Panfish action hot as long as the ice holds
Sooner or later, spring weather is going to arrive and the ice fishing season is going to end. Anglers should still be able to get on the lakes for at least another week by walking or using an ATV.
Getting onto the ice becomes the biggest problem for anglers late in the season. There can be plenty of ice farther from shore, but the water running into the lakes quickly erodes the ice along the shoreline, especially in heavily traveled areas.
Anglers will need to find alternate ways to get on the lakes once the heavily traveled accesses are no longer viable.
Sometimes accesses on the south and east shores of lakes will erode more slowly than accesses on the west and north shore of lakes, which receive more direct sunlight in the spring.
As long as evening temperatures continue to stay below freezing, the meltdown will be slower and the ice conditions won't deteriorate as fast.
Once overnight temperatures stay above freezing for more than one night in a row, the ice will quickly start to break down and the ice fishing season will likely come to an abrupt halt.
The ice on the lakes will melt from all sides, just like an ice cube in a glass of water. Sunlight melts the top of the ice, with the melted ice and snow pooling up and running down any crack or hole in the ice it can find.
Lake ice also melts from underneath. Lake water starts at around 40 degrees and will get warmer as the melting snow and ice runs into the lake.
Some anglers will push their luck toward the end of the ice fishing season because the fishing can be fantastic and they want to keep fishing as long as they can.
Like most fishing situations, fishing is only good if anglers can find the fish. If anglers just go out on the lakes and start fishing the same areas they fished all winter, they might not catch anything and think the fish aren't biting.
The weed beds have been dead most of the winter because of the heavy snow and ice. The water in the shallows became stagnant and low on oxygen because of the decomposing weed beds. Fish won't go back into these areas until most of the snow is off the lakes and the spring run-off has begun.
The panfish in most lakes have already started to move shallow. Certain areas will be more productive than others. Anglers need to be able to predict where the fish are going after the ice is out on the lakes and then look for them in areas close to their ultimate destinations.
Crappies are keying more on minnows right now, so many crappies have been suspended further from bottom than many anglers might expect.
Sometimes minnows are just under the ice late in the winter, feeding on little bits of food that are washing into the lakes from the spring run-off.
Crappies may travel just under the ice, looking for schools of minnows they can chase into the bottom of the ice to catch them.
Crappies feed up and to the sides because of the position of their eyes. Anglers can miss a lot of fish by having their bait too close to the bottom. Anglers should keep their baits at eye level or higher to catch the crappies.
There are also insect hatches in shallow areas with mud bottom that begin almost as soon as the ice is off the lakes. The larvae of these insects will be emerging out of the bottom before the ice is off the lakes, with sunfish, perch and crappies moving in to feed on them.
Areas with chara on the bottom are particularly attractive to panfish because they are home to all kinds of insects, crayfish and minnows. Chara doesn't break down in the winter like other types of vegetation.
Fish in shallow water are easy to release, so anglers finding the mother lode of panfish can easily practice selective harvest and release the larger fish for brood stock.
Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by calling 218-759-2235.