The season is closed for walleyes and other gamefish species in the inland waters of Minnesota, but anglers are still able to fish for panfish and rough fish, which are open continuously in Minnesota.
Anglers also have the option of heading north to the border lakes with Canada, where lakes like Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake have extended seasons for gamefish.
There is plenty of ice for ice fishing on the lakes in the Bemidji area. The surface of the lakes is bumpy in many areas since the lakes refroze, but anglers have been cautiously expanding where they have been driving with 4-wheel drive vehicles.
Anglers still have to watch out for isolated patches of slush, especially where there is a significant amount of snow on the ice. There are also ice heaves on many lakes, so anglers need to know where they are going and be aware of the ice conditions at all times.
March is often the best month of the winter for catching panfish. Perch, crappies and sunfish are all very active on late ice, as they get ready for spring.
Perch will spawn almost immediately after the ice goes out, so they are full of spawn and actively feeding right now. The big schools of perch are constantly on the move, as they scour through areas searching for food.
The general movement of both panfish and gamefish on late ice is toward shallower water. The timing of when the fish move depends on where the best feeding opportunities are located. Fish move shallow on their own timetable, based on a number of factors.
The schools of perch may stay in deep water, where they usually feed along the edge of where hard bottom turns to mud, so they can find insects in the mud and minnows and crayfish from the hard bottom areas.
Perch in shallow water will often feed on flats, where they can relate to bald spots in the weeds, patches of rocks, small rises or depressions, or areas covered with chara.
Anglers need to keep moving to find schools of jumbo perch. If there are active perch feeding nearby, it should only take a few minutes to get a bite. Once an active school of perch is located, anglers can look for similar areas to find more fish.
The snow melting off the lakes usually triggers the baitfish to move back into the shallows. The run-off from the melting snow flows into the lakes and the increase in sunlight makes the vegetation start to green-up and begin to produce oxygen again.
The peak fishing on late ice usually occurs after most of the snow is melted off the ice and lasts until anglers can no longer get on the lakes.
The fishing should continue to improve as long as we don't get any more snow on the ice. If the lakes get covered with snow again, it usually slows down the process and may delay the movements of fish into the shallows.
Perch fishing is usually best in larger lakes, where the perch are able to get everything they need throughout their life cycle. If anything is missing from the lake, the perch will often get stunted. Perch need optimal conditions to reach jumbo status. Anglers can find good numbers of perch in lakes like Winnibigoshish, Cass, Pike's Bay, Bemidji, Blackduck, Lake of the Woods, Plantagenet and Leech Lake.
There are also a few smaller lakes with big perch, but these lakes are usually located on chains of lakes, where perch are able to move from lake to lake.
Anglers can catch perch on a wide range of different presentations, depending on the mood of the perch. A jigging spoon tipped with a minnow head is the usually the default presentation for aggressive perch, but anglers have to constantly rebait when they catch a fish or miss a bite.
Some anglers are using small, life-like plastics that closely match what the perch are eating. If perch will take plastics, it is a much more efficient presentation that doesn't need to be rebaited until the plastic gets worn out from catching fish.
Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by calling 218-759-2235.