We know that many anglers often abandon their short rods by the early part of March. They spend their time in their boats on the nearest rivers looking for walleyes or sauger. Or, they’re getting ready for opening day when the ice will be out on their favorite lakes and the green light is on to chase walleyes and bass and other fish.
But, it might just be a little too soon to put the augers away just yet. Ice in the Northwoods often lasts through March many years. Some of the best hard-water days of the season are yet to come!
We add this note of caution early in the article and for good reason. You can push your luck too far. Weather is warming during this time. The ice has been stressed by temperature changes and even rain in some places since it formed in December. Current may be starting to flow in reservoirs and flowages in earnest. Ice isn’t going to be getting any thicker and we know it’s going to get constantly thinner and will eventually vanish. Make sure you’re safe on land when it does.
We’ve had to walk on planks to get off the ice when the shoreline opened while we were on the ice on our favorite ponds. It makes a good story when you want to impress someone with a little insanity, but in truth, it’s not fun.
Late Ice Can be Great
But, action can be so doggone hot for some species, such as walleyes, perch and crappies, that taking the time to head to the ice a few more times before it’s gone is worth the effort. Just use your head. Never go alone, and life jackets are not a bad idea. You can wear the inflatable kind without even knowing they’re there until you need one.
When it comes to late-ice fish, this period offers a chance to catch some monstrous pre-spawn females. They might be the heaviest fish you catch all year. Have your camera ready and release them so they can finish their spawning ritual. Take smaller males for a meal.
Similar to open water, walleyes and other fish migrate under the ice as the season progresses. During open-water periods, fishermen know to look for shoreline structure near spawning grounds and current in spring. In summer, they head to mid-lake structures, reefs, islands and humps, because that’s where the walleyes are located. In fall, they travel back to shoreline or deep-water structure with sheer drops.
Walleyes make the same movements in winter. At ice-up, fish are near shoreline structure. In deep winter, they are on mid-lake structures again just as they were in summer. And later in winter, they know spring is approaching. It’s nearly time to lay eggs. Start searching shoreline structures near the mouths of feeder rivers and the nearby neckdowns where two opposite points or a point and an island squeeze the lake through a smaller opening. A certain number of fish have already entered the river and are headed upstream, but others will spawn inside the reservoirs and lakes. Spend your time nearest hard-bottom areas close to but not on moving water. Because walleyes don’t want to work hard, they’ll be in protected places such as holes or behind points near those spots where they’ll soon be laying their eggs. With those hints, a lake map should be all you need to single out likely spots even before you reach the lake.
Fish in a Group
Earlier, we suggested making the late-ice period a time for a group outing for safety’s sake. Friends also make the search for fish faster. Spread out over a structure, cut several holes at different depths, drop a Humminbird Ice55 transducer down the hole and watch for baitfish or gamefish. An underwater camera can speed the process even more by confirming the marks are walleyes or perch and not some other species. If you see weeds that are still green, give the spot a very close look.
Here’s one other way to find fish — just watch for ice shanties. Community spots can produce fish, but walleyes are sensitive to the fishing pressure. Rather than cutting your holes in the middle of the bunch, just move to the edges of the community and look for the other factors we mentioned — holes, eddies just out of the current, transitions from hard-to-soft bottoms. Try each of your holes. If you don’t catch anything in a reasonable time, move on.
Fishing set-ups are simple. Use a light- to medium-action 25- to 27-inch ice rod. Six-pound test fishing line will do, but why not use braided line that will add strength and sensitivity, which is important when fishing down to 30 feet or more.
Water is cold, and in many places walleyes are coping with lower-than-optimum oxygen levels by this time of year. You’re trying to knock off the most active fish of the bunch. Jigging spoons work well during the late ice period until the ice is out. (Truth be told, many anglers overlook the fact that spoons do pretty good even after the ice is out and on rivers early in spring.)
Add noise as an attractor by using medium-sized Flyer Rattl’n spoons. Have your friends try several colors, but make sure someone is using firetiger or perch. Other good bets are small Lindy Darters and Slick Jigs tipped with a minnow.
Add An Attractant
Minnow heads or tails add scent and natural feel. If you’re not in the mood to carry pieces of dead fish with you, add plastic, such as a Techni-Glo Tail. Some spoons such as the Flyer Spoon glide away from the hole rather than fall straight down. Use wide-bodied, flat plastic baits such as minnow imitators with them, but put them on the hook so the flat sides are parallel to the bottom and not up and down like a fish would swim. The flat position enhances gliding baits rather than destroying their action.
Lower the bait to the bottom, snap it up, let it fall to the bottom again, then lift it up about 6 inches to a foot and hold it. Pound it for a few seconds and repeat it. If you use the Flyer Spoon, let it land away from the hole and drag it on the bottom before you lift it and start jigging. The mud floating from the bottom mimics how perch root around looking for insect larvae.
For most species, the fishing will be best during the low-light periods before sunrise and just before and after sunset. Night fishing on the ice can be extraordinary. Take ample lights and headlamps to keep your hands free.
Late ice can be the best fishing you’ll have on hard ice. Take the right safety precautions and you might just enjoy the hottest action of the year.
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