March started out cold, much like the rest of the winter. Area lakes are still making ice, instead of beginning to melt like they often are by this point in the season.
The fish are operating on a couple of different clocks. Their biological clocks are run by the sun, and fish can sense that spring is approaching by the days getting longer. The internal clocks of fish are more finely tuned into what is happening day by day and even hour by hour. The weather, the moon cycles and the interrelationships between predators and prey determine what fish do each day.
The late winter patterns will hold on as long as the weather continues to act like winter. The fish will stay primarily in deep water and the shallows won't begin to wake up until the snow starts to melt, the sunlight starts to penetrate through the ice and the spring run-off begins to flow back into the lakes.
Large lakes act differently than smaller lakes, with the fish having to move further to get into position to make their spring spawning runs. Fish often stage up gradually on late ice, with some fish arriving early and others arriving at the last minute.
Eelpout are the first fish to spawn in the spring, actually spawning under the ice. They are late in spawning this season because the lakes are still covered with snow.
Northern pike also spawn early, spawning in backwaters and sloughs while there is still ice on the lakes. Pike often have preferred spawning areas that can be a long distance from where they spend the winter.
Lake of the Woods pike spawn in areas like the Reed River in Buffalo Bay, the Warroad River near Warroad and in backwater areas like Zipple Bay. Pike have to stage up close to these areas to be in position to spawn once the lake ice starts to melt.
Walleyes are notorious for making long spawning runs up river systems and may travel through several lakes to get to the spot where they plan to spawn.
The Rainy River gets a huge migration of walleyes from Lake of the Woods, so the Pine Island area at the mouth of the Rainy River fills up with walleyes late in the winter.
There are similar spawning runs for walleyes in most of the lakes on the Mississippi River. For example, walleyes from Winnibigoshish go into the Cutfoot Sioux or the Mississippi River and also into areas like Third River Flowage and Sugar Lake on years with high water levels.
Anglers are not allowed to target gamefish on lakes with closed seasons, but they can fish the extended seasons for gamefish on the Canadian Border lakes like Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake.
Perch are another species that spawns early, laying their eggs in strands on old weed beds or anything else that will support the weight of their eggs. The best weed beds may be in one area of the lake, so perch may migrate out of their wintering areas to be close to where they will spawn as soon as the ice is off the lakes.
Crappies and sunfish spawn later than walleyes, perch and northern pike, when water temperatures reach the mid 60s. Both species make a feeding movement into shallow water on late ice and then back off into deeper water while the ice goes out.
Crappies and sunfish in some lakes may head toward their spring feeding areas, much like fish staging for spawning, to be in position to move into the shallows when the snow starts to melt and the spring run-off begins to flow.
Anglers who know where the fish have been and where they are going can often head them off and be able to find the staging areas on late ice. When the weather finally begins to warm and the lakes stop making ice and begin to melt, the shallows will reawaken and the feeding binges for several species will begin.
Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by calling 218-759-2235.