In Search of Ice-out ‘Eyes

Walleye Pro Bill Leonard shares some great insights on how to score big on early season walleyes, whether you fish rivers, reservoirs or lakes.

“Ice out!” Walleye fishermen know that when the ice goes out, it’s time to get that boat in the water because the walleyes will soon be on the move. It really doesn’t matter whether it is a reservoir, river or a lake … the words ice out mean hot walleye action could be happening as we speak.

One of the reasons for this is that in the spring of the year walleyes concentrate in very specific spots and, as a result, can be easier to catch.

Let’s take a look at these three bodies of water and pinpoint areas where the walleyes will be from ice out up until the spawning period hits. First, we will take a combined look at reservoirs and rivers.

Although reservoirs are huge bodies of water, it’s relatively easy to eliminate up to 90 percent of their surface area right away. Until the water temperature reaches about 40 degrees, the walleyes will located be in deep water down from any source of incoming water. On huge reservoirs such as South Dakota’s Missouri River that might be an incoming river like the Moreau or the Cheyenne, or it might be a smaller feeder creek that might even be dry most of the year except during the spring runoff.

The walleyes will come up stream until they find the source of incoming water and will then hold in the deep holes or off of the deep ledges until the water warms into the low 40s.

When the temperature hits this range, you will find the smaller males moving into the shallows. It is then that you will catch these fish casting jigs up into the shallows along the shore. The females, meanwhile, will continue to stage out in the deeper water and when temperature nears the mid 40s, they will come into the shallows during low light conditions, which is why early morning and late evening are the two best times to catch the big females.

An area that can be especially good in early spring but can also be a treacherous place to fish is in submerged trees. The shallow areas where the sun warms the wood on those big old cottonwood trees can be a real walleye magnet. Look for the walleyes to hold right next to the root snarled trunks, so it becomes an exercise of pitching jigs right into the snags to catch the fish.

Although the walleyes also move toward the dams on these reservoirs and rivers, they will attempt to utilize current breaks and eddies to help break the current. Some of these large reservoirs have an area called a stilling basin, which is an area of overflow used before the dams were completed. Now, these basins are used for emergency overflow in case the dam is threatened with excessive high water.

In late March and early April, although the water below the dam is churned by a strong current, the stilling basin off to the side has little current. So, the walleyes will make their move to this stilling basin. Some of the basin may even have ice on it, and the bite will be awesome for those anglers who put their boat right next to the ice and cast their jig so that it falls right below the edge of the ice.

Of course, as the ice leaves and the water warms, the first fish to utilize the stilling basin will be the smaller male walleyes. Plus, these smaller males will also be the more aggressive.

Another good walleye fishing area right after ice out will be a dredge hole or a wash out area near the dam. It will quite often be full of males, but the danger here is mortality rate for these fish when they are taken out of deep water. As a result, I personally try to stay away from these areas and encourage others to do the same. Some areas such as the dredge hole at Chamberlain, South Dakota on the Missouri River are actually off limits to fishermen during this early spring ice out period.

On rivers such as the Mississippi, which with its wing dams and low head dams is a different fishery than the Missouri, the current is the norm rather than the exception.

For that reason, anglers will often find concentrations of walleyes resting below large riffles, rapids, bridge pilings, snags and wing dams. Just after ice out on a river such as the Mississippi, you will find walleyes migrating up to that 1-2 miles stretch below the dam. What a honey hole that stretch of the river can be.

Fishing this type of river also means having a keen eye for detail. You need to see the eddy, the riffle, and the slick water of the wing dam because they will tell you where to fish.

Now let’s take a look at fishing lakes right after ice out. Once again, we are looking for walleye holding structure and moving water. Areas with scattered rocks, rubble and sand are especially good walleye spots when combined with feeder streams dumping warmer water into the lake. However, don’t be fooled. This stream does not have to be a “real” stream. It can simply be where a tile is dumping water into the lake. Couple it with the right structure and you have the perfect early spring walleye haunt.

Now remember that right after ice out, the walleyes will stage out in a deep hole or along a deeper break line. However the term deep is relative to the overall depth of the lake itself. A hole might be 15 feet on a 25-foot deep lake and 8 feet on a 15-foot deep lake or even 40-50 feet when dealing with a deep glacial lake.

So the key for this type of area is to locate the walleye spawning structure, the feeder stream location and the deep hole or ledge that will be holding the fish. Once again, it will be the smaller male walleyes that will move to the shallows first. As the spawning time arrives, the females will leave the deeper water and move shallow. Low light conditions will again be best for catching a big female.

Another place to look on a lake is the north side of the lake because it will warm more quickly than other areas of the lake. If it has a shallow sandy, gravel or rocky bottom with a mud basin adjacent to it-bingo! It can be an early spring walleye magnet.

For walleye anglers, post spawn can be a nightmare. The females are tired from their spawning efforts, the males have bruised themselves up in the shallows, the walleyes are no longer concentrated and the forage has moved out of the shallows. However, that’s another story for another time. Then we will talk first emergent weeds…but for now, when the ice has just gone out, grab the boat and head to your favorite walleye water and search these key locations for “Ice Out ‘Eyes!”