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Scouting Wintertime Slabs
By Cory Schmidt

By now, most angling fact of previous insider status is taken for granted by the masses of wintertime panfishermen. Most astute anglers realize, for instance, the importance of mobility within a body of water, and then location given, educated use of some sort of sonar for pinpointing fish.

We've learned about scaling down presentation to the point of no return; 1 or 2-pound test, microjigs and ultrasensitive bite-indication systems. Today, all fine panfish anglers have this knowledge and put it to practice.

But the game has changed. The thing now has become to scout out fresh spots within a large body of water, or better yet, uncover new lakes off the beaten path.

With a snowmobile, ATV, snowshoes or even a dog-sled team we can reach lakes in winter which remain out of the question with a boat.

And icing panfish is simple! Small box of jigs, a tin of larva and a tiny rod or two all stashed in a backpack; then an auger or spud, a bucket for your butt and fish storage, and a sonar unit.

So time now for a bit of scouting. Break out a map of your area and take a look once-I mean a good detailed recreation or forest service map. The Minnesota landscape is literally peppered with water=untapped slabs!

A fun goal friends and I set every winter is to scout out at least five new off-the-path lakes. But the thing is to make educated guesses as to which lakes might be best, based on a host of available information.

Not to say we won't on a hunch jaunt back through the sticks into some obscure duck pond, we often do. Especially because, if deep enough, even these potholes can harbor some dinnerplate-sized panfish. Which is really the point of what we're getting at here-finding undisturbed slabs.

When I mentioned making "educated guesses" about good lakes based on available information I didn't mean insider info given to you in confidence. Those tips are great, cherish them. But even the finest wintertime anglers still need to scout at some point.

If you haven't yet visited the DNR's website and "Lakefinder" section, do so. These 'Lake Information Reports' detail fish population and size, lake characteristics and access. Based on many of these reports, astute anglers can go so far as to make relatively sound assumptions on a lake's potential for big panfish, as well as possible patterns for catching these fish.

As far as accessibility, seek out smaller lakes that lack boat ramps. Some of these lakes lack access points completely, so it sometimes becomes necessary to get permission from lakeshore owners.

Tell you a little more about the best fisheries we've found for big beautiful bluegills and crappies. Look for lakes lined with shoreline bulrushes, cattails and otherwise natural or undisturbed shoreline vegetation (in other words, uninterrupted by development).

The best lakes are often less than 300 acres in size. Key on fertile bodies of water-plenty of shallow mucky flats with or without weeds, yet deep enough, say 20-30 feet max depth, to avert winterkills. Underwater springs or inflowing creeks help, too (use caution in these areas).

Fertile lakes house lots of the food items needed to grow big panfish quickly. Shallow flats mean ample spawning territory for fish recruitment.

Remote location and limited shoreline development, these types of lakes can be hot. Remember, you can usually get to these inaccessible lakes in winter. Sometimes the only way to know about a lake for sure is to fish it.

Final point. Don't tell the wrong people about your newfound panfish lake! To close, I'll tell you a story that explains that last comment. Four of us, for the past five or so winters had been keying on a certain tiny lake that contained several mega schools of crappies averaging 1.5 pounds. Many fish pushed the 3 pound mark. On a good evening we literally could've taken home limits of crappies over 2 pounds. Non-stop action.

Plus, the bluegills-- fish only guessed at in reality-- swam here too, though fewer in numbers than the crappies. But when you got one, it was the type that spilled over your hands as you held it like you might an overflowing heap of rice.

For several winters we enjoyed this lake, returning the vast majority of its finy prizes to their watery homes. I might also add that although this lake lied right alongside a county road, no one ever bothered to fish it. And we always set our little ice shacks on the backside of a hill-out of the way of potentially prying eyes.

But then, and I pause to let the gravity of the event build, it happened. Someone in our small group of confidants spilled the beans; told the wrong person. And from then on, the onslaught of anglers on that tiny panfish lake simply overwhelmed the fish population.

That first week alone there must have been five-hundred big crappies and a fourth as many one pound bluegills permanently extracted. By last ice, the bite was no longer happening, as in, could no longer be happening. Simply no fish left.

A friend who's a resident on the lake talked this spring of a total absence of crappies and bluegills in spawning areas. Could they simply be spawning elsewhere, I wondered aloud? But of course, I immediately realized, on a lake that small, only a few spawning sites exist. Now, nearly a year later . . . and still not a crappie to be seen, period.

And yet, nature, always the magician, is fairly likely to grant this little lake a rebirth. At least, given half a chance (once it's again forgotten and ignored) it will one day soon offer a glimpse of what once had been. 'Till then, there's always another lake. Another little gem out there in the rough, thick with naive 2-pound crappies.

Webmasters Note:Cory is an outdoor writer in the northern Minnesota area. He has agreed to write some articles for us and a few fishing reports. He is on the water in excess of 100 days per year (estimated). We are happy to have him with Fishing Minnesota. What a gem of a writer he is.

Personally, I'm looking forward to getting out on the ice with Cory.

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