Dec 7th 2023

Cheating on That First Ice Rush!

There is nothing as exciting as the rush I get from early ice. That first step on the ice is the beginning of a great new ice fishing season with endless opportunities on the hard water. One giant step for Walt, one giant leap for new innovations.

But, the last few years I’ve cheated…

I can admit it to you now. I’ve gone ice fishing out of my boat!

Fishing early ice by boat

What’s a guy supposed to do when the perch, bluegill and walleye are stacked? It’s a nice day, Temperature above freezing and my favorite lakes haven’t frozen over yet. Yet I want to be out there catching fish.

There is only so much repacking and putzing with the ice tackle a guy can do. Heck, I bought a dozen pairs of used skis and have mounted them under all my tents and sleds, re-lined thirty ice rod-n-reels and built battery packs and back-up battery packs, alphabetized all my jigs, for gosh sake!

Ice fishing sled full of the world's best gear

So I pull out the boat and head to the ramp. Only a few die-hard musky and walleye anglers have got there before me and I head out fishing. On the Petenwell Flowage, panfish will relate to wood. Typically, I’ll fish in deeper water, anywhere from eight to eighteen foot depths, and focus on and around “fish trees”.

In lakes, weed beds are the primary focus points for finding fish. Weed edges, shallow weedy bays and deeper green weeds. Lakes like Big Green Lake in Wisconsin are super deep and freeze up late. Big Green Lake has a fine weed pattern that sticks around because the weeds stay green longer in this ultra-clear water.

Wisconsin guide Brian Zubke chases panfish right up until his lakes freeze up.

Wisconsin guide Brian Zubke chases panfish right up until his lakes freeze up.

My gear for early ice fishing by boat

I’ll use my trusty St. Croix Panfish Series rods with my reels spooled with 5 lb. bright green Power Pro line and 4 lb fluorocarbon leaders. With this super sensitive combo, I’m ice fishing out of the boat! I’ll use a Custom Jigs & Spins number 8 Glazba with a little redworm or a small minnow.

When the fish get more aggressive, I’ll try a RPM3 balance bait and a 1/8th ounce Slender Spoon with a minnow head on those more active crappie and perch. The boat doesn’t get winterized until It’s Winter!

In the open water and through the ice, the Glazba is king

In the open water and through the ice, the Glazba is king.

But then on to fishing on first ice…

With a quick, hard freeze I’ll go for it on three inches of ice and take that first step. Thankfully I’ve never fallen through, probably because I always bring along my trusty, rusty 30 year old spud bar.

In case you don’t have need one.

The technique that has worked for me is to take the bar and slam the ice ahead of where you intend to step and then keep slamming all the way out to the spot. Be sure to have a rope attached to the bar's end and slipped onto your wrist so that if the bar blows through it doesn’t shoot through a thin spot. Should you encounter thin ice...back away slowly to a safe area from which you came.

Channels, backwaters and sloughs will freeze first. A sheltered channel will freeze quicker than you’d imagine, sometimes freezing up a month sooner than the main lake.

Really early, like before Thanksgiving

I’ve fished before Thanksgiving in some protected channels, before the lakes froze up after Christmas. I used to fish in Nielsons’ Channels and The T-Channel in Northern Illinois, when I lived around there. Oftentimes I was the only guy out there since no one realized that there really was safe ice.

I’d use Demons and Ratfinkees with a few red spikes and travel light, no locator, just a rod, bucket and spud bar.

Poppee just loved catching panfish through early ice

A back saver for me is my Milwaukee drill electric with a Strikemaster auger, I’m too old to drill twenty holes with a hand auger, even when the ice is only a few inches thick. With my auger, I can drill 50 holes in a day on the ice, sometimes even more if I feel frisky.

I also never leave home without my GRAFF-USA Floatguard Suit, the lightest and safest suit on the market. This beats wearing a life jacket hands down!

Walt wearing a GRAFF-USA Floatguard suit and holding a crappie

Whether it’s cold in the boat or on the ice, the Graff-USA Floatsuit will keep you safe and warm!

Picking the right ice jigs

When the ice gets firm, I’ll round out my gear with shallow water rods and a pile of jigs, some bait, a flip-over tent and the Garmin Livescope. I’ve got the tent set up where I can move it to the hole, scope out fish, switch rods and fish without pulling everything out.

Early season shallow water angling requires a mix of jig and spoon styles. This is where lightweight flutter spoons really shine! Spoons like Custom Jigs & Spins Demons, 2-Spots and Rockers are old time favorites and great for snagging big fish.

I’ve had a lot of success with the Nuclear Ant tipped with a waxworm or two. The CJ&S ant is unique in that it has Finesse Plastic legs that undulate and a long shank hook that will hold a lot of bait. By “bugging up” the ant, it will flutter on the fall...tempting those sneaky bluegill.

Yum! A nice big pile of bluegill on ice!

New colors of tiny tungsten glow jigs

I’ll use tiny tungsten jigs like a 3mm and Chekai. I’ve got some hot prototypes I tested out last year in a variety of wonderglow colors that were smoking hot. I like to use a plain red Wedgee on those tiny jigs and tease those larger pannies into striking!

New Wonderglow Chekais are here!

Wonderglow colors of Chekai ice jig

Most panfish can be caught near the bottom of the water column, but crappie seem to suspend and often can be right under the ice. A long jigging rod 36 to 42 inches and a small Ratso in black, red or purple jigged right below the bottom of the ice can be just the ticket for whopper crappie!

If you are chomping at the bit to go ice fishing right now, pull out the boat and then try out some small channels and backwaters. They will freeze earlier than the main lake and can produce some great panfishing!

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