There isn't much time left in the ice-fishing season, so take advantage of it while you can. One of Minnesota's most famous anglers will be chasing walleyes, pike and panfish on these frozen lakes. (February 2006)
While Gary Roach's main focus is on walleyes, he also fishes for pike and panfish during the winter.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister
There's not a whole lot of time left in this ice-fishing season to chase walleyes and pike, so pull out all the stops to get as much time on the ice as you can. Some anglers cry and whine about the tough late-season bite for walleyes, but there are plenty more guys who are still catching them because they work a little harder to find them. And the crappies and perch are still biting, too -- maybe better than ever. So quit making excuses, and get out there and catch something.
As far as the late-season walleye bite is concerned, it pays to be on a body of water where there are good numbers of fish. It makes those walleyes easier to find. When you do discover a concentrated school of walleyes on an obscure piece of structure, you can get them to bite. From what I see, the problem is that most anglers aren't fishing where the walleyes are.
To find walleyes in February, I concentrate my search on a sharp dropoff near a deep hole. Those cold-blooded walleyes don't need much to satisfy their hunger in this cold water, but they do eat, and the easier the meal, the more likely they are to take it.
One thing you'll discover when fishing late-ice walleyes is that they bite for short periods at specific times of the day. You might be on top of a school of walleyes and they're giving your bait the cold shoulder -- or should I say, the cold pectoral fin -- and then something activates their feeding response, and they bite.
This feeding period varies little from day to day on any given body of water. Often I can often get a good feel for when the right timing is just by talking to anglers who have been achieving some success. It could be the middle of the day, evening or middle of the night. It may last for only a half-hour to an hour, but you can almost set your watch by it. Be there when it happens. Each body of water varies as to the time of the bite, so what's working on one lake may not be good timing on another.
Pike don't follow the same pattern as the walleyes. They seem to be just as hungry in February as they were in December, and will take a bait at almost any time of day.
The best way to find pike is to realize they're already in transition to the shallow-water regions where they will spawn come April. Setting up for pike in these spots will generate some interest in what you're trying to feed them.
By now, crappies have migrated to the deeper holes and are tightly schooled. Everyone loves to chase crappies right now because when you get onto a big school, you'll get some pretty steady action.
When crappies do move, it's mostly in a vertical line, because the light penetration drives their forage base up or down in the water column. I must admit, I like the night bite when the fish are suspended high and spread out a little more.
Perch are easy to pattern any time in the winter. Get out early in the morning and fish the tops of the reefs and sunken islands. As the day progresses, those fish will move out to the edges of that structure.
The key to getting into a good late-season perch bite is to find spots that haven't been pounded by other anglers. Those "community spots" that have big cities of stationary and portable shelters all over them will provide much less action than the spots where the perch have remained relatively untouched. Of course, this makes perfect sense, but how do you find these spots?
What it takes is a good map, a GPS, sonar and an underwater viewing camera. You must explore. On good perch lakes, there's always plenty of structure that never gets touched by those ice-fishers who feel compelled to follow the crowds. Remember, if it looks good on the map, it probably is. And if you're willing to get there, you will likely reap the benefit of your extra effort.
Let's look at some of my favorite late-season hotspots and why they tend to produce well for me during this period.
When it comes to late-season walleye fishing, it doesn't get any better than Pelican Lake in Crow Wing County. This lake is loaded with walleyes that stack up like cordwood at the base of the sharp breaklines on the edges of rocky reefs.
One of my favorite spots is on the western tip of Gooseberry Island where it drops off real fast into 45 feet of water and then ramps back up to a small sunken island. Those walleyes will be lying in the base of the saddle in deep water or they'll be sitting on top of that sunken island in 25 to 30 feet. I'm always hoping to find the walleyes suspended about 3 to 5 feet off the bottom because they show up well on the sonar and can be spotted easily with the underwater viewing camera.
The water visibility on Pelican is great for the camera, and I use it to watch the walleyes move into my bait zone. Even when those fish aren't aggressive to the lure, sometimes I can generate a bite if I know how they're reacting to the presentation.
If my current jigging presentation is just eliciting stares from the walleyes, I'll try a tighter quivering motion or no action at all. Sometimes you have to change lures, trying different styles and colors. Sometimes a whole minnow works better than a minnow head. I said earlier that timing means a lot right now, but you can negate that factor sometimes just by finding the right trigger. If there are walleyes below, I'm pulling out every trick to find that lure or presentation that will generate a bite.
There are plenty of other spots on Pelican to check out. Fortunately the walleye population in this lake is high, so most of you will have some fish to tempt.
Woman Lake is a great quick-stop point on my way home from perch fishing on Lake Winnibigoshish. That's because there is always a great early-evening bite, and the timing works well.
Another thing I like about Woman Lake is that next to every deep hole, there is a sunken island. This narrows down the amount of time I have to search. Drill holes from the deep spots to the humps and you will likely find some walleyes in that zone somewhere.
You'll spot a lot of small perch on the sonar as you make your way from hole to hole, looking for walleyes on the screen. This is a good sign, because where you ha
ve baitfish, you'll have walleyes nearby.
I'll use a 1/4-ounce Buck-Shot Dropper Spoon and a small shiner hooked through the back behind the dorsal fin. The rattling of the spoon attracts the walleyes, and as soon as I see them move up onto the bait, I just let the lure sit motionless and let the swimming minnow do the work.
This is where you need a lively minnow to entice the bite. If your minnow is weak and not swimming, put on another one that has some energy. Walleyes can't resist the struggling minnow, and these shiners are big enough that the perch aren't a factor.
