Looking at my photo library and fishing logs from last year at this time, I see we were running the Mississippi River in our 17-foot Alumacraft, fishing bluegills and crappies in open backwaters beginning just after mid April. Driving north today, I could see Rice Lake was still completely frozen over, meaning the backwaters would also be roofed with ice.
Every lake I passed was frozen solid. A pair of herons stood on the ice near a space that had opened as the ice pulled away, still just a few feet from solid ground.
I pulled into a diner where Dave "Shoggie" Shogren (walleye-panfish-pike guide, 218/765-3197) and my old friend Rick Hammer were waiting for me at the breakfast bar. We had a long, animated discussion on the fate of Mille Lacs smallmouth bass (future posts coming), the gradual decline of walleyes in our neck of the woods, and the immense stupidity of fracking while wolfing down eggs, bacon, and coffee.
We were on our way to a nearby lake not really open to the public. One of what we call the Shoggie Lakes. Having lived in this area since birth, Shoggie knows everybody and every body of water.
Pretty soon we were a caravan of three trucks, snaking ever deeper into the forest. We parked at a summer home of some friends and walked in. The lake is small, so the hike was probably less than half a mile to a cluster of holes Shoggie made several weeks ago. No need to make more. We didn't even bring an auger. Temperatures are (finally) warming into the 30°F range at night, and even holes that froze over two weeks ago were opening up.
Shoggie and I didn't bring depth finders. Hammer brought his Marcum Showdown Digital Flasher, which proved that the optimum depth was 14 feet. Otherwise, we really didn't need sonar. I must have stayed at the first hole I tried (which just happened to be over 14-foot depths) for two hours.
Waxworms were the only grub-like baits we could find, but I boldly predicted the biggest fish would come on plastics. In my late-ice experiences (also chronicled last year in this space), plastics don't always catch more panfish than bait (though they often do), but almost always trigger larger fish. Again — that's just been my experience. Especially during late-spring warming trends. Every northern panfish freak knows that t-shirt days on ice are crazy. Fish practically swim up through the holes and attack before you can finish baiting the hook. This was one of those days.
The high today was about 72°F where we were fishing. The wind (with gusts up to 25 mph) across the ice kept us cool. We had no shelters. Just knee boots, buckets, and a rod or two.
It was one of those magic late-ice days we all look forward to during winter. Bluegills were attacking almost anything with a ferocity unmatched in at least six months. Almost anything. Discrimination, at this point, is interesting. Just what is it they really want? Anybody who knows me very well at all knows I think the best time to experiment is during a hot bite. And experiment we did! More tomorrow...