DNR surveys of popular overwintering spots show numbers of crappie, yellow perch, and bluegill on the rise. “It’s going to be a good ice fishing season,” said Guttenberg DNR Fisheries Technician Kevin Hansen. “All the high water we’ve had for the last couple of years is really good for fish.”
During a flood, land and water reconnect and nutrients from the land are taken along as the water recedes, feeding a variety of water-dwelling species. More vegetation grows, which may seem troublesome to boaters but leads to higher concentrations of fish like yellow perch. Higher water also makes spawning conditions better, resulting in a healthy population of large mouth bass and blue gill this year.
“From the end of October until ice forms, we sample because that’s when fish really move in to overwintering spots,” said Hansen. The DNR spends millions of dollars on projects to protect such areas, quiet backwaters deep enough to give fish room to exist beneath two to three feet of ice. Rebuilding islands and recreating lost depth are two ways the DNR try to help fish survive the winter.
“Fish return to the same place to overwinter each year,” Hansen told The Press. When new overwintering spots are created by humans, it can take up to five years for fish to start using them – making it important to preserve existing habitat.
Winter fishing is expected to be good, even with the unusually warm temperatures recorded this fall. “Even if we don’t ice up, the fish are still back there,” said Hansen, referring to popular overwintering locations like Swift Slough and Bussy Lake. Walleye and sauger, species that are active in the winter, are often fished below the lock and dam during colder months.
If ice does form on the river this year, it’s important that fishermen check ice thickness as they move out and fish with a buddy in case of accidents. Ice picks, about 50 feet of rope and a throwable flotation seat cushion are good safety items to bring along. The Iowa DNR recommends a minimum of four inches of quality ice for fishing and at least five inches for snowmobile and ATV ice travel. Rocks, trees or docks that poke through the ice conduct heat, making the surrounding ice less stable.
“The best time to ice fish is first and last ice, when it’s slightly warmer and fish are slightly more active,” Hansen explained. The same goes for mid-afternoon in late winter, when higher light levels may lead to higher levels of oxygen in the water. “Small things like that can trigger when fish decide to feed,” said Hansen, noting that in the winter, fish may feed only every other day.
“Bluegill, crappie, and bass can’t expend energy to swim through current in the winter. They need quiet backwaters that are deep enough not to freeze all the way to the bottom,” Hansen explained. Such fish also need oxygen, and when their overwintering habitat gets low on O2, they travel closer to the current for more. An eddy in Bussy Lake makes it a good overwintering spot, as the flowing water oxygenates the system.
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