Big Sandy Lake
Northern pike are plentiful in Aitkin County's Big Sandy Lake. And every so often, when you pull hard on the tip-up line and set the hook, a pike with some wide shoulders will pull back. It's one of those 10-pound females that's going to be dumping a load of eggs in about six weeks in a shallow back bay full of vegetation.
A good spot to set up your tip-ups on this lake is on the 15- to 20-foot breakline on the northwest corner in front of the bay where the Sandy River washes in. If the fish aren't moving, I may even move a bit shallower to try and find some on that weedline in 10 to 12 feet of water.
I like catching bigger pike, so I use bigger suckers. That means more time between bites, but I can live with that.
Big Sandy is actually known for its high numbers of northerns rather than its trophy fish, but when those bigger pike congregate at the mouths of the bays, you can count on some lunkers being there. In a situation like this, I believe higher numbers of pike means more big ones, and I prove this whenever I venture out to the staging areas on Big Sandy.
A couple of other great staging areas are in front of the two big bays on the west side. Anywhere the vegetation tapers off into a weedless muck bottom is a good place to set a sucker minnow about 2 feet off the bottom. It's a waiting game when you fish like this, and the only thing a sonar can do for you is help define the bottom content you're looking for.
When I'm looking for big pike, I often find myself on lakes that are not bulging at the seams with populations of this species. I'm more often on a lake where there are decent numbers of fish, but the ones there are going to be respectable in size and put up a good fight. It's a tradeoff. Where there are fewer pike, there are often bigger ones. On Lake Alexander in Morrison County, that's the program.
One of my favorite pike spots on Alexander is on the west end at the narrows where it goes from the small western basin into the main lake. There is a pronounced inside turn in the main basin that pokes into the narrows. There's a small shelf between the narrows. and then the bottom drops off quickly into about 25 feet of water. Big northerns move back and forth from the main basin to the hole, so if you drop a minnow down on a tip-up, you'll ambush a few during this migration.
The water clarity is very good on Alexander, so I enjoy dropping the camera down a hole near the tip-ups and watching for pike that are cruising. Sometimes just one will be slowly meandering around the minnows, while other times I can see a group of four or more pike circle the wagons before they feast. It's fun to watch.
My favorite crappie lakes are those that have some deep holes where the crappies will stage during the late season. But I also want a lake that is somewhat fertile, so the fish have good growth rates and provide some quality angling. I've found this on Moccasin Lake just south of Leech Lake. The deepest hole in the lake is just south of the access, but my favorite two holes are the 50-footers to the north.
Crappie fishing shouldn't be a hit-or-miss situation right now. Schools of crappies show up real well on the sonar, so you know you're on fish. It's just a matter of getting them to bite.
Don't rely strictly on crappie minnows to tip your jig. Many times, a fat wax worm or a few colored maggots will do the trick even better.
A good game plan on Moccasin will be to drill some holes right next to the hump in the middle of the lake in about 18 feet of water. Work a zigzag drilling route toward the northwest, popping holes until you hit that 50-foot zone.
Crappies will move to a shiny spoon being aggressively jigged, so try to entice some over for a bite. When the crappies show up on the sonar but don't grab the bait, send down a smaller-profile lure and let it set. Expect a soft bite this late in the season -- which means you have to be on your toes and set the hook as soon as you feel the least bit of resistance.
Put yourself in the search mode and head out to Maple Lake, just south of Alexandria, if you want to get into some big crappies.
This is a fun lake to hunt crappies on because the fish migrate into the center of the lake during the late season and suspend over the deeper water. It's a lot of area to cover. You have to drill a few holes, fish a little while, move, drill a few more holes, fish awhile . . . and then you find them. These are big crappies -- as in two-to-a-pound or better -- that really pop a crappie minnow suspended below a dropper spoon on a glow hook.
Anglers' first reaction on Maple is to get intimidated by all the potentially productive water, which tends to push them toward the community locations. There are plenty of big crappies in this lake, so find a spot of your own and clean up on big slabs.
Mille Lacs & Winnibigoshish
There are two premier lakes for perch fishing in Minnesota. One is Mille Lacs and the other is Lake Winnibigoshish.
When I'm targeting perch on Mille Lacs, I look for transition lines. This is where the bottom changes from one content to another, like from mud to gravel, or rock to sand. When I find a spot like this, I know I'm going to find perch.
I'll share with you a GPS coordinate that's always been a good perch producer on Mille Lacs because it is such a distinct transition. Here you will find a dropoff from rock to muck, with some sand around the edges. This is a perfect spot for perch to congregate. It's a community spot, but if you can get to it, it will define what a prime location is on Mille Lacs. The coordinates are: N 46 17.414 W 93 42.667. Check out this spot, and then go find a few more like it.
On Lake Winnibigoshish, a reef is your best friend. Work the tops of the reef in the morning and evening, and the edges in the middle of the day. The perch in Winni move all day long, so don't get glued to one spot. Keep moving to stay on top of the perch.
Here's a great GPS coordinate for Winni that will give you an idea of what to look for: N 47 28.062 W 94 12.375.
On both Winnibigoshish and Mille Lacs, you must be careful to watch for ice h
eaves, and too much slush under the ice can limit your travels. In case it's too tough to get to a prime location, transition areas are all over both these lakes, and you can find perch on all of them.
In a couple of months, the ice will be gone and we can line up at the boat landings again. For now, the only line I want to see is the one going down the hole where the fish are. See ya out there!