ISLE, Minn. -- Tony Roach has been a full-time, year-round fishing guide for more than a decade. During winter, he regularly visits world-class walleye fisheries like Lake Winnibigoshish and Lake of the Woods. He also fishes a number of smaller northern Minnesota lakes that produce surprisingly large bluegills and crappies.
During the first part of the ice season, though, his focus is squarely on Mille Lacs Lake walleyes. “Early ice is my favorite part of the season,” Roach said. “The fish can often be found in the same spots we found them in during late fall, and they’re usually aggressive.”
That aggressive feeding behavior doesn’t last all winter long, though, and Roach encourages anglers to take advantage of the early bite while it lasts. “Walleyes tend to get more sluggish as winter wears on,” Roach added. “But at first ice you can fish fast, cover lots of water and contact lots of active fish. That puts the odds in your favor.”
Follow the fish
Roach usually starts hunting fish relatively close to shore on breaks 17 to 20 feet deep. These shallow areas often hold fish all day, though some fish might drop into adjacent basin areas during the brightest hours of the day. “We like to target fish holding tight to the breaks early and late,” Roach said, “then drift toward deeper areas -- say 25 feet or so -- during midday.”
As the ice sheet thickens, Roach pushes out to the mud flats and deep gravel bars further offshore. But he urges anglers to be cautious. “Mille Lacs can be a tricky lake to navigate during winter,” Roach said. “Cracks and heaves can form anywhere. The best advice is to follow an ice road maintained and checked daily by one of the resorts.”
Once he’s on a spot, Roach drills a wide spread of holes covering the top of the structure he’s targeting along with the break and a bit of the adjacent basin. “Walleyes will often move onto structure during the morning and evening twilight periods,” Roach said, “then drop off the edge during daylight hours.”
And while dawn and dusk are still considered prime times on Mille Lacs, it’s one of the few lakes in central Minnesota that also supports a strong daytime bite. “Most days we catch the most fish early and late,” Roach added, “but particularly during the early season we continue to catch fish throughout the day.”
Once the holes are drilled, Roach tries to assess how many fish are in the area and gauge their mood. “I move fairly quickly from one hole to the next,” Roach said. “When I see a fish on my Sonar unit, I continue to fish aggressively to see if I can trigger a strike. You can always slow down to entice finicky fish, but my initial goal is to assess their numbers.”
Many presentations work during the early season, but Roach favors jigging spoons for active fish and a deadstick presentation for fish that are in a neutral or negative feeding mood. “My go-to spoon is a ⅛-ounce Northland Tackle Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon tipped with a minnow head,” Roach said. “I like perch and gold colors in bright conditions and perch and glow colors in lower light.”
The Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon fishes heavy and has a moderate swimming action on the fall. When fish are roaming the tops of flats actively hunting baitfish, Roach might opt for a more aggressive swimming spoon like the Northland Buck-Shot Flutter Spoon, which has a more erratic option. Lightweight flutter spoons that fall more slowly are a better option for fish in a negative feeding mood.
In moderate weather, Roach and his clients fish outside rather than in portable shelters. In this situation he favors 36-inch rods that reach close to the hole while standing. Tape on a small spinning reel spooled with 6-pound test monofilament line and you’re ready for action. Roach adds a #10 barrel swivel about 18 inches above the spoon to reduce line twist.
Begin with a fairly aggressive jigging routine, moving the rod tip up and down 12 inches or so -- like you’re pounding a nail with a hammer. When a fish appears on Sonar, continue that same cadence to see how they react. If they swim off, try again. This time, though, try more subtle moves once you attract a fish to your spoon. Sometimes even holding the spoon motionless is the key to triggering strikes.
When fish are most lethargic, a deadstick setup can really shine. A deadstick is a longer ice rod with a very flexible tip that allows a fish to take a live minnow without feeling any resistance. With the rod placed in a wire holder and the drag on the reel set loose, the fish moves off with confidence. Pick up the rod, tighten the drag and set the hook. The strong backbone in the butt section of the rod ensures good hooksets and fish control.
On his deadstick outfits, Roach favors a #4 octopus hook beneath a small split-shot and tipped with a rainbow minnow or shiner. “Deadstick setups can be deadly,” Roach added. “Last week a friend and I each set out a deadstick to soak while we fished spoons. Never happened. Every time we turned around we were getting bites on the set lines.”
The early-ice walleye bite on Mille Lacs ranks among the most consistently productive fishing patterns in central Minnesota. It’s happening right now, but the clock is ticking. Get out before conditions change and the fish’s behavior follows suit. Go on your own or book a trip with Tony Roach at roachsguideservice.com.