Hunting Down Minnesota's Hottest Ice-Fishing
September 30, 2010
Adam Johnson is an aquatic biologist who spends over 300 days a year afield. You can bet this expert and his posse will be catching walleyes, panfish and more on these waters this winter. (December 2005)
Adam Johnson likes fishing close to home, but he gains more knowledge when out exploring the rest of Minnesota.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister
It was last July and the temperature was 95 degrees. The bass weren't biting and neither were the walleyes or northern pike. We should have motored the boat over to the landing and gone somewhere that had air-conditioning and served beverages with ice in them. Instead, we sat under the blazing sun and kept hoping for a bite, and discussed why those old reliable tactics that are supposed to work when the fish won't bite weren't producing that day.
Somehow the conversation took a turn toward ice-fishing. Imagine that! Thinking back, I understand why. It was a psychological ploy to feel cooler, and like the tough-bite tactics, it didn't work either. But when the fish aren't biting, you have to talk about something, so you may as well discuss a subject that is light-years from the situation you're in at the time. In this case: ice-fishing.
"Everyone always talks about how good first ice is," said my fishing partner on that blazing hot July afternoon. Adam Johnson is a professional outdoorsman and an aquatic biologist who spends over 300 days a year in the field or on the water. He may be half my age, but he knows twice as much as I ever will know on why fish and game act the way they do. And as smart as he is, he couldn't even get those bass to bite on that hot summer day. Back to ice-fishing.
"First ice is a productive time to be fishing," said Johnson, "because the panfish as well as the game fish are spread out on the logical spots and they seem willing to bite any respectable bait presentation you put before them."
My question was, what defines first ice? How long does it last?
"From the time you can safely get out onto the ice until the fish make that transition into the deep holes where they concentrate in tight pods and get tougher to catch," said Johnson. "That's first ice, and first ice can last a couple of weeks, then the fish get into a winter routine. And as the water temperatures get colder and colder, the fishing steadily gets slower and slower."
As I applied another layer of sunscreen I asked Johnson to describe his favorite ice-fishing conditions.
"That depends on what I'm chasing," he said. "If I'm after crappies I prefer a lake that has some deep holes that are not too big in diameter that are surrounded by shallower water that acts as the food shelf. Crappies will suspend in the open water in the holes and move to the shallower food shelf when they need to eat. Now if you drop a minnow into them, they will take it."
What about those darn walleyes?
"I really like a lake that has some midlake structure that connects to a saddle that connects to a shoreline flat," said Johnson. "If the midlake structure or the feeding flat has some sharp-dropping sides, that is even better. Walleyes move along the edge of dropoffs from their sanctuary -- the midlake structure -- to their foraging location -- the shoreline structure -- and you can catch them as they are both coming and going."
What about pike?
"Anywhere you can find some deep green vegetation, you will find pike," said Johnson matter of factly.
So now we're creeping up on Christmas and those days of baking under the summer sun are long gone. We've gone from no layers to five layers of clothing, and ice-anglers can stretch a tube of sunscreen through a season instead of a few days. It's no longer a case of casting to cover and live-bait rigging the structure. It's vertical jigging through an 8-inch hole. Are there any benefits to this style of fishing, because it is extremely limiting.
"If we anglers weren't stuck to a vertical jigging presentation through a stationary hole, we wouldn't catch a fish," said Johnson. "When the water is that cold, it requires an extremely precise presentation and a slow approach. You get that with vertical jigging. If we could move the ice off the surface and cast out of our boats, we'd never see a fish due to the water temperature."
Johnson drills a lot of holes in his travels all over the Upper Midwest during the winter months. I twisted his casting arm to get him to name a few of his favorite Minnesota winter hotspots. He loves "researching" these winter honeyholes.
Everyone likes to go to Florida when the weather turns cold in Minnesota. For some, that means heading south. For Adam Johnson, that means heading southwest from his home in Brainerd, and even if he doesn't drive too fast he can make it there in a few hours.
