With the heat and humidity of our most recent summer a distant memory, the temperature of Minnesota’s ice anglers is now on the rise. For the past month, many of us have checked our favorite lakes on every frosty morning, anxiously awaiting the appearance of first ice. Now, as the chill of each passing cold front either begins or continues to solidify the surfaces of these fisheries, some of the best angling action of the season is beginning.
The following is a look at some tips, tendencies, and ideas that can increase the likelihood of success during the early winter bite, including a look at where to find your favorite species throughout Minnesota. Whether you are interested in catching panfish or perch, walleyes or northern pike, it appears that the bite this winter may be one of the hottest in recent memory.
First and foremost, the No. 1 tip for all ice-fishermen is to remain cautious and stay safe. While this is true when venturing onto a lake at any time of the winter, it is extremely important at this point in the season. Early in the year, the distance between safe and unsafe ice can be a matter of just a few feet.
Unless you are absolutely certain that the thickness of the ice is capable of supporting your weight, never take more than 10 or 20 steps without checking the status of the surface with an ice chisel or similar device. Be wary of any ice that was covered by an early snowfall, as even a thin blanket of powder can prevent an area from freezing to a safe level.
While melted snow can give the impression of being solid ice when it refreezes, that can be deceiving. A 3-inch layer of frozen slush, and a 1-inch sheet of insulated lake ice, does not equal 4 inches of safety. It is much more likely to result in two separate layers of very weak ice.
A pair of handheld ice picks can be a lifesaver if you should happen to find yourself in the frigid water. In addition, ice-cleats can prevent a few bruises when treading on the smooth, slick surface that often develops following the first cold and calm nights of the year. Driving on the unstable and untested ice should not be considered.
One of the benefits of searching for an early winter bite is that it is not usually necessary to move very far from the shoreline. In December, while vegetation is still green and prevalent, a majority of fish species will be found in the same locations as they were prior to freeze-up. Both panfish and walleyes can be found feeding on the baitfish and insects that remain plentiful within such growth. At the same time, they are being targeted by even larger species that are preparing for the long winter. Oxygen levels are high, allowing fish to remain in shallower water than where they will be later in the season.
Panfish are active early and can usually be found at the outer edge of any remaining shallow foliage, along with being within and around the deeper weedbeds. Depending upon the size and contour of a body of water, these areas generally vary from 8 to 18 feet in depth.
While walleyes can be found in primarily the same locations, an angler should look for them to be congregated at the outer fringe of the deepest weeds, or in areas where shallow grass drops rapidly into deep water. That might place them at a depth as little as 6 feet in a prairie pothole, or they may be suspended in water that exceeds 20 feet in the deeper lakes, and those with sharp drops. Perch can be found near the walleyes, but seem more likely to be moving throughout a fishery at this time of the year.
With so much feeding activity taking place near the shorelines, you can bet that any given lake’s largest predators are going to be lurking nearby. Northern pike and muskellunge maintain an excellent appetite entering winter, and are quick to take advantage of the numerous food sources that are available in the areas already mentioned. Large pike can be caught within easy reach of a lake’s access; tip-ups baited with suckers or large shiners usually bring good results.
As mentioned, this winter’s angling prognosis is a good one for much of Minnesota. Just keep in mind that as the winter grows longer, and the ice reaches the point of making an auger extension necessary, it can become more of a challenge to catch fish of any species. When the vegetation of a fishery begins to deteriorate and oxygen levels lower in shallow water, the insects disappear and baitfish scatter. That tends to send a majority of game fish into deeper water, over larger areas, and thus makes them more difficult to locate. By eliminating the sunlight needed to sustain foliage, heavy snowfall early in the season will speed up the process.
While the following locations appear primed for an excellent early bite, they are fisheries that can create excitement all winter, as well as during the summer months.
During a normal winter, anglers in the northern portion of Minnesota are able to get on the ice long before those in our southern counties. Right now, while some of us may still be looking at open water, anglers are likely pulling pike and walleyes through the ice of Lake Kabetogama. Or, they may be enjoying the start of what is expected to be an excellent season on Lake of the Woods, where walleyes and sauger are abundant.
A well-respected angler, and topnotch fishing guide, Brian Brosdahl certainly knows when and where to find jumbo perch and walleyes. Brosdahl, also known as “Bro” of Bro’s Guide Service, has been putting people on fish for well over a decade. I spoke with Bro recently and discovered that Thanksgiving is the day he targets to begin hitting the ice, and that by the first weekend of December every year, things will be in full swing. He confirmed that early in the season the walleyes in some of our most popular fisheries, such as Upper Red Lake and Cass Lake, tend to be near the remaining healthy vegetation. He added that at certain times they can be located around deeper structure as well, especially following a hot summer and autumn, which can wipe out the weedbeds in some areas. Brosdahl also pointed out that the humps found within Lake Winnibigoshish are an excellent place to find early-ice walleyes.
