Minnesota's Sure-Thing Ice-Fishing

Some people are taking this global warming thing pretty seriously, so let's go with the flow. There will be ice on these waters this winter, and the fish will be hungry! (December 2007)

The rumor was some big perch were being caught on Pine Mountain Lake, and Dave Genz, the "Godfather" of ice-fishing in Minnesota, proved it. Watch for a good bite through the ice this winter on Pine Mountain Lake and many other lakes otherwise known as secret waters.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister.

There were already a couple dozen holes drilled in the ice where we parked the snowmobiles.

"Someone has been here, and they caught fish," said Dave Genz, the "Godfather" of modern ice-fishing.

I wasn't sure how Genz knew this just by looking at some holes in the ice, but he is the man who engineered the Fish Trap portable ice shelter, came up with the idea of using sonar for ice-fishing, and he has pioneered nearly every innovation from high-end rods and reels to clothing designed purely for ice-fishing. When it comes to ice-fishing, Genz clearly is "The Man."

Therefore, I probably sounded a bit sheepish when I asked him how he knew fish were caught. You could obviously see anglers had been there, but I saw no potential signs of fish catching.

"I talked to some of the guys that were here, and they said the crappies were 12-inchers, and the walleyes moved up in the evening and they all were in the 18- to 19-inch range," Genz replied.

So, it wasn't a psychic phenomenon I had just witnessed. It was good old-fashioned research by phone.

"I get a lot of my information from other fishermen," he said. "It's a good way to get a feel for where they're biting and on what."

Where they are biting and on what is always the question ice-anglers ask themselves. Since they are relegated to an 8-inch hole, being in the right place is 90 percent of the formula for success. The other 10 percent is how to get the fish to bite.

"Fish follow patterns in the wintertime just like they do in open water," Genz pointed out. "At early ice, you'll find the shallow structure is productive, and as the winter progresses, the deeper holes get better. By the last few weeks of good ice, the fish will migrate back into those shallower regions."

Genz has a method for finding fish when he doesn't have the benefit of some inside information from his posse of Power Sticks (the name given to members of his ice team). He drills a bunch of holes and searches with his sonar.

"It's like trolling in open water. You cover ground by drilling where the fish should be, and then you use your sonar to see the fish so you know that a particular hole has potential," he explained.

And when you have covered the 90 percent rule of finding the fish, how do you decide which technique brings you to that 100 percent point where the rod is bent?

"That just takes some experimenting," he said. "You take a lure, tip it with some meat and send it down the hole. You can watch the fish on the sonar as it swims up to the bait, and, if you're not getting them to commit, try a different presentation."

Genz said options are wide open when it comes to the lures and the bait. The presentation, because you're fishing through a hole in the ice, is a bit more limited.

"The lure can be a horizontal style or a vertical style," was how Genz described the way the lure rests. "The horizontal style would be a jig like the Fat Boy or the Genz Worm," both lures Genz designed strictly for ice-fishing. "The vertical style would be a jigging spoon like the Frostee," he added.

Genz explained he typically tips the lures with maggots, even when fishing for walleyes and crappies. Occasionally the minnow, or parts of one, will tip the hook. Perch are very receptive to a jigging spoon tipped with a minnow head.

"The biggest mistake ice-anglers make is, when the fish swims up to the bait, they stop jigging," he said. "It was the action that attracted the fish in the first place, and now they stop, let the lure rest and the fish swims away. You can switch from a radical jigging approach that has attracted the fish to a quiver, but I never stop working the lure until I set the hook."

The day Genz and I were on the ice, we didn't stay in that spot where all those holes were, even though the reports were success stories. Instead, we headed to another spot that hadn't been touched that resembled the depth and cover found at our first location. Genz drilled a dozen holes with a Lazer auger and checked each with his sonar. He slid a portable shelter up to one hole and told me to start jigging. He drilled another eight holes. In 15 minutes, there were two shelters sitting on the ice and both of us were hooking into some nice crappies. I asked Dave how he knew this spot would be productive. "I'm psychic," he laughed heartily.

Let's hope your premonitions lead you to some great ice-fishing holes this winter. Here are a few favorite fishing spots that should get your clairvoyant juices flowing.

Red Lake

The crappie fishing on this big lake near Waskish might be slowing down from what it was a few years ago, but there are still some big fish to be found of that species.