The Florida that Johnson goes to in the winter months is a 675-acre lake straight north of Willmar in Kandiyohi County. Johnson goes there for the walleyes.
"Florida has high numbers of walleyes and that makes it easier to find them under the ice," said Johnson. "The lake gets a lot of fishing pressure in the summertime, but the water is clear, and the summer bite for walleyes is such that there are plenty of fish for the ice-angler.
"There's not a lot of midlake structure, so the two humps on the west side get a lot of attention," said Johnson. "I'll go there early in the season, but when that spot gets overpressured I drill a bunch of holes on the southwest corner of the lake in 18 to 25 feet of water. The sonar can pick up any walleyes that are suspending just off the bottom. There are some transition lines where the bottom goes from sand to gravel to rubble. These spots hold walleyes, and they show up on the sonar."
For more information, call Mel's Sport Shop at (320) 796-2421.
Johnson was shaking his head when he started telling me about Clear Lake on the border of Waseca. I understood his predicament. It's a lake that is too good to tell everyone about, but too good not to spill the beans.
"You never know what you're going to get into on this lake," said Johnson. "In one set of holes you might be pulling in crappies. There are a bunch of them in this lake. In those same crappie holes you can catch walleyes, too. There are lots of walleyes in this lake. The pike and bluegills are there and they can be big. Like the walleyes and crappies coming out of the same holes, that can be the case with pike and sunnies, too. You'll get onto a good school of sun
fish, and then the bite stops. You're watching the monitor for the underwater camera and up swims a big old pike. Better grab that jigging rod with the sucker minnow."
Johnson's favorite places on Clear Lake are nowhere in particular.
"It's a shallow lake without much structure, so you just drill a lot of holes and fish the shallows and sonar the deeper water. This lake is full of everything you want to catch in the winter, so it won't take long to find them."
For more information, call Fairibault Bait and Tackle at (507) 334-2768.
"Everyone always heads to Winni for the perch," said Johnson. "That big lake has some big perch, but I've been getting some nice ones on Bowstring as well, and I'm not surrounded by a bunch of other anglers, which is often the case on Winni, even as big as it is."
Johnson described the daily transition perch make and how to stay on top of the bite.
"The perch in Bowstring move up onto the reefs and sunken islands in the morning and feed on top of this structure," he said. "By 10 a.m., those fish are starting to move to the edge of that structure, and throughout the middle of the day the deep edges and even the clay and muck in the deep water is where those perch go. In late afternoon and evening, the perch often move back up on top of the structure."
Johnson spends a lot of time on Bowstring's north end.
"There are a bunch of small sunken islands there, and every one holds some nice perch."
For more information, call Frontier Sports at (218) 832-3901.
WHITE SAND LAKE
White Sand Lake in Crow Wing County is just west of Baxter and only a few minutes from Johnson's house. You may run into him there on a midweek evening as he sets up for the lowlight crappie bite. He'll be sitting on the hole on the south side of the lake in a one-person Fish Trap. If the wind isn't blowing, the top will be down and he'll appreciate it if you stop over and say hello.
"The crappies on this lake run three to a pound," he said. "They're not big, but there are plenty of them. "I catch about a dozen or so crappies in an hour and a half, depending on the bite, and keep a half-dozen to take home and fry up for supper. The fishing for crappies on White Sand is pretty dependable all season long."
Johnson prefers the wind blowing out of the north when he's fishing White Sand so he can face his portable shelter to the south.
"I like to set up a tip-up in 12 feet of water in the sparse coontail with a medium sucker minnow," he said. "It's a great place for pike."
For more information, call Lake and River Bait at (218) 829-0987.
There are many reasons Johnson enjoys fishing Pelican Lake in Grant County when the surface is solid. There are good populations of perch and walleyes. The crappies and sunfish are big. The perch are nice-sized on Pelican, and they bite all day once you find them.
