The Thaw: Ice Out Habits of Iowa Game Fish

By Nick Johnson

The disappearance of ice come spring is a sad time for those of us who love to ice fish. We begrudgingly put away the sleds, augers, and shacks and give one final farewell to all the gear until next winter. But alas, open water season is here and there is a lot of work to do! New line to put on, grease for the reels, waking the boat up out of hibernation and planning. Lots of planning.

During this transition time, one may ponder what the various species of fish are up to as the ice retreats from the lakes, ponds and rivers. Pike have either spawned or are in the process of spawning, walleyes, perch and saugers are fast approaching their spawn and other species like bass, bluegill, crappie and catfish are starting to transition. For pike, perch, walleye and sauger, the month or two after ice out can be some of the best fishing all year for big fish. On the other hand, panfish and bass fishing can be a little tougher to dial in and takes a bit of recon to find schools of these transition fish. Crappie fishing this time of year especially can be tremendous when a school of feeding fish is found.

Pike are generally the first game fish to spawn and in some cases will do so before the ice has left. Most pike will spawn just after the ice has left the shallow weedy bays that are the first to warm. The edges of bays where dark soft bottom, emergent vegetation such as bulrushes and pencil reeds are target destinations for this activity and it can occur in very shallow water. After spawning, pike will remain in these bays for some time as they recover and start to feed again on other prey fish species coming in to feed on newly emergent aquatic insects, minnows, or to perform their own spawning. A key prey item for pike this time of year is perch, bluegill, and larger species of minnows.

In rivers or streams, this spawning generally occurs in areas of slow moving or slack water with aquatic weed growth. The Mississippi river has an abundance of backwater areas such as this which is why pike thrive in this system. Many fishermen who catch pike in rivers do so a bit later when the walleyes are going or the river is coming up. These fish either didn’t spawn or already spawned and are feeding aggressively. Key places to locate early Spring pike in rivers would be along slack current at the bank, creek mouths, wing dams and below dams or spillways.

Spring perch fishing can be legendary if the timing is right and the fish can be found. They will begin to move into shallow weedy bays when the ice comes off and start their spawn in water temps ranging from 45-52 degrees. Often times when the schools of perch move in they can be found in surprisingly shallow depths of 2-3 feet. Generally you won’t find these fish deeper than 10 feet. Many of the lakes in Iowa that hold good numbers of perch such as Spirit and West Okoboji have these shallow weedy bays that are so attractive to pre-spawn and spawning fish. They seek out the bays that are warming the fastest but this doesn’t always mean mud bottoms. A harder bottom is preferred for spawning.
When targeting these fish they will often be shallow enough that getting the boat over them is impossible without spooking fish. A slip float with a minnow can be effective but often times casting a light jig is a better way to search for fish and to avoid spooking them. You can also troll tiny crankbaits and jigs using a planer board.

Walleye and Sauger
I won’t spend a lot of time on this as this could be sixteen different articles on its own with the amount of information and different scenarios out there. As a general rule of thumb, walleyes begin to venture shallower after ice out to forage on prey fish that are also moving in the same patterns. In rivers you will find walleye and sauger starting to concentrate in deeper current seam areas or along breaks in contour out of the faster current. Sometimes this may even be below the current in a washout or sand and rock depression. These staging fish may start their short move from winter haunts as much as a month in advance.

Once the water tips into the low 40’s the fish begin to move more aggressively. The magic temp for this spawning is much like their cousin the perch, around 45-52 degrees F. This is when anglers in rivers really start to see the big push of fish and catches at the local dams and spillways gets hot. In lakes where natural reproductions occurs, the walleye seek out shallower gravel areas and places where a stream or creek enters the lake can be dynamite.

Before the spawn walleyes will feed readily but when actually spawning commences, these fish are not feeding. It may be days or a week plus after a female walleye has spawned before she will feed again. This spawning most often occurs at night. Luckily for fishermen, not all of the walleyes spawn at the exact same time and total duration of this may last 2-3 weeks or more. This enables a steady influx of fish that are staging, spawning, or recovering during this peak time. A sudden cold snap will stall this progression and in rare cases, prevent some fish from spawning altogether. Do some research in your local area and talk to bait shops and other anglers as to general tactics if you are new to this.

