To some, hard water is an obstacle. On it, you can’t troll or cast a lure. Every time you move to a new location you have to drill new holes. You can’t toss off your shirt and bask in the sun. These anglers want to be drifting in a boat on open water in the middle of summer.
To others, hard-water angling is when the fishing season really begins. They load the latest map chip into their GPS and head out to the structural elements where the fish are stacking up. With the aid of a gas-powered auger, holes are quickly punched into the ice over temptable fish and the sonar and underwater camera are incorporated to ensure that fish are in the vicinity. Portable or stationary shelters are set up and the vertical jigging begins.
It’s actually a benefit to anglers that the water is hard. When the water temperatures under that ice get frigid, those cold-blooded fish have to be teased with subtle presentations to generate a bite. A vertical jigging presentation is the perfect approach to get fish to eat when their metabolisms have been cut back from the cold.
Every species of fish follows a transitional pattern from the point where the ice layer covers the lakes until ice out. It’s no different than the open-water period when fish go through transitions due to water temperatures, spawning cycles, baitfish movement. The same things happen in the winter and most of the transitions are due to fluctuating water temperatures and forage movement.
According to Mr. Ice Fishing, Dave Genz (www.davegenz.com), first ice is where you can still key on the shallow structure since most species are up in shallower water where the forage is.
“The fish are feeding more as the water cools down and they’re feeding a lot more than normal,” he says. “They’re trying to make fat yet. In the winter months that food gets tough to catch, so the fat reserves are what helps create eggs so the fish can spawn in the spring. They feed a lot heavier during early ice than in the middle of winter.”
By mid-winter most fish are in their holding zones. These are areas where the water temperature might be a little warmer or there are bottom elements conducive to bug action that lures in the forage. It might be a spot where brushy cover is right for ambush or a rockpile that allows fish to pick off perch on the edge of the school. It’s likely in deeper water because the shallows are the coldest places in the lake.
In late winter the shallows warm up from the sunshine and melting runoff. The forage slides into the cover in the shallower water and the panfish and bigger game fish follow the food source.
“Understand the movement of the fish through the season and you will pick your spots with this in mind,” said Genz. “You can spend more time fishing and less time looking if you start your search in a location where the odds are best.”
Here are some lakes where you can test the waters, I mean ice, to see where the fish are in their transition. These are lakes that have stood up to the test every year as bodies of water where the fishing is solid.
MADISON LAKE, BLUE EARTH COUNTY
Madison Lake has been known as a great bass/panfish lake in the summer months. When the ice is on, that’s when the walleye anglers get out their jigging spoons and head for the north basin.
There is a lot of shallow vegetation on the east side of this basin and as you head west it gets deeper, eventually dropping into 30 feet of water. Early-season walleye anglers nudge right up to the shallow weed edge and drill holes toward the deeper water, but most find their fish on that shallow weedline.
As the season progresses the walleyes will head to the deeper hole in that northern basin and some find their way to the deeper water to the south of the narrows in the southern basin as well.
Walleye anglers get a little frustrated in the summer months because the sheepshead like to inhale the night crawler on their live-bait rig before the walleyes get to it. In the winter it’s the walleyes that will hit that spoon tipped with a minnow head before anything else gets a chance.
PRIOR LAKE, SCOTT COUNTY
It’s no secret, that’s for sure. Prior Lake has a lot of crappies and there are some big ones mixed in with a lot of respectable fish. There are plenty of places to fish for them on this popular body of water and that can spread out the anglers some.
So pick a hole, any hole. Some of the favorites on the east end are surrounded by milfoil and it’s easy hopping distance between them. On the northeast corner there is a 30-foot hole that is great for a group of three to cover in about two hours. If the fish don’t bite there, just move to one of three holes in the center of the basin.
On the center section of the lake just west of Reed’s Island is a hotspot for crappies. There are fish to the southeast of the island as well.
The southwest basin gets a lot of fishing pressure but it holds up well. It’s not always the deepest holes in the basin that hold the most crappies. There are a few bottom indentations that just break 20 feet that are productive too.
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