Tuesday, January 31st, 2023
Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

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Seeking – and finding – late-ice fish

By Steve Scepaniak
Contributing Writer

For Minnesota anglers, late-ice fishing offers the opportunity for some impressive catches of fish. The so-called late-ice period usually begins in March, after the season ends for pike and walleye fishing (Feb. 27 this year).

As winter fades, Mother Nature signals to fish that another spawning season is near. Thus, most species of fish will slowly make their way to shallow-water sand bars, sand flats, or midlake humps close to the main basin in preparation for the upcoming spawn. Because bays will warm quickest after ice-out, fish will stage and feed near or within them. 

Understanding how and why fish react to certain structure during late ice will make you a better late-ice angler. There must be a deeper water nearby to which fish may escape danger. And there should be some type of weed structure in the shallower water. The vegetation offers food, cover, protection, oxygen, and much more. 

Panfish

Bluegills and crappies will be moving from the deeper-water main basin to shallows areas to feed before the spawn. Near the weeds bluegills feast on insect larva, small aquatic crustaceans, freshwater shrimp, blood worms, and more. These fish will poke around on the bottom in search of a meal. That means you should fish right on the bottom – most of the time. Early mornings and late evenings usually are the best times to fish, but don’t overlook a late-morning bite on a sunny day.

Lightweight rods with sensitive tips are key for this style of fishing. For ease and convenience, have two different rods set up with two different presentations. Go with a small jig and worm on one and a small spoon and freshwater shrimp on the other. For bluegill fishing, it’s better to have too much bait than not enough. 

Crappies will stage toward the outside edges of the weedbeds near the backwater bay, waiting for low-light conditions such as early morning and late evening to move onto shallow flats to feed. It’s best for you to be on the ice before the crack of dawn.

Once the sun comes up, it’s just a matter of time before crappies return to the weed edges and feed in the safety of the deeper water near old bulrushes and cabbage weeds. Best baits for late ice are crappie minnows, waxworms, wigglers, aquatic crustaceans, scented plastics, and more. 

Pike

This is one time of year that large and small pike alike move into the shallows, and if your dream is a trophy pike, this could be your time to catch one. 

As other fish species – perch, largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappies, sunfish, walleyes, bullheads, carp, suckers, sheepshead, dogfish, and others – come to the shallows, northern pike will follow. The northern pike is an opportunistic predator. It will hide in the pockets of weedbeds, waiting for an unsuspecting forage fish to come by. Early morning and late evening are prime times, but when the bite is on, it can go all day. 

Walleyes

As it is with pike, this might be a good time of year for a trophy walleye as well. Unlike panfish and pike, which utilize flats, bars, and humps during daylight hours, walleyes will hold off of the main structure until evening before heading shallow to feed. During the day, the walleyes will stage in nearby deeper water, over structure such as rock reefs, deep breaks, or transition zones that are close by to the staging grounds. 

Deep breaks offer feeding ledges that concentrate forage for easier feeding. As the sun starts to set, focus your attention on the edges of sand bars and flats to intercept walleyes as they swim to shallow water to feed.

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