Paul Nelson: Late-ice patterns develop when snow, ice begin to melt
It is hard to feel like spring is just around the corner when temperatures are still well below average and the lakes are still covered with heavy snow and about 30 inches of ice.
The average high temperature for today in the Bemidji area is around 32 degrees, with an average low of 12 degrees. By the end of March, the average high temperature is supposed to jump to around 44 degrees, so there should be some momentum building toward spring in the very near future.
Late-ice patterns begin to develop as soon as the ice and snow on the lakes begin to melt. Once fresh water starts running into the lakes and streams the shallows are revitalized and the process allows the fish move out of deep water and into the shallows to feed.
With the gamefish season closed on the inland lakes of Minnesota, anglers have turned their attention to crappies, sunfish and perch. There are also anglers who enjoy fishing for species like eelpout, tulibees and whitefish on late ice, so there are still plenty of good options for anglers who want to extend the ice fishing season.
Ice conditions vary greatly among lakes and can also vary greatly in different areas on the same lake. The strong northwest winds have blown much of the snow on the larger lakes toward the windward part of the lake.
Generally speaking, right now the north and west sides of the lakes have better ice conditions and less snow than the east and south parts of the lakes. The deeper the snow, the better chance there will be slush under the snow.
Some resorts on the good panfish lakes are still open to ice fishing and have tried to keep the roads open despite all of the snow. There are also individuals with snowplows trying to access their fish houses so they can get them off the lakes before the deadline on March 17 (consult the regulations handbook).
Snowmobiles and other track vehicles are still the best vehicles to access the lakes for anglers who want to be able to go off the roads. Anglers using vehicles to access the lakes have to stay close to the roads in most areas as off-road travel is very limited.
One of the frustrating aspects of the poor ice conditions is people tend to follow other people’s trails on the ice rather than strike out on their own. It is a very common practice for some anglers to follow any fresh tracks they can find and check all the spots opened by other anglers.
If a group of anglers set their houses on a spot one day, there is a very good chance another group of anglers will be set on the same spot the next day.
Perch and crappies can be very concentrated around the best food sources at this time of the year. When a spot is good, it can be very good. This also means many areas will not be holding fish so the lack of mobility makes any spot with good access even better.
Heavy fishing pressure on concentrations of fish late in the season can actually have a huge impact on a lake, especially the smaller lakes. A large portion of the population of fish might be concentrated into a few areas, which can put the fish population at risk to overharvest if the word gets out to too many anglers.
Once the fish move shallow, it helps lower the mortality rates of the fish that are released. If the fish are caught in water that is deeper than the mid 20s, the delayed mortality rates can be high and anglers should keep any fish that have difficulty getting back under the ice.
Anglers using an underwater camera to look under the ice in areas where anglers have been releasing fish over deep water could see many of the fish stuck under the ice because they got the bends and were not able to get back down to the bottom when released.