By Ross Hagemeister, meisterguideservice.com
The landscape in Otter Tail County is finally showing signs of spring. It’s been a challenging thaw. Unlike the southern part of Minnesota, Otter Tail Lakes Country hasn’t had a lot of thawing momentum. We need a warm spark to get spring rolling. The key to keeping warm air and snow-melting in motion is getting the dark earth uncovered. As it turns out, there are still a lot of pockets of snow in the county—my yard included! Because the Otter Tail County spring is in limbo, ice anglers, get a seasonal extension every time the sun is covered by clouds or the north wind blows. That being said, ice conditions can change quickly, please use extreme caution if you do decide to venture out. No ice is 100% safe, especially this time of year.
While ice fishing had derailed during most of March, it has suddenly jumped back on the tracks. A month ago, you could drive around lakes country on a Saturday and count the fishermen on one hand, but lately anglers have discovered functional ice conditions so lakes are busy with a late-ice fishing buzz.
Most of the snow on the lakes has melted down and has created a good walking surface—I recommend foot travel. As it turns out, there is good panfishing near shore in April. Getting to mid-lake “holes” isn’t necessary like it is in mid-winter. Fishing shoreline weed lines and flats should do the trick. Part of the fun of late ice fishing for panfish is that in most cases, they are located right beneath the ice so you should be able to sight fish (even with out a shelter). I often use old style jig-sticks this time of year because the fish are only a few feet away and using a reel can actually be less efficient and cumbersome. Because it’s easy to get around and the ice is getting soft, get started by drilling a series of holes over a large zone and start fishing. Be careful to fish too far down! If the sunfish and crappie are right beneath the ice you might go right past them. Keep an eye on your lure—hang it just below the ice. Watch closely for fish lips and fins (they are the part of the panfish that show up first/easiest). I also like to watch the light colored wax worm or Gulp bait on my hook and when it disappears I give a light pull and slide the fish onto the ice. It’s great fun and there are no transducer cords to tangle with. Don’t be afraid to fish in shallow water. I’ve caught a lot of late-ice fish in 2 or 3 feet of water. If you’re fishing shallow water, be patient and let the water settle after you auger holes and set up camp—it’s easy to spook fish away when they are so close to you. Give the fish a few minutes to adjust to the commotion and noise. When you’re actually fishing, be still and try not to wear clothes that are bright. You might even have to modify your jigging technique because when the fish are only inches under the ice, they will actually spook away if you’re jigging hard! Get out and enjoy some late-season panfishing this week because once the temps and thaw find some momentum (later in the week) the ice fishing season will come to an end. On that note, be careful.
Last season, several ice anglers fished too late and had to be rescued from the lake because they couldn’t get back to shore! Don’t let that happen to you. Watch for rapidly changing ice conditions. Long periods of overhead sun can cause detrimental ice-rot and erosion due to rising water and warm and speedy currents. Honey combed ice should trip a red flag. If your auger doesn’t drill round holes because of chunking and rotten ice—it’s time to get off the lake, go home, pack up your ice fishing stuff and start charging the battery in your boat because open water is only a few days away.
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