What has really been a big draw is the walleye fishing. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources put in place a walleye-stocking program some years ago when the walleye levels took a precipitous drop. The result is extraordinary walleye fishing today.

According to Pat Foster, a guide who also owns a rental service for stationary fish shacks, the hottest ice in Minnesota is on Red Lake.

"If you want action, this is the place to be," Foster said. "You may not get to keep many (fish) because the limits are tight, but there are plenty of 'eaters' caught, so it's always worth a few days on this lake."

Because the bottom of Red Lake is scant on structure, Foster said, he holds some tricks up his sleeve when it comes to finding the walleyes and crappies.

"It's all about the ice and how it forms up. Certain ice conditions pull in the baitfish, and this brings in the walleyes and crappies," he revealed, without giving up the whole secret.

For more information about walleye fishing on Red Lake, check out Foster's Web site at ww

w.clubred.firebin.net.

Lake of the Woods

Last season when the ice was thick enough to drive ATVs and snowmobiles out on it, Lake of the Woods in far north Minnesota started producing great fishing and just kept getting better with no slowdown until the ice was gone. Walleyes, saugers and even some giant perch were caught by anglers heading out onto the vast basin, but it was the anglers that made the trip up to the Northwest Angle that found the huge perch.

"Those rockpiles around 'The Angle' do have some big perch on them," said Gregg Hennum of Sportsman's Lodge. "There's not a ton of them, but if you find them, they'll be huge."

The forecast is for another awesome ice-fishing season on Lake of the Woods. Plan on going up there. The Sportsman's Lodge Web site is www.sportsmanslodgelow.com.

Gull Lake

After Adam Johnson witnessed the Brainerd Jaycees Fishing Extravaganza on Hole in the Bay Day on Gull Lake, he became duly impressed by the ability of this lake to crank out walleyes, pike, perch and even tullibees. Some fish came from water more than 40 feet deep, and fish were being caught by anglers in the middle of the pack by the end of the event, which meant they were dodging plenty of lures to get to the one they wanted.

"It just goes to show what a productive lake Gull is when it can crank out fish like this with that much pressure," said the popular radio and television host of "Adam Johnson Outdoors" and Outdoor Talk Radio. "This lake is right in my back yard, and I seldom fished it until I saw what I was missing."

Johnson dug out his contour maps and found some midlake structure that combined rocks, gravel, sand and some sharp dropoffs.

"It's right in the middle of the main basin," he pointed out. "I consider it a community spot, but when I saw that fishing pressure didn't hinder the bite at the Extravaganza, I figured I'd try it out."

Johnson said he found he had much of the structure to himself, and the walleyes were there. He used a fathead minnow on a plain hook with a small split shot to get the bait into 22 feet of water.

"The first couple of hours I didn't get a bite, but when the sun started disappearing over the horizon it was like someone flipped the switch. I caught walleyes nonstop for the next hour and a half, and it was over. I've fished Gull numerous times since, and it is one productive lake."

Check out Johnson's Web site at www.adamjohnsonoutdoors.com. To get information on the Jaycees event this season, visit www.icefishing.org.

Greer Lake, Crow Wing County

While the majority of ice-anglers prefer walleyes and panfish tugging on their line, some appreciate it when a tip-up flag flips up and the spool full of line starts to spin because a northern pike has taken off with the sucker. Anglers who want this experience search out lakes like Greer, a 350-acre body of water just south of Crosslake.

"It's two basins, and the bigger of the two has the access, so most anglers fish where the deep water is right out from the access," Johnson said. "But then, most anglers on this lake are fishing for panfish."

What Johnson said he does is move deep into the main basin toward the narrows, where he drills a load of holes in 10 to 15 feet of water.

"There is some current in this lake, not much, but it does draw in some forage, which pulls in some pike right there where the lake necks down before it enters the smaller basin," he said. "It's a good place to put some tip-ups if that's how you like to fish them."

On the other hand, Johnson also likes to drill plenty of holes and move around with a heavy jigging rod armed with a sucker minnow impaled on a size 1/0 hook.

"Sometimes you can look down the hole and watch the fish swim up to the bait and look it over before it takes it," he said. "There are a lot of pike in Greer, and some nice-sized fish as well."

Use Johnson's Web site -- www.adamjohnsonoutdoors.com -- for gathering more information about ice-fishing at Greer Lake.

