You won't even feel the cold when you start hauling fish through the ice at these great Minnesota locations!
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.
PORTAGE LAKE, CROW WING COUNTY
There are a bunch of Portage Lakes in the state. This one is near the northwest corner of Mille Lacs Lake and is part of a three-lake chain. The other two are Hanks and Crooked Lake.
Portage Lake is a great option if you want to get into some fast-action pike fishing. The basin is basically a bowl, but the water clarity is good so the vegetation in spots grows deep. Where the bottom is silty you'll get some cabbage and northern milfoil (coontail). Where it's sandy you find grass. The pike like the cabbage and coontail.
There are a couple of nice cabbage beds on the north side, east end, where setting up some tip-ups or jigging with flashy spoons will get some action. The point on the north shore just west of the halfway point usually has some big pike hanging on it all of the time.
Most anglers like to drop down a tip-up or two when fishing for pike on the ice. On a lake as clear as Portage, jigging with a flashy spoon can attract fish from a distance. Jigging is a good option on this lake.
Crappies school by s
ize. If you are not catching big ones like this, it's time to move. Photo courtesy of CLAMCORP.
LONG LOST LAKE, CLEARWATER COUNTY
Big bluegills can be tough to find anywhere in the state, but there are some lakes that have all the right resources to grow large fish. Long Lost Lake is a body of water that supports some big sunfish.
Fishing the big bluegills on Long Lost means drilling lots of holes. Key on the weed edges in deeper water and pick off a few from each hole. You won't find the bluegills in big schools where you can fish one spot for a few hours and catch a bunch. On this lake moving is your best option.
Some of the newer lures on the market incorporate tiny plastic trailers and this is a good choice for the run-and-gun approach you will use on Long Lost Lake. Lures like Northland's Bloodworm and the Slug Bug let you strain a spot quickly, picking off those aggressive panfish. The big bluegills don't hesitate to inhale a Bloodworm quivered near their nose.
MILLE LACS LAKE, MILLE LACS/AITKIN COUNTIES
It looks like another banner year for perch on Mille Lacs. Perch tend to cycle in size, with some years being great for big numbers of the jumbo perch. When we talk jumbo perch the size starts at 12 inches and goes up. Expect a lot of the jumbos in this year's catch.
It's good to know that perch tend to pack in schools by size. If you get out to a rockpile or flat and the fish you're catching are less than 10 inches, then move.
Sometimes a move requires heading to another structural element, sometimes it's just drilling on the other side of the structure you're on.
The bigger perch on Mille Lacs prefer the bigger lures. Don't hesitate to take a flashy 1/2-ounce spoon and tip the hook with a fathead minnow head and jig it aggressively. There's not a lot of finesse involved when the big perch are biting, and if you want the jumbo, feed them plenty of steel.
LAKE RENO, POPE COUNTY
Without a lot of structure to home in on, the walleyes in Lake Reno tend to roam. Even a subtle change in the bottom or a pod of forage working a bug hatch will concentrate walleyes in the vicinity. Plan on burning some gas through the auger and using the sonar to find schools of active fish.
Fortunately, there are lots of walleyes in the lake. The occasional jumbo perch will show up on the end of the line, and where you catch one of those there might be plenty more.
The flashier the spoon the better. While the water clarity is not that great, a bit of flash can lure some fish over to your hole if they're within 10 to 15 yards of the hole. Anglers will notice the lure of the low-light periods doesn't pertain to Reno as much as it does on some lakes. Walleyes seem willing to bite right through the middle of the day.
RUSH LAKE, CHISAGO COUNTY
Panfish anglers are beginning to head back to Rush Lake because the crappies are hitting a respectable size and they're there in good numbers. The bluegills are going three to a pound, which is perfect for anglers who like to catch a lot of eaters.
There are plenty of little sunken islands in Rush Lake and many are near deeper water. That's perfect for the angler who wants to fish the low-light periods for crappies in the deeper zones, and then move into some shallow vegetation for sunfish.
Don't expect a 2-pound crappie or a 3/4-pound sunfish. You might get lucky and catch one that size, but Rush is a numbers lake and there will be plenty of action when you find those schools of panfish.
WHALETAIL LAKE, HENNEPIN COUNTY
For a while Whaletail Lake in western Hennepin County held the state record for crappie. There are still loads of big crappies in this lake, but if you want to have some fun, set up some tip-ups for pike. The northern pike in Whaletail are big.
All of the crappie anglers head for the basin on the southeast side of the lake. Pike anglers will want to work that deeper water in the southern section of the northern basin. Deep on this lake is relative with the maximum depth at 20 feet. The pike anglers on the north basin will be keying on water barely more than 10 feet deep.
You can jig all you want on Whaletail, but the patient angler who likes to sit back and watch tip-ups will catch the bulk of the big pike. Suckers up to 10 inches are the best bait on the hook and you will soon discover that the smaller the minnow, the smaller the pike.
These are just a few of the phenomenal lakes that are productive in the hard-water months. All good options to test your knowledge of fish location. Consider the transition patterns and start that search where the fish are most likely to be. Find them fast and fish hard. It's a good formula for success.