The ice fishing season is on its last legs. Most anglers continuing to fish these days are walking on the ice. Many public accesses are breaking up and ice-out on the local lakes is getting closer every day.

The ice went out on Lake Minnetonka this past weekend, which is usually about ten days ahead of many local lakes in the Bemidji area.

The lakes are more than a week ahead of schedule for ice-out, so there should be some open water in the Bemidji area by the end of next week.

Many anglers make the Rainy River their first open water trip of the season, but that option is gone for most anglers with the “stay at home” orders and the closing of most public accesses on the Rainy River.

The lakes are getting dangerous with inconsistent ice conditions and temperatures too warm during the day and not cold enough at night to refreeze the ice.

Anglers can tell a lot about the ice conditions just by drilling a hole. The ice melts from both the top and the bottom, so the important part is how much hard ice there is between the layers.

The ice on the surface gets like a snow cone and the ice on the bottom becomes waterlogged. Anglers can hit weak spots where the ice just collapses under them.

Most anglers are fishing for perch, which are actively feeding both on the shoreline flats and the flats away from shore, close to where they will spawn shortly after the ice goes out.

Anglers should be releasing big female perch so they can spawn. There are enough male perch for eating, so there is no need to harvest the largest females.

It is easy to tell male and female perch apart in the spring. Females have huge stomachs full of eggs. Just look at the perch from the bottom if you are unsure.

Anglers have also been fishing for sunfish in old standing weeds. Sunfish need to be selectively harvested if anglers don’t want the lakes to become stunted with small sunfish..

Sunfish are different from other fish when it comes to population dynamics. Male sunfish guard the nests and determine whether sunfish populations are healthy or stunted in a lake.

The largest male sunfish get the best spawning areas and attract the largest females, so they have a competitive advantage over smaller males.

Juvenile sunfish grow up to five times faster than adult sunfish. Male sunfish stay in the juvenile phase longer in lakes with lots of large male sunfish, so they can get big enough to compete for the best spawning sites. This raises the overall size of the individual sunfish in the lake.

Once anglers take most larger male sunfish out of the lake, the juvenile males will begin to mature at a smaller size and stunting will begin in the lake. Once the sunfish are stunted, the lake loses the potential to grow good numbers of large sunfish.

Anglers need to let the larger male sunfish go and harvest sunfish smaller than nine inches. It is not worth ruining a good sunfish lake for a small bite more of meat out of a sunfish filet. Sorting out smaller sunfish to only keep the largest sunfish is the worst thing you can do to a sunfish population.

Another problem is male sunfish are the prettiest ones with the brightest colors. Female sunfish are more pale, with more visible stripes on the sides and less bright colors.

Most anglers are more likely to keep a male sunfish than a female sunfish of the same size, just because of the brighter colors. Doesn’t make sense when you realize what you are doing to the sunfish population by only keeping the large males.

It helps to release all large sunfish, male or female. It is particularly harmful to keep the large male sunfish, especially if you want to help keep a healthy population of large sunfish in the few lakes that still have decent numbers of big gills.

Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. Guided trips for 2020 can be booked by calling or texting (218) 760-7751 or by email at panelsonbemidji@gmail.com.