(Editor’s note: This is the first of two columns on winter fishing, all on foot. The second will appear in Tuesday's Post Bulletin and will cover winter trout fishing.)
So, you’re one of the thousands who took up fishing or fished more in Minnesota during the COVID crisis and now, with November's winds and cold snarling, you’re ready for a warm winter inside.
Might I suggest otherwise?
If you hang it up now, you’ll miss out on the some great fishing, albeit with gloves on much of the time. In this region, we’re fortunate to have many places to ice fish including the Mississippi River backwaters, lakes around Faribault and the flood-control reservoirs in and around Rochester.
Besides hard water, anglers can also fish the Mississippi year-round, usually below dams that stay pretty much open. In winter, though, that fishing gets trickier and needs a good boat. For now, let’s stick with the non-boating side of winter fishing.
To help you get a hint at what’s happening and what to do, I asked Dan Dieterman for his thoughts.
Dieterman is a former Department of Natural Resources fisheries assistant area supervisor in Lake City and is one of the people I’d go to with questions about Mississippi backwaters. They are his passion.
With first ice, which should be forming soon, “their (fishes’) world changes pretty quickly," he said. Panfish, the one most people seek in winter, go shallow at first because they don’t have to worry about avian predators and there’s more food and oxygen there. As winter drags into January, dissolved oxygen tends to drop in shallows so fish move deeper and get more lethargic. As the sun gets higher into late winter and they start to get into spawning mood, they become more aggressive.
Now, for gear, beginning with getting to the water itself. You can spend a lot of money on the new battery-powered drills that are great but Dieterman said a simple ice chisel works really well in the early season. The chisel is also excellent for testing ice thickness as you shuffle onto early ice. Speaking of shuffling -- boot cleats are quite helpful for walking because ice can be treacherously slick. You should also have flotation clothing or ice picks that help pull yourself out if you fall through.
As ice thickens, the new super-sharp hand augers work very well, he said. If you’re wondering, however, if you even like ice fishing and want to try it before sinking money into an auger, find a place where others are fishing -- that often means you would be on fish -- and you can find an open hole or someone will drill one for you. Ice anglers are usually a cooperative, social bunch.
Next, get a five-gallon bucket with a padded seat that holds gear and serves as your chair. Again, you can spend a lot more but really, those buckets work perfectly well and store your rods, lures and bait. Don’t forget a strainer to take slush out of the hole.
As for the actual fishing gear, you need a few ice-fishing rods that aren’t very pricey. In early ice, Dieterman suggested longer rods, maybe 4-feet long, so you can sit farther from the hole and not spook fish. After that, go with shorter rods. He likes 3-pound mono line because it’s strong enough for an occasional bass but thin enough for panfish.
Then you’ll need a handful of ice fishing jigs. The new tungsten ones are more expensive but work wonders when you’re fishing deep. And “it's so much easier to see those really light bites” with tungsten because it tightens the line better, Dieterman said.
Bait? Waxies or one of the simple live baits are trusty favorites. But don’t overlook plastic baits or the flavored ones like Gulp.
If you want, you can buy a pop-up shelter which shields you from the wind. But it’s not necessary, Dieterman said. He likes the freedom to move.
The newest innovation has been fishfinders that tell not only depth but also where the fish are located and other details. Again, he’s a minimalist. “I don’t have one and I don’t think they are that important,” Dieterman said. “It becomes too much of a crutch. There is something lost. You can miss out on moving around.”
Even in winter, fish ”are always moving,” he said. Electronics might make you hold too long on a spot when you see fish on the screen. Maybe the fish you see are neutral or negative and you should be moving, he said.
One final thing: relax. Ice fishing isn’t high-energy, constant casting. Enjoy the quiet, the coolness, the snow and maybe a bald eagle or two.