FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — My ice fishing buddies could probably catch fish in a frozen ditch.
So, when Mike Wirth of Waterloo, Ward Stubbs of Cedar Falls and I headed north the first week of January, we expected to put a beatdown on the perch, crappies and bluegills in the four west-central Minnesota lakes on our hit list.
It didn’t turn out that way.
There were no quiet, peaceful sunrises and sunsets on the ice with schools of panfish lighting up our flashers. There were more anglers than we’d ever seen, more Ice Castles and other hard-sided fish houses powered by noisy generators — and only an occasional fish.
The highlights were the hot lunches we enjoyed in our tents.
We returned to Iowa and put together a new plan to target small bodies of water with strong panfish populations and less fishing pressure. In a state with 10,000 lakes, Wirth came up with six that looked fishable and promising. Four were 375 acres or smaller.
Steve Peters of Waterloo joined us for our next trip. We’d never been on any of the six lakes we fished, but every one delivered crappies and bluegills of quantity and quality, as well as an occasional walleye and northern pike.
We caught scads of crappies from 10- to 12-inches in length and plentiful numbers of bluegills in the 8- to 9-inch range. There were a few bonus fish, too. Stubbs landed a 16 1/2 inch crappie. Peters caught a 15-incher. Wirth had a couple of bluegills just short of 10 inches.
Nearly all the fish we caught were released, including those jaw-dropping giant crappies and bluegills. This trip wasn’t about filling the freezer. It was about exploring new lakes where we could get away from heavy angling pressure and keep ourselves entertained catching fish.
There are some characteristics to look for when targeting smaller lakes.
First, research the size structure and density of fish populations. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has a Lake Finder feature on its website that is a valuable tool. It offers the most recent sampling data for each lake as well as a written summary from the biologists who surveyed the fish population.
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In general, we sought out lakes that had abundant numbers of crappies and bluegills and consistent recruitment resulting in multiple year classes of adult fish. Ideally, we wanted lakes where 12- to 14-inch crappies and 9- to 10-inch bluegills were sampled, but we also wanted to see strong numbers in the year classes behind them.
Depth is another consideration. Small lakes with a maximum depth of 15 feet or so could be subject to periodic winter kills that can severely impact the fishery, so we avoided those.
Once you find a lake with the caliber and numbers of fish you’re after, can you pinpoint likely areas to focus your efforts? Some lakes simply have so much structure the fish can show up anywhere. Midwinter panfish tend to use the deeper parts of smaller lakes where oxygen levels are best, so we look for simple lakes that don’t have much for reefs or rock piles or sandbars but do have defined basin areas where we can effectively target high-percentage breaklines or irregularities that crappies and bluegills seem to like.
Generally, we found most of our fish in 15 to 19 feet of water.
The next thing to consider is access. Is there a public boat landing where you can get on that lake? In our case, we don’t tow ATVs or snowmobiles on our trips, so it’s either drive or walk. Is there enough clear, hard and consistent ice (12 inches is generally considered the minimum) to support a pickup truck? Will snow cover affect access or ice thickness? Is slush on top the ice a problem? Are there cracks or pressure ridges that can be extremely dangerous? Are there tracks showing where other vehicles have traveled? If not, you may have to work your way across the lake checking ice thickness as you go before you actually drive on it.
If you can’t drive on the ice, can you realistically drag your ice tent and equipment to those high-percentage fishing areas on the lake?
A lot of things lined up for us on this trip. We had 12 inches of good ice on most of the lakes we fished and there was evidence of previous vehicle travel. Snow cover was a manageable 4- to 5-inches. The weather was great and the winds calm, which allowed us to remain mobile and figure out the best areas to fish. The sunrise and sunset crappie bite was chaos at times, while the bluegills kept us entertained during the day.
It was peaceful. The sunrises and sunsets were beautiful. Lunch still was a highlight, but not because it was the only thing going on.
Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes, you don’t need much more than a frozen ditch to find outstanding fishing.