Late ice is a great time to target Minnesota panfish, including sunfish, crappies and yellow perch.
The way winters seem to be going in Minnesota, February has started to become late-ice time in much of our state. And March always has been a month for some serious ice-fishing before the hard water goes away.
Rolling with the times, then, it’s important to start taking a look at a productive fishing plan for when the weather starts to warm up and ice on your favorite waters begins to fade. With our walleye and pike seasons winding down as February progresses, panfish become the prime targets.
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If you haven’t been doing much ice-fishing this winter, there’s no better time to start. Minnesota’s sunfish, crappies and yellow perch begin to notch up their activity levels as the sun climbs higher in the sky. A little melt trickle starts happening on warmer days, and some fresh water starts invigorating the fishes’ metabolisms.
If you’ve been on the ice in pursuit of fresh panfish filets all winter, you’ll start to notice differences in how the fish are acting, where they are, and what they are doing. The old standby midwinter holes we were all sitting on will not be so productive now, and it’s time to “go mobile” in search of the fish.
Going mobile has meaning on two fronts. One, it’s time to take a species-specific and late-ice-focused approach to your icy panfishing. On the water you’re working, you need to go where the fish are, and two, while we’re at it, we’ll discuss some good waters to explore if you’re looking for a place to expand your ice-fishing wings while we still have hard water. Or maybe you’re just looking for some new scenery.
As winter started out, the family of fish we Minnesotans call sunfish (including bluegills, pumpkinseeds, redears, green sunfish and all the wonderful hybrids we get) stick to relatively shallow weedy spots, usually in 8 to 10 feet of water, or less. As winter progressed, fish drifted out toward deeper water, usually the outside of weed edges, often down as far as 15 to 25 feet.
Sunfish don’t go as deep as crappies, because they require more oxygen.
But that also means that, as the weather warms up and water temperatures tick up a smidge, sunfish start thinking shallow again. Because of their higher oxygen needs, they’re the first panfish to react to changing conditions. More oxygen also increases the fishes’ metabolism and makes them put on the feed bag.
Now it’s time to start heading back toward those early ice spots that were productive. Along the way, you’ll want to stop off and try a few transition zones. Here are some specific kinds of spots to look for on your late-ice sunfish journey.
- The edges of holes in weedy bays. Sunnies will move up to the shallow margins of the deeper water.
- Mucky north shorelines (south facing) that feel more of the warm late-winter sun and offer a trickle of fresh water into the lake.
- On top of rocky points, reefs and shoals. Rocks offer good cover now when cabbage and other weeds are mostly brown and down after a long winter.
GOOD SUNFISH WATERS
Pelican Lake, St. Louis County
Big Pelican (11,546 acres), located near Orr in St. Louis County, is a solid bluegill factory well worth a late winter trip for sunnies. Resorts and lodging options abound, and so do the sunfish. Every year seems to produce a good sunfish class in Pelican, so populations keep replenishing themselves. You’ll find good numbers of fish in that 7-inch keeper range, and some sunnies over 8.
Leech Lake, Cass County
Leech is just for walleyes, right? Wrong! While marble-eyes are king there, sunfish are a “sleeper” species you should not ignore, with solid populations that are hard to believe for a lake not thought of as bluegill territory. And the fish grow to good size in this fertile body of water. The DNR’s lake survey report puts strategy best: “Anglers can find quality bluegill fishing opportunities in the beds of mixed vegetation in most major bays.” Good bays to try include Steamboat, Traders, Boy and Headquarters. But anywhere with the memory of old weeds and promise of new ones will do.
Knife Lake, Kanabec County
Closer to the Metro, 1,266-acre Knife Lake is a perennial good bet in Minnesota’s hardwater sunfishing world. Ample numbers of good keeper-sized fish await, with some bigger 8- to 9-inchers swimming in the lake’s shallow, productive waters. Four public access points (three on the lake’s south side, one on the east) get you on the ice. From there, walk out, drill some holes and start fishing. There’s not a lot of structure on the lake. Be mobile — or be prepared to sit and wait for a school to work through.
As opposed to sunfish, crappies take their time when it comes to moving out of their winter lairs. But specklesides won’t be that far behind. That said, it’s interesting that crappies get more active, and sooner, than sunfish. The reasons?
Crappies don’t require as much oxygen as sunfish so they put the feed bags on relatively sooner. And crappies actually spawn before sunfish, come spring, and so crappies have to start feeding harder earlier to help get ready for reproductive rigors.
So, where do we look for late winter crappies? You might be sitting over that typical midwinter, deep-water hole at the start of mild weather, but when the bite starts getting iffy and inconsistent, get mobile and start looking to spots like these.
- Long, tapering points tying together shallow and deep water. Crappies will slowly move their way up the profile as winter wanes. (Change your location too as a day progresses, heading up top and shallower at dawn and dusk, and sticking off the drop for suspended fish midday.)
