The weather over the past couple of weeks across Northwest Ontario could be considered beautiful on most accounts. Warmer than normal temperatures, no snow, plenty of sun and not too many windy days. It has certainly brought about the feeling that winter is coming to an end, a feeling that most of us are probably happy about.
Many of the fish in our lakes are happy that winter is coming to an end as well. Fishing over the last few weeks of the ice season offers the best opportunities of the entire winter for most species, but particularly for pike and walleye. Both of these species spawn in the spring, shortly after ice out and over the last month or so of safe ice, they make predictable migrations towards their spawning areas and they are usually in the mood to eat.
When it comes to choosing where to fish or knowing where these spawning areas are, they can be relatively easy to figure out. If you look at a map of any body of water you can look at the larger, shallow bays on any body of water and those are probably where you want to begin your search. If there is a creek or river flowing in, then it’s a guaranteed hot spot. These fish want to find shallow water that is going to warm quickly following ice out so those are the places you want to focus your attention.
This last month of the ice season is one of the few times that you can target pike and walleyes in the same locations as they are both looking for the same things. Not only will they be together, you are also talking about some of the biggest specimens of each species grouped together. Most of the biggest pike I have ever had in my hands have been during the late ice time period and a bunch of trophy sized walleyes as well.
If you’re willing to drill a few holes you can probably get really dialled in pretty quick. Over the years I have spent many days in March on the ice chasing these fish and I have a couple of general rules that I follow when it comes to fishing locations and techniques.
I like to set up and fish over the first deeper water coming out of the shallow bays. This is all relative to the body of water, but typically I’m thinking 12 – 15 feet of water on most waterways, especially on some of the bigger bodies of water like Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake. On some of the shallower inland lakes, you could be fishing in four to eight feet of water. That’s all experimentation to figure out where the bites are coming from.
If there is a rock pile, a point or some other kind of structural element, usually drilling holes around these structures is the best plan of attack. I like to drill a bunch of holes in a variety of depths and let the fish tell me where they are. Sometimes the deeper holes are better during the day then the shallower holes get better during that prime time period just before dark. Again, all about experimenting. Large flats can be good as well and you connect with fish as they move past you.
Finally, the presentation part is easy. Anglers are allowed to use two lines on the ice so I like to set up one for pike and another for walleye. For pike, I’m going with a tip-up and a quick-strike rig like a Northland Predator Rig tied to some heavy line, with a large, dead cisco or sucker minnow attached. I like to set the bait about a foot off the bottom and let it sit. Big pike will find it, I promise. It’s such an easy way to fish and it’s amazing to me that more anglers aren’t doing it. It is by far the best way to catch a large pike.
For walleyes, it’s all about preference. I’m a spoon guy, have been for a long time. I use a ¼ Buck-Shot Spoon, tipped with a minnow head all the time. It’s got the ability to call fish in and get their attention. The other option is the proven jig and minnow. On the bigger lakes, I think that jigging will get more bites than set lines, but on many of the smaller back lakes, a set line with a simple jig and minnow will get the most bites.
It’s a great time to be on the ice. Find those shallow bays, keep it simple and get out there while the ice is still safe. Remember, conditions can deteriorate quickly this time of year so always use caution and if things look sketchy then it’s probably time to pack it in. Have fun out there over this last stretch of the winter.