by Dave Csanda
Things are certainly changing fast in the Upper Midwest as record or near-record temperatures are causing the ice to retreat at a blistering pace. Open water is already available in southern Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Dakota. So if you still want to get your licks in with some late-ice panfishing, where you can still safely do so, it’s pretty much now or never.
There are three common themes we’ve been hearing from around the region:
1) Panfish like perch and bluegills are staging outside their spring feeding/spawning grounds. The mouths of shallow bays are holding lots of fish. In natural lakes, the deep weedline and adjacent weedy flats are key areas for fish activity. In waters lacking weeds, the back ends of coves and backwaters are likely fishing hot spots.
2) The fish are actively feeding at this time, so the bite is on. Small spoons or jigs tipped with waxworms or softbaits are deadly. You’ll likely get bit if you’re in the right spot, fishing at the right depth.
3) Bluegills, in particular, often feed high in the water column at this time of year, sometimes just beneath the ice. So don’t be afraid to fish a foot beneath your hole. Such highly suspended ‘gills may not appear on your depth finder due to their extremely shallow depth. But if you lower an underwater camera just beneath the ice canopy, high-riding fish should be easily revealed, giving you the confidence to fish a short line.
Anglers are already employing late-ice access tricks, like sliding planks across open water between the shoreline and the edge of the ice, and walking across them to keep your feet dry. Using waders to reach the ice sheet. Or small boats to cross the intervening open water. Effective tactics if the water is shallow. Highly questionable maneuvers if it isn’t.
Mostly, just be safe. Don’t go fishing alone. Wear a life vest. Have your ice picks at the ready, around your neck or attached with velcro near your collar. Tell people where you’re going and when you expect to be back. And don’t take unnecessary chances. Better safe than sorry.