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PAUL NELSON COLUMN: Local lakes now ice-free

The spring walleye season closes today on the Rainy River. Anglers will now be able to turn their attention towards panfish in the local lakes, which are now ice-free.

The walleye season won’t open for another month in Minnesota (Saturday, May 13), but anglers are allowed to fish for species like perch, crappies and sunfish year-round.

Perch spawn early, with the female perch laying their eggs on top of old standing weeds and the male perch going behind them to fertilize the eggs.

Perch spawn right after the ice goes out on the lakes, with a short window of opportunity for anglers to fish for prespawn perch.

Male perch will move into the old reed beds and standing weeds before the females and stay there until all the female perch are finished spawning. The female perch move into the shallows right before they are ready to spawn and leave shortly after they are finished.

Anglers can cruise over the shallows with a trolling motor, casting bobber rigs to the dark looking areas that might signify slightly deeper water. A shallow water talon is very helpful to hold the boat steady, once anglers find some perch.  

Like any spawning situation, anglers should only harvest a few of the male perch and release all the female perch to let them spawn. The distended bellies on the female perch should make them easy to tell apart from the male perch.

Crappies and sunfish don’t spawn until the water temperatures reach the mid 60s, but they will move into the shallows soon after ice-out to feed.

Water temperatures are extremely important indicators to help anglers figure out what the panfish are likely to be doing. Most sonar/GPS units have a surface water temperature gauge, which can be very useful for figuring out where the panfish are likely to be located.

Any portion of the lake that warms up several degrees faster than the rest of the lake can attract ice-out crappies and sunfish.

The locations usually have several characteristics, which include having a hole deep enough that the fish can’t be seen from above (usually six feet or more). The backwaters also usually have dark mud bottom, which holds insects and minnows.

The area needs to be several degrees warmer than the main lake and it has to be large enough so the fish won’t spook too easily and just leave the area entirely if they feel pressured.

The areas crappies and sunfish use after ice out can be shallow bays, boat harbors or backwaters that are isolated from the rest of the lake.

If the lake doesn’t have any “classic spring spots” for crappies and sunfish, they may hold off the shoreline break until the water warms up later in the day before moving into the shallows to feed.

Anglers can use jigs on slip bobber rigs tipped with small fathead minnows, wax worms, euro larvae, plastics or small hair jigs.

A few anglers have started to experiment with ice-out eelpout, trying to catch a few of the post spawn pout before they disappear into the depths for the summer.

There are also anglers that target whitefish early in the spring. The best presentation is usually long lining small hair jigs (white or black) along the breakline near the outlets on lakes where the whitefish might be migrating through a chain of lakes getting ready for summer.

Whitefish spawn in the fall and often migrate through several lakes to reach their spawning areas, similar to what walleyes do in the spring.

Whitefish often spend the winter in a different lake than they spend the summer, so they can be migrating through a chain of lakes soon after ice-out.

The stream trout season opens this Saturday, April 15. Anglers need to have a 2017 Minnesota Fishing License and a trout stamp to fish for trout.

The season only opens for stream trout living in rivers or streams. The season for trout living in lakes opens on the walleye opener on Saturday, May 13.

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