Fernando Duran had patiently fished most of the afternoon without any strikes when, just after sunset, a couple of nice crappies finally bit his tiny jig.

“They’ll make a meal,” said Duran, an avid ice angler.

They were typical crappies found in Fish Lake, Minnesota, the United States – maybe 25cm-28cm. Not trophies, but not bad for the second ice trip of the year.

“I had the day off so I thought, why not? Give it a try … Not bad,” Duran said before he packed up his gear to head off the lake as dark set in.

Not bad at all.

About 90m away from Duran, Matt Lepak was using needle-nose pliers to extract a hook from the mouth of a small northern pike that Beau Hughes was holding steady between his feet. The fish grabbed a minnow under a tip-up device 9m outside their shelter.

“I kind of tripped trying to get out of the shelter to get to this guy. I was a little excited,” Lepak said as he freed the hook for the toothy mouth.

The fish would be kept, Lepak proclaimed, to be pickled.

“We eat them,” he said of the sometimes spurned fish.

Icefishing

Matt Sipola of Virginia holds up a couple crappies he caught on Fish Lake near Duluth recently.

Slow-moving but fun

Lepak and Hughes, both of Duluth, were joined by Matt Sipola of Virginia and Brad Warren of Moorhead, jigging in a big Clam shelter and alternating checking the tip-ups outside. By sunset, they had caught a couple of northern and a few crappies since arriving at 11am.

“We’re too lazy to move,” Lepak said with a laugh. “But we’re having fun.”

Sipola had the hot hand of the afternoon, if you can call three crappies “hot”. His little green jig tipped with just the head of a tiny minnow was producing when other offerings were not.

“They’re jealous,” Sipola said of his jeering friends.

Not far from the group of four, Jerry Tanski was also fishing for crappies, but with little luck. That didn’t seem to bother Tanski, who was enjoying a day off outdoors.

“They’re being kind of finicky today,” Tanski said of the fish. “They come in to look but they don’t bite.”

Looking for fish

Just as Tanski left for the day, Tim Morse showed up, drilled a few holes and was testing his Garmin side-scanning fishfinder. The unit can “see” fish out to 24m to the side of the hole. Even in downward scanning mode, the cone is a whopping 6m wide in 6m of water, showing much more than you’d see with a normal flasher.

Icefishing

Lepak resetting a tip-up after landing a small northern pike on Fish Lake recently. He and his crew had two tip-ups set for pike while they were jigging in their shelter for crappies.

“What’s interesting with this is that you know what’s down there, or what’s not. … You see how few fish there really are around,” Morse said, as he rotated the transducer so see what was near his hole, all while jigging a tiny lure. “With the usual flasher, you don’t know if there’s one fish down there or 100 or none nearby. So this is kind of cool.”

Morse had fished about an hour, occasionally changing holes to see if the fish his finder was showing would bite. As twilight fell into night, they had not co-operated.

“You can see them down there,” he said. ‘”But it still doesn’t make them bite.”

Braving the cold

As the last light dimmed, the warmth of the day was giving way to a chill, so Morse flipped up his shelter to brace against the breeze.

“I’m going to stick it out a while,” he said, as a visitor walked towards shore 400m away.

Icefishing

Duran happily shows off a couple of crappies he caught. The bite was slow during the day for many anglers, but a few crappies bit around sunset.

On parts of Fish Lake just north of Duluth, there was a solid 20-25cm of clear ice on a mild evening recently. That probably hasn’t changed much with the more recent warm daily temperatures, but it’s enough for walking or small ATVs and snowmobiles – in some areas. It’s definitely not enough ice yet for most cars and trucks.

Anglers have been hitting Fish, Rice, Boulder and back bays of Island Lake hard over the past 10 days or so, with mixed success.

Back bays of the lower St Louis River are producing crappies and walleyes, including some big fish. But harbour waters are still sketchy, with conflicting reports on ice safety. While there appears to be clear, solid ice in some areas holding fast to shore, it’s also known to break up in warmer temperatures, with ship traffic and big-wind events that push lake water into the harbour.

Farther north, commercial operations have been shuttling customers out onto Red Lake and Lake of the Woods where the walleye bites have been reported as active, typical of early ice. Large ATVs were being used in some areas with larger vehicles operating on northern portions of Lake of the Woods. – Tribune News Service/Duluth News Tribune/John Myers