Pine Mountain Lake, Cass County

Four of us pulled out onto the ice -- Genz, Johnson, Ted Takasaki of Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle, and myself. The rumor was some big perch were being caught on Pine Mountain Lake. But as we headed to the far north shore, I was puzzled because there were no other anglers. When the word is out on a good bite, it usually draws plenty of others to the spot.

"It's still a well-kept secret," Genz said. "Just a few of us know this exists."

Holes were drilled in just a few feet of water only 50 yards out from the bulrush beds. The day was cold and windy, but none of the anglers -- except me -- used a shelter. Johnson was lying right on the ice, sight-fishing through his hole in about 3 feet of water. Takasaki and Genz were moving from hole to hole looking for the 12-inchers. They all found big perch. Me? I found a 4-pound pike.

"There are lots of these lakes in Minnesota," Genz said. "The perch have a decent food source and they get into that jumbo range. Someone catches a few, the word gets out, and, soon, everyone is fishing for them."

The "boys" caught a big bucket full of large perch in just a few hours on a lure called the Rattl'n Flyer Spoon, which they were testing. The hot color was gold. There were only two that color, so one of the anglers had to work a little harder for his fish. When they had enough for their fish fry, they didn't quit. They just threw the rest back.

Again, use Johnson's Web site -- www.adamjohnsonoutdoors.com -- for gathering more information about ice-fishing at Pine Mountain Lake. And you can check out the lure these guys were using by visiting this Web site, www.lindylittlejoe.com.

Swan Lake, Otter Tail County

Some of us are most happy fishing on the smaller lakes when it's early in the ice-fishing season. I figure those 500- to 600-acre lakes are going to freeze faster and get thick much quicker than the big 1,000-plus-acre lakes will. That's why I appreciate 700-acre Swan Lake near Fergus Falls. And it's full of 10-inch crappies that love to bite!

The middle of Swan Lake is a great place to start. I use the Genz approach for crappies on this lake. Find a spot between all the deep holes, drill until you're tired -- which for me is about 20 holes -- and start searching with the sonar. Crappies will suspend and they show up well on that fish finder. When you spot a school, it's just a matter of dropping down a tiny jig and minnow and watching it on the sonar screen until it's resting right above the fish.

I had to call Genz from Swan Lake one time b

ecause I thought my sonar was broken. I said I knew the bottom was about 35 feet, but there was all this clutter between 15 feet and the bottom, and I couldn't adjust it out. "Those are fish, ya' big dummy," Genz replied, and he was right! I caught plenty of crappies that day.

Genz has a great Web site for fishing tips for Swan Lake and other waters. Check it out at www.davegenz.com.

Toad Lake, Becker County

I call them sonar jockeys. Adam Johnson is one. He'll go out on a lake, drill a bunch of holes and work the holes with his sonar until he spots a fish, then he targets that one fish. In this situation, he doesn't want much structure -- just a lake about 30 feet deep with a decent population of walleyes or crappies. Toad Lake is one that fits this bill.

"You work between the little structural elements that are on the lake," Johnson explained. "Find one of the small humps and drill in a zigzag pattern north to the next one. Then, you just hole hop until you see a walleye a foot or 18 inches off the bottom, and you catch him."

It sounds easy.

"It is," Johnson said, matter of factly. "Most guys like to fish. Me, I like to fish for fish, so I spend a lot of time looking, and when I send down the bait, I know I'm targeting a fish that's down there. If I can't get it to bite, then it's probably not a walleye. I only spend about five, no more than 10, minutes on a fish before I move to another hole."

Once again, use Johnson's Web site for gathering more information about ice-fishing at Toad Lake.

Lake Winnibigoshish, Cass/Itasca County

When it comes to perch, "Winni" is still the king. There are loads of resorts on the lake that rent stationary ice houses, so rent one and use it for a base of operations.

Take along your Fish Trap or Clam portable shelter, and when the perch start moving, follow them. The perch -- plenty of big perch -- move to the tops of the reefs in the morning and evening, and they slide off to the sides in the middle of the day.

That's Lake Winnibigoshish. Get more information about the lake and area resorts on the Web at www.fishand game.com/winnlk.htm.

Good fishing!

Find more about Minnesota fishing and hunting at: MinnesotaSportsmanMag.com

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