In a typical year, the panfish bite on Rochester-area ponds and reservoirs slows dramatically as the calendar turns to February. Heavy snow cover and thick ice prevent light from reaching aquatic vegetation, which means oxygen levels plummet.
That’s bad news for anglers, because low oxygen puts sunfish and crappies into a near-dormant state. They’ll rise a foot or two off the bottom to look at a jig, but getting them to bite is really difficult.
When that happens, I make a trip or two out to Foster-Arend Lake in north Rochester, where I use spoons to target the trout the DNR stocks into the lake. It’s a fun way to kill an afternoon, and I look forward to a meal or two of fresh-caught trout.
So on Sunday, I hauled my gear out to Foster-Arend. Much to my surprise, the ice was covered with a thick layer of slush, and once I drilled a hole, it was instantly submerged in several inches of water.
I knew we’d been enjoying a warm spell of weather, but the ice conditions were more like what I’d expect in mid March, just a few days before ice out.
Unfortunately, the trout showed no interest in the silver and gold Kastmaster spoons I use. A few anglers nearby used minnows to put a couple nice rainbows on the ice, but I got no takers.
My electronics, however, showed a surprising number of active panfish, which in my experience is fairly unusual at Foster-Arend this time of year. Out of sheer boredom, I tipped a jig with a waxworm and caught several sunfish, and the more I caught, the more fish I saw on my Vexilar screen.
These sunfish weren’t keepers, but the active bite made me wonder whether I’d find a similar bite on other lakes near Rocheste.
So on Monday I trudged through the snow and slush to one of my reliable panfish spots, a place where two weeks ago the bite had been very slow. The first three holes I drilled produced nothing, but the fourth showed some fish suspended a couple feet off the bottom, so I set up my shelter and settled in.
The first bite came within a minute or two, a small sunfish that stared at my jig for 30 seconds before finally inhaling it. The next fish hit much faster, and within 10 minutes my Vexilar screen exploded in color as the water column seemed to fill in with fish.
It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced a feeding frenzy on the ice, but that’s what happened Monday. I couldn’t get my jig anywhere near the bottom, as fish would race up to intercept it as it drifted down. I added split shot, hoping to get the jig down deeper to find bigger fish, but my line would simply go slack when the jig was five feet from the bottom. I’d reel tight, then set the hook.
For the better part of an hour, I caught a sunfish on every drop. A few were small, most were middling 7-inchers, but every now and then a solid 8-incher would win the race to my bait.
I hoped to find a crappie or two, and once in a while a fish would come through suspended at just four or five feet, but on every occasion, those fish proved to be sunfish as well.
Again, that’s highly unusual for this time of year. Sunnies in January tend to stick near the bottom, where the water is warmer. At one point, while I was watching my jig descend, a bass that had to be at least 15 inches cruised directly under the hole, just a foot or two from the ice.
I can only conclude that the mild winter we’ve experienced so far has created something akin to late-ice conditions in southeast Minnesota. Oxygen levels clearly are good, and fish, if you can find them, are active. February could be a great month for ice anglers.
That’s the good news. The bad news, however, is that our ice fishing season will likely end prematurely. Ice thickness is at least six inches less than it should be right now, and it’s not terribly good ice, either. Barring an unexpected polar vortex, I expect to pack up the ice gear long before April Fool’s Day.
So get out there now.
LATE-SEASON ICE TIPS
• Use light line. Two-pound test on a limber rod will handle most panfish just fine.
• Use a jigging spoon to attract fish to your area, then use tiny jigs to entice a bite.
• Tie jigs so that they hang horizontally.
• Try a rod holder. Sometimes the best way to entice fish is to suspend a perfectly motionless bait in front of them.