Loads of eager, aggressive fish. No competition. For those who heed a few critical safety rules, late can be more than great.
At this writing the upper Midwest continues to be locked in a late-winter deep freeze with area panfish still firmly rooted in their deep lake-basin holding patterns, where the bite can be notoriously fickle and far-between. But take heart, ice anglers. There are better days ahead. Much better.
That was the message this week from Minnesota’s Joel Nelson, 39, an ice-industry pro who knows that the best ice angling of the year—the late-ice panfish bite—will be here, give or take a bit, in just a few weeks.
Late March and well into April might not sound like prime ice fishing time but that’s just fine for Nelson, a fanatical ice angler who knows that when the late bite happens, he will have many of his hottest spots all to himself. And that’s because most ice anglers will have already hung up their gear for the year.“And that’s especially true if you’re a panfisherman—the guys after perch, bluegills and crappies; every year the late-ice bite goes relatively untouched,” Nelson says. “Most people are kind of sick of ice fishing by that time, and even I can get burned out a bit when facing tough conditions, but it pays to stick with it. When things get going really good late, the fish are moving shallower, into those shallow weedy flats in 6-7-8 feet of water, and you can actually watch them through the hole and sight-fish. The fishing can be just amazing. Once that melt water starts flowing into a lake, and the sunlight is hitting any weeds that are still standing, all that triggers biological activity, and those shallow areas start to team with aggressive panfish.”
As you might guess, it takes some specialized techniques to capitalize on the late-ice panfish bite; here are a few of Nelson’s top tips:Fish Smart & Safe. “Late is a great time to be on the ice, during the day you can have 40-50-degree temps and overnight it’ll drop down and you’ll get refreeze action, a cycle that can go on for two or three weeks,” Nelson explained. “The ice sheet will separate from shore and getting on the ice can be tricky, but out on the lake the ice can still be 20 inches thick. Going with a buddy is always a good safety precaution, and you need to travel light and leave the truck behind. And even if you have lighter vehicles, ATVs and snowmobiles, getting them on the ice, with the ice pulling away from shore, can be an issue. So it’s a good time to stick with foot traffic only.
“And once the ice sheet has pulled away from shore you need to pay attention to the wind, and anything that can influence the flow of water, which is particularly important on reservoirs, because both can rapidly change the ice conditions.“But more commonly, you’re paying attention while drilling holes because when you see that ‘snow-cone’ material in your holes, that honeycombed ice, you better start making your way off the ice,” Nelson continued. “Another warning sign is when it looks like a toilet bowl flushing inside your hole. It’s all the standing water on the ice draining into the lake, and in a few hours it can swallow a tip-up because your hole keeps expanding. In those conditions the first and best thing you can do is wear is a Float Suit, I use one by Striker, and you hope to never need it.
“Another tip is to drill lots of holes, so you can accurately gauge the current ice conditions. When you have good ice, as long as you have that in any reasonable thickness, you’re okay. For a drill I’m using a StrikeMaster 40V Lithium unit and it’s been incredible. I was telling people I’d never own an electric auger but with this one you can’t run it out of juice; most people will never test the limits of that auger’s juice.
Choose The Right Areas. “During the late-ice period I’m primarily focused on smaller lakes, or maybe a smaller bay on a bigger lake. I’m a big fan of fishing smaller bodies of water; on those bigger lakes fish can be harder to find. I like to break down ‘late ice’ into two times, late-winter spots when fish can be concentrated in those deep lake basins, and what I consider the true late ice, when there’s not much snow on the ice surface, and fish are concentrated in shallow weedbeds preparing for the spawn. The later it gets it seems the better it gets.”Your Line Is A Critical Connection. “Just before the late bite hits is not a bad time to respool some of your rods,” Nelson advises. “Bass pros are respooling constantly because line is cheap and you never want to lose fish to bad line. If you haven’t used an outfit for a while the line can coil and coiled-up line is a poor presentation; my favorite ice line is Sufix InvisiLine Ice Fluorocarbon in 3-pound test. You can go lighter but late ice is fraught with predators; all the areas attracting panfish will also have a bunch of bass and pike, and you’re often going to do battle with these fish. Even though gamefish seasons might be closed this is great bonus action; to me, I can’t see going down to 1- and 2-pound line and continually losing fish.”Pack The Right Rods. “I’m using a rod line I helped design for St. Croix, the Croix Custom Ice series, and these are some incredible situation-specific sticks,” Nelson said. “I have a couple favorites; the CCI Tungsten Tamer is a medium-light, extra-fast action rod measuring 28 inches, and it’s a perfect blend of being able to see the bite without overloading the tip, especially when using currently popular heavyweight tungsten jigs. The Pan Finesse is a 24-inch, light-action solid-carbon rod with incredible sensitivity, and the Site Bite is extremely short—just 20 inches; you actually jig it up by your head while standing—it’s fairly stiff and if you’re sight fishing it truly is a custom weapon for the job. Whether it’s solid carbon, fiberglass, or tubular carbon rods that mimic open-water designs, St. Croix has a bunch of great ice rods and there’s more coming.”
Late-Ice Jigs & Lures. “I definitely use a lot of buggy-type imitations that time of year,” Nelson said. “You’re trying to mimic the natural bloodworms, mayfly larva, and stonefly larvae that are starting to get active. I like the VMC Tungsten Fly Jig, it has some soft hackle, and so it breathes and gives it some lifelike ability. I’ll go real lifelike, but also the exact opposite, too, a good example being the VMC Flash Champ Spoon. I’ll also try some bright colors during the day, and take advantage of some of the larger, more-aggressive bluegills and crappies. The only downside is I end up catching more bass and pike, they’re a non-target species, but when you get nabbed by a 4-pound largemouth, that’s a good time.
“My go-to lure colors? I’m fishing mostly clear water, so I’ll fish a lot of natural colors, and black is an awesome color that often gets overlooked. Basic brown is good too. But I’m never afraid to throw down bright colors unless the fish are telling me otherwise. I’m always trying both vertical and horizontal baits, and use both styles of baits in different colors to see what the hot bite is, and that can change rapidly. A good example of a horizontal presentation is a Tungsten Tubby or Mongo Jig; good examples of vertical presentations are the WXJ Waxy Jig, and, probably my favorite, spoons.
“I am a big fan of larger sizes when fishing late; I fish aggressively, and like to challenge fish to eat. Late ice is a time to have high expectations; for the most part I’m fishing larger sizes in almost everything.”The Benefits Of Shelter. “I also think it’s good to have a shelter of some sort; a small flip-style shelter is great. The idea is you can see into the water more easily. So many people say, ‘I don’t need a shelter, it’s 50 degrees out.’ But it’s so nice for sight fishing. I run an Other Hub or Otter Shelter. For getting around on slick ice and towing my gear I like Kahtoola spikes; you do want something to help with traction because late ice can see some of the slickest conditions of the year.”