Bass can be a little trickier to nail down than other cooler water species this time of year. Weather plays a big role in their mood and the spawn for bass is still a ways out, especially for largemouth. In lakes and ponds, look for shallow coves and bays with a darker bottom that will be the first to warm. Even a one degree difference in temp can make a big difference. With largemouth the first few weeks after the ice starts to come off, you can often find these fish right up along the banks in very shallow water. These fish are spooky so make careful casts and fish SLOW. In this case, a weightless soft plastic like a Senko or natural colored grub on a bare hook can be a really good tactic.

If a cold front presents itself these fish may vacate the shallows and move out to the first major depth break. The best bays to try first are those with this depth break closer to shore. Here, use light jigs and soft plastics to tempt these somewhat inactive fish.

Smallmouth can be even more of a challenge, especially in lakes. In winter these fish will form large schools in one specific area and unless you know where this is you may have a tough time catching one. They will remain in these areas for a period of time after the ice comes off and they can be as deep as 20-30 feet. If you do find a school, fish small 3” jigs and plastics in natural colors. You can literally catch dozens of fish when a school like this is found. It isn’t until the water warms up into the mid-upper 40’s that smallmouth will begin to roam out and stage up on shallower structure once again.

Bluegill and Crappie
Before the water really starts to warm up into the upper 40’s, panfish species, most notably crappie are still attuned to their late winter haunts. For bluegills this may be the first major weed edge of a bay or inside bend. For crappies this is often more of a basin location where a school of fish will roam the perimeter of a deep spot in a bay or around a piece of structure like a crib or brush pile in the same location. Think small and fish light tackle such as 1/16th ounce jigs, small minnows and even small leeches. It pays to have good electronics or a good lake map with depth contours and fish slowly until you locate a pattern. The crappies may even be suspended well off the bottom.

As the water warms into the 50’s these fish will begin to transition to shallow areas with the warmest, stable water available and cover such as bulrushes, brush piles and newly emergent weed growth. This is their transition period before they seek out spawning areas when water temps climb into the 60’s. A light float and finesse offering is a good option this time of year for targeting both bluegill and crappie. These fish are less aggressive and generally not willing to chase down a meal.

Call me crazy but catfishing after the ice comes off can be especially good given the right circumstances. Find a lake that has a good population of channel cats and gizzard shad and you already fulfilled half of the equation. Now wait for the ice to come off, find where wind and waves have been pushing winter-killed shad up to the shore, hook a few on or use night crawlers and get ready to catch some fish. Channel cats will gorge themselves on these freshly thawed, stinky, dead shad and locations where this happens will concentrate a large number of feeding fish. There are tons of lakes across the state that offer this!

Aside from the dead shad craze, look for catfish leaving their deeper winter haunts and venturing into bays or places with current where the water is slightly warmer. Bottlenecks or places where the fish are forced to swim though a narrower area in their move from point A to point B are also a good place to soak a gob of crawlers or a piece of cutbait.

In rivers the fishing can be a little slower until the water warms into the low 50’s. The catfish just aren’t super active at temps below that but you can still find schools of cats in deeper, slower current areas. When the water does warm, river levels will be your best friend to turn on the bite. This generally happens when the first heavy rain brings the river level up a few feet, even as much as a few feet below flood stage. I learned this from my friend Brad Durick, an expert catfish guide. The water temp above 50 has less to do with success, whereas higher water levels are pivotal. I have seen this in action many times and some of my best catfishing for big channels has been in the Spring fishing right against the bank out of the main river channel. Look for bank features or river structure that diverts the current and creates a seam or eddy.

Us ice anglers may be whining a little, okay a lot in my case, but open water brings on the warmth and fishing diversity that we all crave. Do a little homework and try some extra early fishing for one of these species. Iowa is blessed to have some pretty darn good fishing and a diverse range of habitats to explore. Good luck on the water this spring and as always, be safe!