The rays penetrate below the ice and kick-start up the entire underwater food web, starting with planktonic algae. The tiny plant cells produce oxygen and attract zooplankton, which in turn brings panfish and larger predators into the shallows.
At the same time, melting ice in connected wetlands starts seeping into the shallows, bringing nutrients that help fuel the growth process. Milder weather lets you fish without your heavy bibs, and some days, you can even leave gloves at home.
On flats that may run from 3 to 8 or 9 feet deep, some aquatic plants often remain, adding cover. On lakes that support a lot of sandglass, you may encounter large groups of perch cruising, looking for easy pickings. But even in bare areas, crappies, big bluegills, and other species swim along, often just under the ice. These fish don’t appear on sonar, so you can often just carry a rod and an auger. And once milder conditions prevail, holes don’t freeze overnight, offering plenty of spots to drop, without cutting new holes. It’s important to keep moving, covering potential areas, so it’s helpful when fellow anglers have “Swiss-cheezed” a large area.
I like a longer rod, as you can stand back a bit from the edge of the hole. At times you come almost eye-to-eye with big panfish and pike. In-line fly-type reels are ideal since they keep the line twist-free and you can lift fish straight up and out of the hole. Twitching and slightly lifting and dropping a small jig (1/32- to 1/16-ounce) with a soft plastic bait usually does the trick. Plastics with one or two slender tails work extremely well, as the slightest movement gives them lifelike action.
These fish are in a feeding mood, so you usually don’t have to wait long if a fish is nearby. Where perch, bass, and larger crappies are present, a small jigging spoon also works very well, while discouraging the small bluegills you may also find up shallow. Just twitch and shake it gently un place. Since fish almost always ride high, don’t fish too deep in the water column, or they won’t see your lure.
It’ important to check ice conditions carefully when you leave the shore, as they can deteriorate quickly once milder conditions and a strong sun begin melting a lake. Don’t try to walk on ice that has a honeycombed appearance, as it’s very weak, even it if’s more than a foot thick. Also be careful at access areas where vehicle traffic through the winter often gouges ruts and cracks that are very weak. The safest approach is to walk out, though 4-wheelers make it easy to travel more than a mile or two, as long as a good solid base of hard ice remains.