By Ben Leal
As March approaches there are quite a few anglers that start looking at their boats, rods and reels, thinking about the open water season. February is the time of year when in Iowa, most of the outdoor sports and recreation shows are taking place giving reason for thoughts of open water. Reality soon sets in as they peer out the window and see a blanket of snow covering much of the ground and fishing boats remain locked in their winter’s coat.
As many ice fishing aficionados know, weather in Iowa can be unpredictable at best. Recent years have seen ice fishing seasons come to a close early due to poor ice conditions by the time March rolled in. The month of March is characterized by rapidly rising daily high temperatures, with daily highs increasing from 41 deg to 56 deg over the course of the month. Southern reaches of the state will likely have open water by the end of March, but ice fishing equipment and tactics can still be employed. Central Iowa, depending on the year, may have fishable ice while Northern Iowa will remain locked up throughout the month.
As any ice angler knows, safety on the ice is paramount. Early ice anglers are always asking about safe ice, where and how thick. Truth is there is no “safe ice”. The winter of 2015/16 started with some very unseasonably warm weather and much of Iowa was ice free through December. As ice formed on area ponds and lakes, anglers vying for a chance at icing fish were challenged with pockets of ice up to 4 inches thick and a few steps later 2 inches or less. March can be similar as temperatures warm and lakes start to see run off flowing into them, and ice thickness can vary from one area to another. Check ice using a spud bar as you move out across the ice and never go alone. Take a length of sturdy rope that can be used to help pull you or your fishing partner to safety. Hopefully you will never need to use the rope but it can save your life if it is needed. Let someone know where you are fishing and when you are expected to return. It’s always better to error on the side of caution than not. It’s been said many times on social media where an angler or several have gone through the ice in an attempt to get to their “honey hole”… No fish is worth losing your life for…stay safe.
Where To Look
For ice fishing, the short answer to that question is…look for the ice shacks! Anglers that fish a lake frequently have already patterned the fish, or historically will know where to look. So that’s a quick way to get into some great pan fishing in March. There are a number of factors that can affect the March crappie bite, but typically some of the things to consider are, water clarity, structure, remaining weed beds, and the topographical lay of the land beneath the ice. But what if you’ve never been out on a specific body of water? One of the best friends an angler can have, whether you are fishing open water or ice, is a lake map that shows the contours, creek channels and submerged structure. A great resource for lake information is the Iowa Department of Natural Resources website, http://www.iowadnr.gov/Fishing.aspx..
You can find printable lake maps, as well as printable fishing structure maps. And for those anglers that are using some of the newest in technology to help locate fish, GPS coordinates are listed providing exact location of rock piles and submerged brush piles. Creek channels and main channels that run through the lake, even road beds, all have fish holding features.
My recommendations are to look for creek channels that come off the main lake that have about a two to three foot drop off from 10-13 feet of water. Follow those creek channels into areas that are marked with structure, or if you’re not sure, start punching holes in the ice and do a bit of sleuthing with your electronics. If you can find both the weed beds or brush piles right off the creek channels, you’ll find the fish.
Another key component to this time of year is look for turbid water. And by turbid I mean areas in the lake where early runoff is flowing in. These areas will attract small bait fish due to the increased oxygen levels as well as the food that comes in with the flow. Crappie, bluegill, walleye…any predatory fish in the lake are naturally going to be attracted to the fresh inflow and come into these areas following the food source. A great tactic in this instance is using live bait, or by mimicking the bait or insects with plastics.
Brushy Creek is a very popular crappie destination for ice anglers. “The upper arms of the lake are probably the best chances for decent ice fishing”, said Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Ben Wallace. Water temps in Brushy Creek in a typical March are still pretty cool. This lake takes longer to warm up due to its depth and high volume. Look for crappie in creek channels that have deeper water adjacent to them. They will stage just off drop offs as bait fish and other forage move shallow. Turbid water, areas where some melting has occurred and there is an influx of fresh water are also good areas to look. This not only brings in the crappie, but the bait fish they feed on. “You’ll never go wrong using a slip bobber and a minnow”, continued the biologist. “Brushy will stay pretty clear throughout March.”
Late ice season bluegill patterns are not that much different than crappie, though these fish will tend to relate to structure or off the edges of drop-offs. Drill a number of holes in these spots. Your electronic gear, flasher and underwater camera will help you find active fish. Fish each hole until you find some really good sized fish. The larger bluegills tend to be just off the bottom, up to two feet. Smaller fish are often higher in the water column.
As with Crappie, a great place to look for active bluegill are areas where there has been an influx of fresh water, turbidity not only brings in the bluegill but also smaller minnows and other forage that bluegill will feed on. The periods right at first ice and right before ice out are some of the best times to chase after keeper bluegill. As always, keep in mind that ice conditions will continue to change as the month wears on.
Walleye will begin to transition to shallower areas following the bait fish. An effective tactic for locating active walleye is to drill several holes in the ice, and by several we’re talking about 20 or so, along the edges of a point where you’ve located active bait fish. Walleye will move shallow to feed and then move back out to the edges of drop offs. Move from one hole to another until you find an active pod of feeding fish. Once they move off, move with them and find another hole where you’re marking fish. The key is being mobile.
We’ve talked a lot about ice fishing…then you wake up on a weekend late in March and your favorite ice fishing destination is now open water and you say…”But I still want to fish!” Good news! The fish are still there and the early spring transition is on. What does that mean? Fish are searching for warmer water. Days are getting longer and water temps are warming. Walleye will start the trend first. Walleye spawn when the water temperature ranges from 42 degrees to 54 degrees F. They will be shallow and accessible from shore. A jig with a minnow or a minnow under a bobber will yield results early.
Crappie will not be far off…they will move from their deeper wintering haunts to shallow areas when the water temps warm to 45-50 degrees. They will congregate around the entrances of creek channels until the water temperatures reach the 50-55 degree range. Look for shallow south facing bays where water will warm sooner than other areas of the lake. Pre-spawn crappie will stage in these areas, but keep in mind that a cold front will push these fish back to deeper haunts.
Bluegill will continue to thrive in weed beds and creek channels as they feed on the influx of food coming in to the lake with the melting snow. A small ice fishing jig suspended under a bobber with a spike or wax worm will garner results. Keep a keen eye on water temps though as the season progresses to summer patterns, bluegill are looking for warmer water up to 75 degrees for peak spawning times.
Open water or ice fishing, especially in March you can continue to use ice fishing jigs and baits. Once the ice has left lakes and ponds continue to target areas you’ve had success with using small jigs and spoons tipped with your favorite ice fishing baits. Light and ultra-light rods up to 6 or 7 feet will aid in getting your light baits out to the fish. Spool your reels with 4-6 pound monofilament, even 2 pound if you are so inclined. The lighter the line the harder it is for fish to see and your bait will get down to the fish quicker.
March is certainly a transitional time for Mother Nature as a whole. Warming temps will encourage ice to leave area ponds and lakes and the blanket of snow will give way to a warm embrace of green leaves and grass. And not in the too distant future as the sweat rolls off the brow we’ll be reminiscing of days on the ice…Tight Lines All!