By Nick Simonson
I can recall the sun rising over the eastern waters of Devils Lake as I headed to the hotel to meet my parents for a weekend of early spring fishing on the just-opened channels of the north end of the sprawling lake. The rays shimmered on the lightly rippled bay and dulled as they fell nearer to shore where a couple hundred feet of ice extended out into the water. A half a mile over the bridge, I was amazed to see two die-hard ice anglers working a series of holes cut into the gray ice as the spring morning broke and things began to warm. There are some folks who love ice fishing, and then there are those that really love ice fishing, I surmised, as the pair looked to extend their season to its literal and figurative edge.
Late ice can be one of the fastest fishing times on hardwater, rivaled only by early ice and the late fall feeding frenzy that carries on below without much regard for the first covering on a lake or reservoir. Fish make their moves toward spawning areas as meltwater enters the system and the bite often becomes more aggressive as they feed in preparation for the upcoming efforts of associated with reproduction. As the amount of daylight extends for ice fishing efforts into March and even April, depending on the winter that was, anglers too have more opportunities to find these more readily-biting fish, with extended after-work options and a sunset that won’t come until after eight o’clock. I recall a couple of seasons up north fishing crappies and bluegills in mid-April when ice off didn’t come until the first week of May on many lakes and being amazed when I returned home near nine o’clock those evenings with a pail full of panfish for a late dinner.
As fish make their moves ahead of spring and openwater, so too do anglers targeting those stretches of ice where, like a good hockey player, they move to where the target will be and not where it is. Late winter and early spring have often found me on the edges of northern bays and feeder creeks where just a few weeks later I’d be casting across the open water for pike and walleyes and working my way back toward the main water to find where fish were at in their series of seasonal sojourns. It’s not unusual to lay out a spread of tip-ups and jig a grid of holes set over various depths to intercept those fish that are transitioning toward their spring spaces. However, with all the excitement of late ice, there are many safety factors to consider as things can change quickly with any early warm-ups.
With the rising angle of the sun, the longer days and presumably warmer temperatures, the strength of February’s clear ice can quickly erode in March. Perhaps the biggest influence on weakening ice is inflowing water, as melting snow and early spring rains can quickly cut into that ice at the connection between a creek and a lake or even just a gully that drains to a water body. Additionally, any areas of ice quickly weaken where water moves freely, such as around outlets or culverts. With these areas breaking up faster, those windy conditions that herald the changing of the seasons throughout the upper Midwest can also assist in the degradation of what was once solid ice. While no ice is ever safe ice, these areas this time of year are the most dangerous and should be avoided. Monitor the weather conditions – even on an hourly basis, especially as winds rise at mid-day – and inspect the destination water before heading out, leaving contact information and your likely locations for friends or family at home.
Late ice can provide some fantastic angling as the season shifts toward spring. Safely pushing the limits of ice and the season can result in some amazing memories but making sure those factors for a solid outing are in play are even more important in continuing the adventures in the future. Target those areas where the fish are headed and work back to the main water along the transitions as spring spawning motions begin, while keeping an eye on the often fast-changing conditions for a safe and successful late ice experience…in our outdoors.