Paul Nelson fishing column for March 26: Ice fishing down to its last few days
The ice fishing season is likely down to its' last few days on most lakes. The ice on some lakes is already too thin and unstable for anglers to access safely, even on foot.
There can be a couple weeks in variance between the first and last lakes in the area to be ice free. Shallow lakes and shallow bays of larger lakes can open up much sooner than the main basin of deep lakes.
Once the ice on the lakes turns dark, the ice quickly becomes too weak to safely support anglers. As long as the ice on the lakes stays white in color, there is usually enough ice for anglers to continue ice fishing.
The ice breaks up along the shoreline first, so getting onto the ice is often the biggest challenge. Anglers have stopped driving vehicles on the lakes and are either using ATV's or walking out on the ice.
The reason some anglers want to push their luck on late ice is because of how good the fishing can be. Hopefully, anglers take the proper precautions and wear a life jacket, just in case they fall through the ice.
The vast majority of fish in the lakes are in shallow water, so there is no reason for anglers to go out much beyond the shoreline drop-off to find fish.
If the fish aren't already in shallow water, they are probably staged-up along the shoreline break, waiting to move shallow either to feed or begin their spawning migrations.
Most anglers on the lakes are fishing for jumbo perch. Perch will spawn almost immediately after the ice goes out on the lakes, so they are in their pre-spawn feeding mode right now and are biting very well.
Perch are in their last stages of gestation before they spawn. Female perch have already fully formed the "yolk" portion of their eggs, but now they have to fill out the "white" portion of the eggs, which will provide food for the young hatchling perch until they are ready to begin feeding on their own.
Male perch also have additional nutritional needs before they spawn, so most of the mature perch are currently in the shallows searching for food. Perch will eat almost anything, so whatever is most plentiful, the right size and easy to catch will likely become food for the perch.
All types of minnows, including smaller perch, along with crayfish are often the primary targets of the roaming schools of perch.
Cover is sparse at this time of the year, so any old standing vegetation can provide cover for baitfish trying to avoid getting eaten by the perch.
Chara is a type of rootless vegetation that gathers in mats on the bottom of lakes. Chara provides cover for crayfish, invertebrates and minnows, which makes areas covered with chara potential hunting areas for feeding schools of perch.
Perch can be anywhere on the shallow flats that holds food, so they can be on the edges, right on top or even on the inside edge of the weeds, depending on what they are feeding on at the time.
Perch usually back out of the shallows briefly as the ice goes out on the lakes, then move back into the shallows to spawn as soon as the ice is gone.
Anglers will have a brief window of opportunity for perch right after ice out. The male perch move in first and stay the longest, with the female perch moving in right at the last minute and moving back out into deep water once they are done spawning.
Anglers fishing the Rainy River this spring have been catching mostly male walleyes. The number of active fish has been increasing, so more female walleyes should be moving into the river as the water temperatures rise into the low 40s.
The water is still petty clear in the Rainy River, which usually helps anglers catch more fish. Once the water gets muddy from rain or inflow from one of the tributaries, the fishing usually gets tougher for anglers.
Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.