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The Late Ice Milk Run
By Jason Mitchell
Late ice patterns can very. People often preach about fishing shallow. Others stress the importance of finding moving water. Late ice is often hailed as the best fishing of the year. The fish are supposed to be biting as well as they have all winter. Anglers eagerly await the last hurrah. The reality, however, is that fish can still be just about anywhere… even during the late ice period.
We have found fish deep; we have found fish shallow. We have seen where incoming current plated a factor and we have seen where it did not. Throw in changing weather conditions and the fact that different fish are on different programs not all reacting to their changing environments at once and late ice fishing is still just that… fishing. One big advantage for anglers getting their last ice fishing fixes in is that the weather is often very accommodating, allowing us to fish aggressively outside of shelters and the days are long, giving us more time to crack the pattern each day. Extreme fronts, blizzards and lots of snow on the ice however still make fishing tough just like any other time of the winter.
So don’t get hung up on shallow or deep. Don’t assume that the fish will be suicidal. Don’t get hung up on certain lakes or types of lakes. Systematically check different options until the fish start to tell you that you are getting warm. Here are a few of the different scenarios we have found over and over again at first ice. Also, many of these patterns are not species specific in the sense that this general milk run of places to check has worked to find everything from bluegill to walleye.

Jason Mitchell with nice walleye

Northern wisconsin guide and pro staffer for Jason Mitchell Elite Series Rods, Jim Hudson with an enormous late ice walleye

Where the Basin Meets the Bay
Many fish spawn in shallow bays that warm up quicker than the main body or basin. Some fish need weeds, other gravel or rock but the principals are the same. Come ice out or shortly after, almost every fish in the lake makes this push. Where the main basin connects to these shallower bays where fish will eventually spawn is always worth checking. This is often deep water but deep is relative. This basin might be forty feet of twelve feet but regardless of depth, don’t overlook where the basin meets the bay.
Feeder Creeks, Dirty Ice and Shoreline Seepage
While the last pattern described may take you deep, an option always worth looking at that takes you into very shallow water and often close to shore. As the days get longer and the sun starts to pound the ice hard enough where you can throw a penny on the ice and watch the penny melt through the ice, feeder creeks become more active, snow begins to melt and creeps into the shorelines. To find where this melt off is seeping into the lake along the shoreline, look for dirty ice. Ice along the shore might turn brown or yellow. The feeder creeks can often be easy to identify on the shoreline and are marked on most Lake Maps. A few different things seem to happen that can make the fishing good.

On clear lakes, this incoming water is often dirtier, which might enable you to catch fish all day or at least for longer windows in the morning and evening. This water is also rich in oxygen. On small lakes where low oxygen levels combined with deep snow put stress on fish, this pattern can be killer. At times, this shallow blanket of shoreline water may be warmer as well but we have actually found the exact opposite at times with a temperature gauge. There are times where this water will actually be colder than the water in the basin but the fish were still up shallow along the shoreline regardless. Usually, from our experiences, the shorelines are often soft with either terrestrial vegetation growing along shore or perhaps cattails or reeds. We usually didn’t find this shallow game going on where the shorelines were rock. Last word of advice; don’t wreck the blades on your auger because many of the best holes are less than two feet out to about six feet, right tight to shore.

Late ice offers a great opportunity to crack giant panfish like this bull caught by Jason Mitchell Elite Series Rod angler, Tony Marrioti from Otter Tail Minnesota

Late ice offers a great opportunity to crack giant panfish like this bull caught by Jason Mitchell Elite Series Rod angler, Tony Marrioti from Otter Tail Minnesota

Bottle Necks and Channels
Some fish appreciate current more than others. Sauger and walleye for example seem to seek current, sauger especially so. Panfish might not pile into areas where the flow is obvious or strong but some movement of water seems to have a universal appeal in varying degrees. On small flowages and shallow lakes, bottleneck areas or boat channels often concentrate fish. For panfish, perhaps bottleneck area simply congest fish as they move through a system and during late ice, many of these fish are indeed on the move. Other situations, more so on big water, these narrows often have strong currents that increase in intensity as the days get longer and these strong current areas are areas that walleye gather every spring. Channels are always worth a look as well. Either where channels empty into the lake or in the case of reservoirs, where the reservoir turns to river, or channels connecting different lake basins.
Green Weeds and New Growth
Green weeds are just universally appealing to most of the fish we spend any time pursuing, from walleye and pike to perch, sunfish and crappie. Some weeds just stay green all winter long especially when there is little or no snow. What often happens late in the winter however is rejuvenation. Weeds that were browning up and breaking down will sometimes begin to come back to life.
New green shoots begin to emerge and with this new vegetation rebirth comes a second chance on many spots that were good at first ice but went dead in the middle of winter. Usually, the first weeds to green up are shallow where the water and ice is generally clear on flats close to shore that feature darker bottoms. Green weeds are just too good to pass up regardless of time of year. Late ice is no exception.

There are many different patterns that can unfold as winter progresses to spring. Every lake is different and lakes become different as well over time. Add other anglers to the mix and where we can expect to catch fish come late ice isn’t so black and white. Many of the patterns described above may take you shallow or deep, close to shore or away. Be flexible and systematically eliminate different patterns that you know can emerge, come late ice and you will enjoy finding fish a few more times before the boat comes out of the garage.
Editors Note: The author, Jason Mitchell has been an Ice Team Power Stick and legendary Perch Patrol guide on North Dakota’s Devils Lake for several years and has designed a line up of premier application specific ice rods, Jason Mitchell Elite Series Rods, that are being heralded by many of the industries top ice anglers. More information can be found at: www.jasonmitchellrods.com, www.iceteam.com or www.perchpatrol.com

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