By Will Elliott
NEWS OUTDOORS WRITER
Angler lore has it that the bite improves at the end of the season, just before ice begins to break up or melt in a thermal inversion.
Safety concerns are an issue, but this past winter’s long, hard freeze has left many inland lakes with ice depths of more than a foot the week after St. Paddy’s Day.
Even green anglers are enjoying some luck on late-season outings, catching perch on Lake Erie and many an inland lake that offers respectably sized ringbacks and other panfish species.
Now that walleye and pike are no longer keeper targets, the focus is more on panfish, but finding and hooking into sizeable fish can be a quest.
Dave Genz, the ultimate guru on ice fishing anywhere in North America, suggests moving around until you know you are over fish and then figure out what they might bite.
Gary “Mr. Walleye” Roach is famous for saying, “Don’t leave fish to find fish.”
For ice anglers, the late-season challenge lies somewhere between the Genz and the Roach approach. Dave Watts at Dave’s Bait & Tackle in Derby said last week, “Lots of guys just go out there on Lake Erie, drill one hole and sit there all day because it’s so hard to drill through 30 inches of ice.”
Ice pokers with power augers often drill enough holes in a circle or in a line to keep them hopping for hours. With more than a foot of ice depth on inland lakes shallow enough to freeze over each winter, serious late-season ice anglers know the drill.
Savvy ice anglers also take along a good sonar unit, if not an underwater camera, to see what swims below the hole. Early to midseason jaunts have many panfish species moving in the shallows; anglers can get over less than 10-foot depths and just lift and drop to see where they swim and hit.
As ice begins to melt and more sunlight penetrates waters, suspended fish can be harder to find without a sonar search.
But the terminal tackle remains basically the same as early ice: minnows and streamer-like flies and spoons for perch and crappie; grubs, bugs and mini-jigs for bluegills, sunfish and other panfish of all sizes.
Late season has both ’gills and crappie up and down the water column, mostly up. For weeks, ice anglers at the north end of Conesus Lake were feeding spikes, mousy grubs and wax worms to ’gills slightly larger than a silver dollar.
Ted Decker at Ted’s Tackle in Lakeville headed out on Conesus’ north-end ice last Sunday and finally cracked the code for bigger ’gills. “Some guys were getting crappie, but I only found nice bluegills that day,” Decker said after working out to depths over 8 feet and working lures from top to bottom.
“Some of my biggest ’gills were only a foot under the ice,” he said of his afternoon run in bitter cold temperatures.
Warming air, thinner ice and increased sunlight each day should have both crappie and ’gills higher in the water column and possibly close to shore before accessible ice disappears for the season.
Late ice can be great ice for these incoming panfish, but ice surfaces can be tricky no matter what the color or composition. Black/green ice can be weak or solid; honeycomb ice may be just surface breakup or spongy down to the water. Shore ice melts fasts when the sun hits by midmorning.
Plan to head out with at least one partner, take along ice spikes (grippers) for getting back on the ice should you break through, walk with a spud (poke pole) even with a hand or power auger at your disposal, a cellphone is a good idea, and let folks on shore know where and when you are fishing each day out.
Fillet knives may get extra use after a late-ice outing, but it is also nice to be around to chase with the boat those fish missed at the end of the ice season. Be cautious out there.