190210_PECK

Ice anglers should start pulling more fish out once March rolls around.

Bucketeers across southern Wisconsin have about six weeks of productive ice fishing in an average winter—usually two weeks at first ice and four more as nature struggles to transition into spring.

Today we’re just a month and change away from Spring’s arrival.

Grandpa’s observation “there is a world of difference between the first day of Spring and the first spring day” has certainly proven true more often than not during the past 50 years or so.

But after a topsy-turvy 2018, anything is possible.

Just more than a week ago, Janesville got clobbered with a polar vortex following a substantial snow.

Warm weather followed, melting snow that ended up in the water column. We’ve certainly seen more winter misery since then.

That snowmelt entering the water column and nearly a half-hour’s more daylight since that vortex blew through told fish seasonal change is at hand and it’s time to start eating with more than casual interest.

We’re still a couple weeks away from the all-day action that early March brings. Seasonal change means passage of many weather systems before sweatshirt weather.

Until then, the most productive times to be on the ice are dawn, dusk and just ahead of the next approaching cold front.

Snowmelt entering the system can bring considerable changes to the under-ice environment. These changes in water clarity, oxygen levels, water temperature and several other factors can goad fish into changing both location and behavior.

Several days ago, I snuck out on a football-field-sized spot that holds crappies all winter long. It was mid-afternoon, with the weather forecast calling for the arrival of nasty weather overnight, followed by frigid temperatures.

It didn’t take long to punch five holes in a star pattern about 50 feet apart. The water here is 6- to 10-feet deep over a dark-bottom flat with a smattering of green weeds adjacent to a breakline into considerably deeper water.

This flat is like a mini-river delta, with silt falling out of the water column about 75 yards from where a small tributary dumps into the lake.

Visibility was only about 6 inches when looking down into the hole.

That’s not good.

But fish can’t hide from the electronic probing of a Vexilar FL-22. They were down there, hovering about two feet off of the bottom.

Snowmelt usually doesn’t enter a lake in a big chocolate gush. If it does, the influx of water is so substantial the tap dancing on the ice above is not a good idea, anyway.

Snowmelt enters the water column in wisps and tendrils, like cream drizzled into hot coffee. Visibility can vary greatly through fish eyes at different levels and locations in the water column.

Electronics indicated the possibility of a clear water vein beneath the holes, with those fish marks about two feet off the bottom.

Crappies’ eye placement near the top of their heads makes feeding from below the most efficient way to eat. Jiggling a little jigging spoon about a foot above the marks on the Vexilar was hard for them to resist.

Frogging around from hole to hole produced a couple of respectable fish out of every hole but one. Then the bite slowed considerably. The marks disappeared.

Was a big pike cruising in the area?

Looking down the hole, I could see the Vexilar’s transducer suspended below the foam float which holds the transducer at the desired depth. Water clarity had improved to almost two feet under the ice in just a couple of hours!

Surface clutter under the ice can hide the red marks that indicate fish. There was nothing to lose.

The vertical presentation of the jigging spoon didn’t produce. I switched over to a purple lure with a purple plastic tail, which is designed to fish in a horizontal orientation.

The lure was dropped about four inches below the foot of ice to check the action of this bait before dropping it down in the water column. About two seconds after the first wiggle of that purple plastic, a slab crappie came shooting sideways just under the ice, garwoofling the little jig before continuing on its way!

Catching 10-inch crappies with less than four feet of line to the tip of your jig stick is an absolute hoot!

Did these fish suddenly move shallow because the water had cleared? Or was this their usual feeding pattern around sunset?

I don’t know. Pass the tartar sauce, please.

Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at tedpeck@acegroup.cc

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