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

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Sportsmen Since 1967

The window is about to close on late-ice bluegills

(Photo by Bill Diers)

By Brian Haines
Contributing Writer

It was a beautiful day in early April. Spring had arrived and the morning sun was shining bright in the sky. Weeks of warming weather had done away with snow cover and was beginning to take a toll on lake ice, which was turning black in color. But bluegills were biting hard, resulting in several anglers taking their last trot of the year on hard water.  

It was well worth it, because the fish seemed eager to get caught.  

Getting on the ice that morning was done by placing a long plank from shore to the ice – a bridge, of sorts, across open water near shore. As the morning wore on, however, the ice receded enough for the plank to let loose and float parallel with the shoreline. Getting off the ice meant taking a leap of faith and hoping to land on shore with dry feet.  

The first two fishers in front of me made the jump with little effort. I was not so lucky. Coming to the edge of the ice, I bent my knees, intending to spring upward and forward toward shore. As I began to propel myself, however, the ice gave way and I crashed into waist-deep water. To make matters worse, my bucket upended, and my fish were lost.  

To say I was annoyed is an understatement. I was furious.  

I learned two things that day: First, bluegills bite well through the ice when the weather warms. And second, always keep a dry pair of socks handy when you’re in the outdoors. 

A wet and cold lower body aside, there’s nothing better than ice fishing in March and April as long as the ice remains safe for the angler on foot. There are more hours of daylight, geese and other waterfowl are returning, and the sun offers warmth as it positions itself high in the sky.  To ice fish at this time of year is to be a part of nature’s seasonal rebirth. 

As for ice fishing, it’s a chance to leave shelters and mounds of gear at home, an opportunity to get back to basics – rod and reel, a pail, a walk onto the ice, and a day spent basking in the spring air. Under the right conditions, bluegills usually will bite.  

There are times, however, when they make us work a little harder to catch them. 

Bluegills beneath ice can be finicky, to say the least. But in spring, you’d think their increasing metabolism might cause them to eat anything dropped in front of them. Yet that’s just not always the case. At times, conditions can be right, but the fish don’t appear to be active.  

When this happens, a simple rule is to fish small – small jigs, light line, and spring or foam bobbers that can help you feel a light biter. A jig that’s too large or too heavy will often result in a fussy fish spitting the lure out as soon as it feels something isn’t right.  

Another good idea is to hold your rod tip up about a foot higher than the depth at which you intend to fish. Slowly lower it as you jiggle your lure. Bluegills will often position themselves right underneath the lure and will bite as you drop it toward them.

Stealth is important, too.

The spring ice-fishing season is typically short-lived. The warm weather that increases fish activity at the beginning of March can degrade ice conditions fast, sometimes in as little as a couple of weeks. Ice gets thinner and the quality of the ice is compromised.  

Thinner ice means less of a barrier between you and the fish below. Too much noise above the ice can spook bluegills, especially if you find yourself fishing in 6 feet of water or less. 

Much like at the beginning of the ice-fishing season, it’s often best to auger holes sparingly. Further, dragging plastic sleds across thin ice can create a lot of noise and potentially scare away fish. Be as quiet as possible. 

There really isn’t a need to load yourself down with gear this time of year. What can be carried in two hands is usually all you’ll need – a pail, a couple of rods, a dipper, and a flasher are enough tools.  

If your chosen fishing location lately has seen plenty of fishermen, leave your auger at home and bring a chisel instead; there should be plenty of holes already.  

If you plan to bring an auger, an electric auger is a good choice. Also, a hand auger works well, too, because the ice is typically soft and not too thick at this time of year.  

If you need to cross a small span of open water, waders are helpful to reach the ice from shore.  

Trust me, you don’t want to be the person wearing wet socks. 

Saying “be safe” on thin ice is probably pointing out the obvious, yet each year accidents happen and people fall through the ice when they attempt to drive onto ice with cars, trucks, or an ATV after it’s no longer safe to do so. 

But don’t press your luck. I’ve never shied away from wearing a life preserver if I have doubts regarding ice conditions.

With spring in the air, the time to hit a lake for bluegills is now. But the window of opportunity is closing fast. So grab some gear, call some friends, and go ice fishing while you can.

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