The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 24, 2014

Searching for spring -- and open water

The Mankato Free Press

---- — We all can agree: It’s been a long, long winter.

If you’re an ice angler, then maybe you’re quite happy that that your knuckles are scraping by the time your auger breaks through the thick mantel of ice.

But the rest of us?

Winter weary, we pine for the sound of waves lapping against the boat, the pleasant aroma of a burbling outboard, sunlight glinting off of a lake kissed with warm breezes.

So what the heck.

Kick aside that portable ice shelter taking up space in the garage, clear off a winter’s worth of stuff that somehow has accumulated on that boat on your side of the garage, hitch up and head south.

Someplace down there, there has to be some open water.

First stop is Clear Lake, Iowa, about 110 miles southeast of Mankato as the crow flies.

The good news, says Mike Platts at the Crazy Minnow located on Highway 18, is that the crappie fishing has been pretty good, particularly in the small lake on the west end of the big lake.

Ditto for the feisty-but-tasty yellow bass.

The bad news?

You’ll still need your ice-fishing gear.

“We’ve still got 27 inches of ice out there,” he said. “It’s mostly foot traffic though because the lake entrances are pretty rough to get through.”

What’s more, even if it was easy to get a vehicle on the lake, he wouldn’t recommend it, explaining that aeration systems in operation on the lake and wind make vehicle traffic risky business at such a late date.

His best estimate for ice-out? “Depending on the weather we have, probably mid- to late-April.”

So southward we continue, a straight shot down I-35 and then to Johnston Bait and Tackle near the Saylorville Reservoir, where Michael Olson has been selling plenty of bait to anglers coming through the door in recent days.

But forget about launching the boat. “There’s still 15 inches of ice on the lake,” he said.

Further, with shoreline conditions quickly deteriorating, venturing out on the lake proper could be a dicey proposition. “I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

Instead, his business is mainly with the anglers who are savoring some pretty good walleye fishing on the ice-free Des Moines River that flows through Saylorville Reservoir.

So if you still insist on launching that boat to wet a line, even further south we must travel.

About 240 miles later, in Stoutsville in northeast Missouri, Wanda Turner was busy last week sprucing up ChiggerHill Bait and Tackle near Mark Twain Lake after locking it up last fall.

“We weren’t planning on opening until the next weekend, but the local fishing club called to tell me they were holding their crappie tournament this weekend,” she said. “The ice went out on the lake last week.”

“We had as much as 10 inches of ice on the big ponds around here so there was probably at least as much on the big lake,” she said, adding that having that much ice in northeast Missouri is rare indeed.

“It’s been a tough winter and having all of those 4- and 5-degree days we had is pretty unusual,” she added.

And when it comes to ice-fishing, an infrequent occurrence in her neck of the woods, discretion always is the better part of valor.

“A few people might venture out on some of the small coves to ice-fish but it’s not recommended,” Turner said, explaining that fluctuating water levels resulting from the operation of a power plant on Mark Twain Lake makes venturing on to the ice extremely hazardous, even in the coldest of winters.

And the fishing?

Too early to tell, she said. Last year, the crappie fishing, for which the lake is known, wasn’t all that good for a variety of reasons.

“But the experts who really know the lake are predicting a great year. We hope so.”

Now, 500 miles is a long way to drive to float your boat, all to wet a line.

Understandably, with gas closing in at the better part of four bucks, you might like to find some winter relief a bit closer to home.

Look no further than Red Wing, a mere 90 miles eastward, where downstream from the dam, Pool 4 of the Mississippi River is ice-free and the walleye season never closes.

“The fishing has been decent,” said angler Luke Bollum, who has made several trips to the river during the past several weeks.

The avid angler who also works in the fishing department at Scheel’s in Mankato said that he and some fishing buddies have managed to boat a good number of walleyes by jigging vertically with minnows.

“But the area has been getting a lot of pressure right now,” he said. “Get a 40 degree day and you might have 150 boats out there.”

But hey, having a little company out there is not really a problem, is it?

To finally be able to float a boat, wet a line? Call it a party, a celebration of spring.

And as with any party, the more, the merrier.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at (507) 344-6376 or by e-mail at