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Paul Nelson column for March 5: Focus turns to panfish as gamefish season ends

The gamefish season is over for the inland waters of Minnesota, but that does not mean the ice fishing season is over.

Anglers are able to focus all of their attention on crappies, sunfish and perch in March and enjoy some of the best ice fishing of the winter. There are also good opportunities to fish for whitefish and eelpout late in the ice fishing season.

Ice fishing in March just keeps getting better as the snow melts and runs into the lakes. The shallows in most lakes become stagnant during the winter, but the inflow of fresh water from the melting snow rejuvenates the shallows and gets everything moving in the lakes.

Ice fishing will continue as long as anglers are able to safely get onto the lakes. The ideal situation would be for the lakes to melt slowly and re-freeze each night, to help protect the accesses and high-traffic areas on the ice.

There is always a good chance for additional significant snowfall at any time in March. Anglers need to get out on the lakes while they have the chance, because the ice fishing season usually comes to an abrupt halt at some point in March due to the weather.

Anglers not satisfied with fishing for panfish locally can head north to Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake and the Rainy River to fish the extended gamefish season. Anglers can also go all the way into Canada to fish for gamefish on late ice.

Lake of the Woods has had a good bite for walleyes and sauger most of the winter, so there should be a strong finish to the ice fishing season.

There is a huge spawning migration of walleyes out of Lake of the Woods into the Rainy River in the spring. Anglers will find prespawn walleyes staging all along Pine Island, Four Mile Bay and the lower sections of the Rainy River until the ice starts to go out on the river.

There is another walleye migration in the northwestern portion of Lake of the Woods, where walleyes and northern pike spawn in and around the Reed River, which is located in Buffalo Bay, Manitoba.

There are also minor walleye spawning runs into the Warroad River and Zipple Bay, as well as many walleyes that stay in Lake of the Woods to spawn along wind swept rocky shorelines.

Anglers have been catching walleyes in Lake of the Woods along the shoreline break in 14-22 feet in the mornings and evenings. Anglers have been using jigging spoons or jigging minnows and fishing them aggressively when the walleyes are actively feeding.

Walleyes in Lake of the Woods will often suspend over deeper water during the day, staying close to the areas where they feed in the mornings and evenings. The walleyes usually suspend at a similar depth to where they are feeding.

Northern pike are also popular with anglers fishing Lake of the Woods on late ice. LOW has some of the largest pike in Minnesota waters, with 20-pound fish common and 30-pound fish caught occasionally, especially on late ice when they are full of eggs.

Anglers can catch pike on tip-ups, using live suckers or large shiner minnows. Some anglers prefer oily dead baits for pike, with small tulibees or smelt popular choices for bait.

Several anglers can work together and spread out different baits for pike on tip-ups. Then they can drill a series of holes around the tip-ups and move from hole to hole with a fishing rod, aggressively jigging larger size jigging spoons or jigging minnows to catch the most active pike on the rods and help attract less active pike into the tip-ups.

Leech Lake and Pike's Bay have been the best lakes for perch, with anglers having to sort through numerous smaller perch to get some keepers to take home. Perch fishing should pick up as the season progresses, with the larger perch schooling up and moving shallow to feed.

Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be e-mailed at