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Panfish begin to move shallow as snow melts

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Anglers with fish houses still on the lakes north of U.S. Highway 2 and State Highway 200 have until March 16 to remove them.

After that date, anglers are still allowed to use fish houses on the lakes, but only if they are occupied and not left on the lakes unattended.

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The season is closed for gamefish, except on border lakes like Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, where there is an extended season for gamefish.

Crappies, sunfish and perch are open continuously in Minnesota, along with rough fish like whitefish and eelpout. Trout living in lakes are open until March 31 (check regulations).

Anglers 16 and older will need 2009 fishing licenses on May 1. The 2008 fishing licenses are good through April 30.

Fishing for most species is excellent in March. Anglers have to be in tune with fish migrations to stay on fish on late ice. The weather has a big impact on when fish begin to move shallow, with the migrations usually starting as the snow melts off the lakes.

If the snow on the lakes melts quickly and overnight temperatures stay above freezing for several days in a row, the ice fishing season can end quickly.

If the snow on the lakes melts gradually and the ice keeps re-freezing at night, the ice fishing season can extend well into April.

The perch population in most lakes is split between shallow and deep water most of the year. A good percentage of the perch population will move shallow late in the ice fishing season and anglers have to follow them shallow to stay on fish.

Jumbo perch travel in big schools and feed aggressively on late ice. The perch will feed on almost any plentiful food source they can find. Two common perch culinary delights late in the season include last year's hatch of yearling perch and this year's hatch of eelpout eggs.

Old cabbage weed beds, chara-covered flats, patches of gravel and rocks and mid-lake humps with the right depth and bottom content on top can all be perch magnets in March.

Crappies spend most of the winter suspending over deep water. By the time March arrives, crappies will usually be suspended into the upper two-thirds of the water column, which means crappies can sometimes be only a few feet under the ice.

Crappies will feed extensively on zooplankton during the winter, but as spring approaches, crappies often shift more of their diet to minnows and insects. This means they can be herding schools of minnows under the ice or they can move into super shallow water, to feed on insects hatching out of the shallow mud.

Sunfish feed on small bits of food and they have microscopic vision to help them locate their prey. Stealthy presentations with small baits on light line are usually required to catch big sunfish.

Sunfish spend much of the winter over mid-depth mud flats feeding on insects and microscopic prey. Sunfish will move into the shallows on late ice, usually looking for shallow water with mud and old weed growth.

Eelpout are the first fish to spawn in the spring, spawning under the ice in late February or early March. Eelpout spawn in swirling communal groups on top of humps and mid-lake flats that are often covered with chara.

Chara is a rigid, coral-like weed that doesn't have any roots that collects on the bottom of the lakes in mats. Chara is a natural fish egg incubator with anti-fungal properties that keeps the eggs off the bottom, protecting them like an egg crate.

Chara can support insects, minnows and crayfish. If anglers hooked a mat of chara and pulled it apart, they would see crawling things everywhere.

Whitefish can usually be caught suspended over deep water on small jigs tipped with wax worms. Anglers may also catch tulibees in similar areas.

Whitefish grow larger than tulibees and are much better eating, especially when smoked. Whitefish have smaller mouths with the bottom and top jaws overlapping. Tulibees are smaller than whitefish on average and have a pronounced overbite, with a larger upper jaw.

Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted at panelson@paulbunyan.net.

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