- Edges of flats near deep water, especially if those flats have weed remnants.
- The mouths of bulrush- and cattail-lined bays. These are the kinds of places crappies will ultimately spawn. Work your way farther into the bay as ice wanes and water warms.
GOOD CRAPPIE WATERS
South Lindstrom, Chisago County
This time around, we’ll start out with Metro water — South Lindstrom, part of the Chisago chain near Chisago. Actually, all the Chisago-area lakes are very productive for crappies, even though they receive plenty of angling pressure, mainly because much of the attention is focused on largemouth bass. Good late-ice crappie locations include the area in front of the beach in the shallows below the Dinner Bell, and the area by the bridge over the channel between North and South Lindstrom lakes.
Other Chisago lakes with crappies include Chisago itself, North Lindstrom, North Center, and South Center.
Clearwater Lake, Wright And Stearns Counties
Clearwater Lake is a 3,158-acre beauty located two miles north of the city of Annandale. There are two public accesses and both are located in the west basin. Look for late-season crappies at the mouths of little bays. The crappie population is steady here, with a good hatch always happening. Eater-sized fish are common, and a few slabs always show up; the lake is big enough to grow them.
Other nearby crappie holes include Sugar Lake just east of Clearwater Lake, and Pleasant Lake right in the town of Annandale.
Nisswa Area Lakes, Crow Wing County
Okay here’s a trio of lakes in the Brainerd area you have to try. There are plenty of great lodging options in the Nisswa area, so give this crappie hotbed a few days. North Long, Hubert and Sylvan lakes are the targets. Look for late ice coming off the lakes’ deepest basins, around cabbage weeds in 7 to 10 feet of water. Mid-lake reefs will be hot.
On Lake Hubert, try the area around the hole on the east side. On North Long, start your work around Merrifield Bay. On Sylvan, look to the east side.
Perch spend winter the deepest of all our panfish species. It’s true that crappies like deep water, but they usually suspend anywhere from 15 to 25 feet down over a water body’s deepest holes.
Yellow perch are different. They’re basically bottom dwellers, hanging out right on the substrate, or no more than a foot or so above it. And a lot of midwinter perch are pulled out of water 30 feet deep or so.
But that pattern changes as ice starts to thin out, water temperatures inch up, and sunlight indicates to yellow perch that spawning time is on the horizon. Two factors come into play:
- Perch are the earliest panfish spawners, performing their reproductive duties not long after walleyes.
- That means yellow perch are the first panfish to go shallow and get active.
Look for late winter yellow perch in a progression of spots like these. Rockpiles and gravelly reefs on the path between perch’s winter holds and the shallow shorelines they like in spring. Gravelly and sandy shorelines in 10 to 12 feet of water. The top side of dropoffs related to rocky or weedy points. Shallow flats (often 3 to 5 feet of water) in mucky-bottomed bays. Look for places lined with cattails and bulrushes, as these plants indicate a sift bottom, and will provide spawning cover later.
GOOD PERCH WATERS
Big Stone Lake, Big Stone County
Big Stone Lake, the source of the Minnesota River, is located in western Minnesota near Ortonville. This narrow lake measures 27 miles long but only up to one mile wide. There is a surface area of 12,610 acres, a maximum depth of 16 feet, and very fertile water that makes it a yellow perch factory. Big Stone is a Minnesota-South Dakota border water and is subject to border water fishing regulations.
During recent years, fishing for yellow perch has been very good at Big Stone Lake. Most adult perch are in the 8 1/2- to 10-inch range, with a few footballs mixed in, and hatches are consistently good. Numerous access points line the lake.
Mille Lacs, Crow Wing and Kanabec Counties
No Minnesota perch story, especially one about ice-fishing for bar-sides, would be complete without at least a mention of Mille Lacs. As the big pond’s yellow perch migrate out of deep water to stage for their early spring spawn, the fish become accessible near shorelines and in bays. Look for transition zones where mud turns to gravel. Mille Lacs perch seem to turn on when snow cover melts but ice remains.
Iowa Lake, Martin County
A Minnesota-Iowa border lake, 732-acre Iowa Lake is located in Martin County and has a maximum depth of only 9.4 feet. The lake is presently managed primarily for yellow perch and secondarily for northern pike, black crappie, and white crappie. Perch won’t run huge there, but there are good counts of filleting-sized fish (8 to 9 inches), and they are very plump and well fed. There is public access seven miles south of Fairmont on the lake’s northeast shore.
The only time it’s too late to go ice-fishing in Minnesota is when the ice is gone. Even when mild winter weather starts warming up the landscape a little bit and working away at the ice, there’s plenty of ice time left on Minnesota’s panfish lakes. Get out, stay mobile, and put some new catches of sunfish, crappie and perch in the old bucket. The filets will be delicious!