"I usually find the perch on the points near deeper water and on the edges of the holes," said Johnson. "The lake isn't very deep to begin with, so when I say deeper water, I'm referring to those 15- to 20-foot sections."
Johnson can often be found on the south portion of the lake or on the point north of the island.
"I love this lake because you can set the hook three times on perch, and then that fourth hookset is a nice walleye that really bends the rod. If there's one drawback to this lake, it's that a spot can go from hot to cold pretty fast, so you might be moving more than you like. I don't mind moving to stay on the fish, so between pulling the shelter and drilling holes, I stay with the biting fish."
For more information, call Dahlen's Sport Shop at (218) 747-2901.
LAKE BELLE TAINE
There are plenty of great fishing lakes around Park Rapids, but Johnson's favorite winter haunt is Belle Taine. It's where he chases pike from morning until evening and then transitions to a crappie game plan at dusk.
"The coontail and grasses grow deep in this lake and the pike will be just inside the sparse growth where it starts to taper off in 15 to 18 feet of water," said Johnson. "This is where I look for pike with a tip-up and sucker minnow.
"The crappies are nice-sized in Belle Taine," Johnson continued. "It's one of my favorite late-season lakes, especially right after the season for pike and walleyes closes. There are so many great holes near shallow food shelves on this lake that it's hard to know where to start. If you're like me, you go to the one that's farthest from the landing and work your way back."
For more information, call Northern Bait at (218) 732-5113.
When Johnson and I went ice-fishing on Waconia last season we had to flip a coin. I wanted to go crappie fishing because I had been hearing about the big crappies that were being caught there, and Johnson wanted to target walleyes because he had a feeling there would be a good walleye bite. He called heads, and won.
"It was the second week of January," said Johnson, "and the walleyes were going to still be relating to structure."
I figured we might try some of those reefs to the west of Waconia's Coney Island, but Johnson headed in the opposite direction to a point on the southeast corner of the lake. We drilled in 16 to 25 feet of water, and searched with the sonar and underwater camera, and found some walleyes scattered on the bottom. Using a shiny jigging spoon with fathead minnows, we managed to entice eight fish. No one else was even close to us.
I figured we might try some of those reefs to the west of Waconia's Coney Island, but Johnson headed in the opposite direction to a point on the southeast corner of the lake. We drilled in 16 to 25 feet of water, and searched with the sonar and underwater camera, and found some walleyes scattered on the bottom.
For more information, call Minnetonka Outdoors at (952) 470-8800.
This very well could be the last year anglers can catch those big crappies on Linwood Lake in Anoka County. Crappies tend to cycle in both size and numbers, and for the past couple of years Linwood Lake has been producing some big ones.
"Last year the lake got a lot of fishing pressure for crappies," said Johnson. "This can knock down a population, but there are still plenty of big crappies in Linwood."
Johnson said you'll know where
to set up because there will be stationary shacks set up over the hole on the west side. He cautioned that it may be a good idea to get out away from the crowds if you want to find the bigger fish.
"Even 50 yards can make a difference when it comes to size structure," he said. "Even during the middle of the week when the noise levels in those communities of shacks is low, I tend to look for the bigger fish on the edges of that hole instead of right over it."
When fishing Linwood, Johnson likes to drill a bunch of holes right away and then move as needed when the bite slows in one hole.
"You catch a couple out of this hole and then you have to move to the next one," he said. "It can be a sporadic bite, so I get the holes drilled right away so I won't have to worry about spooking fish when I drill."
For more information, call Vados Bait at (763) 784-6728.
We always wish for what we can't have. Now that it's cold outside, those hot summer days of past look pretty darn good. But then the fish weren't biting, and now they are -- for awhile anyway. When the bite slows down toward the tail end of this hardwater season, I'll read up on techniques that are supposed to work during the tough bite. Hopefully I won't get skunked using them!