ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — It was not the start of the ice-fishing season that anglers were looking for in west-central Minnesota in terms of safe ice through the first part of December.

Cold and snow in October got their hopes up before it was followed with mild temperatures through November. That made for a long waiting game for many anglers.

“It didn’t get cold until December. We didn’t have 3 inches (of ice) up until now,” said James Leitch of Christopherson Bait and Tackle in Alexandria, Minn. “It’s 3, 4, 5 inches. It was just ridiculous. Most of the lakes are safe enough to walk on right now, but still be careful. There’s hot springs and channels that you can’t see.”

Many anglers don’t need much prodding to get on the ice early. There’s a reason for that.

“The bite at first ice is usually the best bite of the year,” Alexandria-area fishing guide Mike Frisch said. “The only winter bite that I think can be better is the guys who chase bluegills and crappies late — March and even into April — that bite can be better. Between now and then, this is the best, and most don’t take advantage of that other bite.”

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Leitch and Frisch both feel the primary reason some anglers are willing to test the ice even when it is just 3 or 4 inches centers around two things. The bite can be great, and people are also just eager to do something outside again with hunting season taking a backseat for many once firearms deer season is over in mid-November.

Leitch said the number of customers they see at Christopherson Bait and Tackle at the start of ice season does not match the crowds they see during the May opener, but business does pick up. Panfish are the target for a lot of people, but anglers are just as eager to take advantage of what can be a good walleye bite early on too.

“I’m going for the big (walleyes) right now because those will kind of stop biting,” Leitch said. “Crappies and sunnies, we’ve been pounding them. They’ve been biting really good lately. Walleyes not as much.”

Small lakes tend to freeze over faster and can be good waters to target in December. Leitch is looking for walleyes in 18-24 feet.

“Sandy bottoms with rocks. If you can find a rock pile, you’re going to get on them,” he said. “For crappies, I’ve been about 12-18 feet. Fifteen is really where it’s at. That’s where I’ve been getting them is at 15 feet, and they’re just right off the bottom. Just a minnow and a hook and you get them. There’s nothing really special to it.”

Mike Frisch with an early-ice walleye. Frisch, an Alexandria area fishing guide, said his advice for new anglers wanting to get in on what can be fast action during the early ice-fishing season is to look for the bigger crowds that form on lakes, indicating a good bite. From there, it's about asking why the fish are there as it relates to structure to be able to branch out in the future. (Contributed photo)
Mike Frisch with an early-ice walleye. Frisch, an Alexandria area fishing guide, said his advice for new anglers wanting to get in on what can be fast action during the early ice-fishing season is to look for the bigger crowds that form on lakes, indicating a good bite. From there, it's about asking why the fish are there as it relates to structure to be able to branch out in the future. (Contributed photo)

Frisch said his keys for finding both walleyes and crappies at first ice is to rely on places that he scouted during his last open-water trips or spots that tend to produce year after year.

“One thing to keep in mind is that just because the lake freezes doesn’t mean the fish have moved,” Frisch said. “If they had some food, particularly in a lot of our lakes now that have so much weed growth, if there’s some deep patches of weeds that stayed green up until ice up, green weeds give off oxygen. They draw baitfish. Those can be hot spots at first ice.”

Those good areas at first ice can draw a lot of traffic really quickly.

Frisch believes experienced anglers can benefit by being mobile away from those crowds and finding what he calls “fresh fish,” but he also recognizes the importance of those high-traffic areas for anglers who are new to ice angling.

Knowing where to target fish this time of year can be intimidating for inexperienced anglers. Joining the crowd on lakes can be a good starting point. From there, it’s about asking why the fish are there as it relates to structure and using that knowledge to be able to branch out.

“If there’s a village of fishermen on a spot, there’s a reason they’re there,” Frisch said. “That spot either has a history of producing fish or it’s producing fish right now. There’s nothing wrong with going in there, but the other thing is to look at a lake map and try to figure out, is this the tip of a point that goes out into deeper water? Is this a drop-off edge that we’re targeting? Is this a basin loaded with crappies?

"If the bite’s good, join the crowd, but try to figure out what they’re doing there. You can learn a lot by going into that crowd and figuring out the type of structure they’re targeting.”

Ice safety tips from Minnesota DNR

  • Always wear a life jacket or float coat on the ice (except when in a vehicle).
  • Carry ice picks, rope, an ice chisel and tape measure.
  • Check ice thickness at regular intervals; conditions can change quickly.
  • Bring a cellphone or personal locator beacon.
  • Don’t go out alone; let someone know about trip plans and expected return time.
  • Before heading out, inquire about conditions and known hazards with local experts.
  • Maintain at least 6 feet of distance from people from other households.
  • Do not share an ice fishing shelter with people from other households.

The minimum ice thickness guidelines for new, clear ice are:

  • 4 inches for ice fishing or other activities on foot.

  • 5-7 inches for a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle.

  • 8-12 inches for a car or small pickup.

  • 12-15 inches for a medium truck.

  • Double these minimums for white or snow-covered ice.