On the day that I talked with Bro, he had just returned from Lake of the Woods. Although he doesn’t personally guide on that water, Brosdahl mentioned that the walleye and sauger bite had been phenomenal.
When he isn’t guiding anxious and excited anglers toward jumbo perch or walleyes, Brian Brosdahl hones his skills as an established expert on panfish angling. Bro commented that while an assortment of panfish are found in nearly all our northern waters and should not be difficult to locate and catch on early ice, truly large fish are rare. He suggests that anglers practice catch-and-release when they locate a fishery containing super-sized panfish, especially bluegills. Keeping the fish that would be considered average in size, while releasing the largest fish, can be extremely beneficial to a fishery.
“Panfish are precious,” Brosdahl remarked, while explaining that he doesn’t offer his clients panfishing excursions, “The numbers of truly large fish are just too low to guide for,” he asserts.
As we move down the state, the date of freeze-up becomes more difficult to predict. Depending upon weather conditions, first ice can coincide with either the extreme north or the far south, and can vary considerably from location to location. A check with Troy Smutka, at Great Day on the Water Guide Service, confirmed that fact. Smutka, who has been offering guided fishing trips in central Minnesota for numerous years, states that his start date generally arrives in mid- to late December.
As with the north and south, in the midsection of our state the panfish bite on first ice is likely to cause the largest stir. A somewhat unknown commodity, there are numerous lakes in and around Minneapolis that can provide excellent results during the early winter bonanza. Regarding these fisheries, Troy Smutka commented that in recent years he has had good success catching crappies on Hyde Lake, which has a reputation for forming ice early and rapidly. He also suggested the bays of Lake Waconia and the coves of Prior Lake as productive panfish destinations. But he did advise against venturing beyond those protected areas until after a prolonged period of frigid air. He pointed out that the early northern pike bite in that pair of lakes is worthy of an angler’s attention. While Lake Minnetonka is an excellent fishery for pike, panfish and walleyes, the experienced guide warns that the ice can be dangerous.
“If they want to fish Lake Minnetonka early,” Smutka advises, “anglers should fish with someone who knows the lake well.”
Across the rest of central Minnesota there are numerous lakes that may provide similar panfish results as those mentioned already, and a good way of locating the hotspots is to look at late-autumn fishing reports. It is likely that the same lakes that experienced a strong fall bite will also be productive during December and into January.
If it is walleyes you are looking for, Lake Minnewaska could be a good place to start. In recent years, anglers have consistently been reporting early success in this Pope County fishery. The same is true of Lake Ida, in Douglas County, and Lake Traverse, in Traverse County. While the walleye and perch bite can be sporadic on Lake Mille Lacs, it is always a good idea to keep an eye on the current fishing reports for that popular and potentially explosive body of water.
South of the Minnesota River, it can often take until the end of the year for ice-fishing to truly start heating up, and it is rare to find safe ice any time before Dec. 15. Despite the shortened season, anglers typically will have a small window of opportunity to get in on the early winter bite. The area’s prairie potholes are loaded with hungry walleyes; its panfish ponds can produce crappies and bluegills that are perfect for the pan, and northern pike are present in nearly every body of water.
Once the ice has reached an appropriate thickness, walleye anglers should take a good look at Madison Lake and Lura Lake, both located near the city of Mankato. These bodies of water are consistent walleye producers, with a history of kicking out some large fish early in the season. A little farther to the south, Walnut Lake may be this season’s sleeper. This shallow prairie pothole, which drains into the Blue Earth River, is often stocked with walleyes by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. During the early summer of 2011, local anglers were reporting an excellent bite on this quiet fishery. While there is no guarantee, if water levels remain high there, it is possible that this bite will resume during the winter months. Located in Murray County, the reports coming from Lake Sarah have been impressive in recent years and have indicated that the fishery should remain a viable option this season.
In southeastern Minnesota, panfish anglers can find some excellent early action on the backwaters of the Mississippi River, from Wabasha to Winona. Moving to the west, Cedar Lake, Lake Mazaska, and Lake Francis are a few of the best bluegill and crappie fisheries in the Faribault area. In addition, all of these locations provide the opportunity to catch large walleyes and northern pike.
If it is primarily northern pike you’re after, a few of the favorites in the Mankato area are Lake Francis and Lake Elysian. Although these lakes are not loaded with monster fish, they both have a good population of 3- to 6-pound fish, which can be quite entertaining. The Cannon River chain of lakes will occasionally produce trophy pike early in the season, while Martin County’s Fox Lake, and Rice County’s French Lake offer an opportunity for large pike, as well as muskellunge.
As with any time of the season, fishermen should remain aware that numerous lakes within Minnesota have slot limits or special angling regulations. Regardless of the species you intend to concentrate on, be sure to familiarize yourself with any restrictions found on the lake of your choice.
Now is the time to hit the ice in Minnesota, so get out there and have some fun before the early-ice bite is done.