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Woodland Trails: Ice fishing has been slow

We just got over the hump. With the passing of January, I figure winter is halfway through and we are done with the longest cold spells and the coldest wind chills.

Although we claim to be a hearty lot, I will admit that I am glad my calendar says February and that it is a short month. Days are lengthening, the sun is getting warmer and the one-day January thaw was well received by everyone I know!

But living here we have to put up with the rest of winter and find ways to stay entertained. For many of us that means spending time on the ice fishing. You'll notice that I didn't say catching fish because that has been a problem to many I know. Although it's been the best year for ice I can remember it seems to be a tough year for putting fish in the pan for more than a few.

I've never claimed to have all the answers but I usually catch fish when I hit the stiff water that is covering area lakes, rivers and backwaters. The problem is that I have not taken the time to get out as much as I would have liked. Much of that was due to the tremendous cold temps January gave us and the fact that any days off I had fell on the coldest and windiest of those days. But the ice is still on the lakes and there are still fish in the lakes. The problem is catching them.

To help get some answers to those many questions about hot lakes, what works and what doesn't, I talked to the senior fishery biologist in the Baldwin DNR office, Marty Engel. Marty agreed that he has heard the same sad stories I have and some good reports too, but it seems to be more bad reports out there than good ones.

"Fishing has been slow," agreed Engel. "Wardens in Polk County are telling me that it has been slow all over Polk County for the most part. Generally the early bite is always the best bite right when the lakes first freeze up. And although there are many lakes that seem dead there are some lakes out there that have been producing good numbers of fish. It usually has to do with good year class, recruitment and water levels."

According to Engel it's all about spawning and numbers. "In 2002, Squaw Lake had a good year class of bluegills, and they provided some good fishing until they were taken out. We haven't had a good spawning year since then so numbers there are down. That is what generally happens in many lakes. If water levels are down, the spawning class might be as good on those years. But if water levels are higher and shorelines, cattails and other weeds are all flooded, then they will generally have better recruitment that year and it will show up in anglers' bags down the line."

Engel says he can almost always catch fish. I feel the same. I've ice fished with Marty and know what he says is true. Here is how he does it. "I like to do a grid system. Drill a lot of holes until I find fish. I like to get away from the crowds too because those fish are educated to a degree."

We talked about the color phenomenon and hot holes. We both agree that we don't spend much time on unproductive holes or baits. Here is what we agreed on.

Say you start catching fish on a certain color. You'll catch the active fish first, say, the ones that like red. But once the active fish are gone there are less fish, and the ones left might be turned off to red.

One guy I talked to thinks it's a pheromone thing that warns fish to stay away from red. So you change colors or baits and you might hit a hot new color for a while. And size does make a difference. I often go small to get a bite but you should try going bigger if that doesn't work.

We both like to avoid shanty towns because the dumb fish are all caught and the remaining fish have seen it all. That is why so many ice anglers with underwater fish cameras see fish come up to their baits and not take them. They might have a sore spot in their mouths from a jig you are offering from some other guy a day ago. But then in low light they might just take it. That is why dawn and dusk bites usually produce fish.

Marty and I also like the deer trail theory for fish. We feel that just like deer move from bedding grounds to feeding grounds, fish will do similar things, maybe from weeds to deep water, for example. That is why we both drill a lot of holes and try different baits until we find active fish.

Here are Engel's tips from here on out. "Get away from the crowds. Try fishing your old summer haunts or places where you caught fish in your boat where no one else is fishing or has fished this winter. Pay attention to the hot lakes and the tips you hear because those lakes have had a good year class that are there right now!

Around here it seems that our lakes might go a bit dormant after early season, but as we get longer days and warmer weather, some lakes will pick up. Fish have seen a lot of bait by now so change baits often. You have to find something that works in the right spot. And remember it's called fishing, not catching!"