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ABOUT OUTDOORS: Best shot for ice fishing in January

Conditions are perfect for excellent ice fishing this January.

Minnesota has a love affair with fishing, including on ice. All of this is evident from the packed-house attendance at area ice fishing shows. No need to look too far — a recent check of Fishhook Lake finds more people and fishing shacks on the ice compared to other seasons. Let's hope the action continues. This is good news for a state that is experiencing a downturn in license sales.

Fishing has been decent, keeping anglers on ice and interest at a peak. Even lakes where, in the past, there has been little success during open water, have fired up into the New Year. The weeks after safe ice are some of best days all season.

Walleyes are typically cooperative during the early mornings and late evenings. Crappies show up, snapping anglers' offerings with regularity as the result of previous strong year hatches.

Success at spearing northern pike success tapers off into January. There are reports that numbers of bulky pike circulated early. The seasoned spear fisherman knows first ice is best — before traffic from four-wheelers and snowmobiles get on the ice.

In January, northern pike turn to feed on the suspended bait balls of ciscoes out over deep water. Try here: A 30- to 40-foot basin rimmed by a break of to 18 to 24 feet. This is an excellent place to look.

Access to hotspots is important to anglers for continued interest. Indeed, the 14- to 18-inch snowfalls during the post-Christmas holiday might dampen some anglers' spirits. Consider, though, that our lakes are clearer these days. Our area has no shortage of sparkling fresh waters. Walleyes get at it during low light conditions, so snow on the ice widens that time of activity through the mid-day. Add the days of the full moon, and anglers have the ingredients for a tremendous January.

Community fish spots that draw a lot of angling pressure early taper off. Applying the lone wolf approach, get away from the crowds. This is a step in the right direction for walleye and northern pike. Anglers' silent partner — a live minnow swimming a few feet off the bottom — on a tip-up produce results. The second rod to turn to for a more aggressive approach is a flashy lighted spoon, jigging rapalas and Swedish pimples tapped off with a minnow head for enticement. Jigging it a foot or so off bottom gets bites.

The Park Rapids area offers fishermen plenty of lakes flourishing with crappie. Conditions have been perfect for reproduction and growth.

Fishing gear can be as sophisticated or uncomplicated as the angler chooses — a bucket of fathead minnows or modern tungsten jigs and plastic imitations.

Crappie always test fishermen. Finding them is as tricky as it ever was. Crappies shuffle away from the early ice home of rimmed greens to deep water, foten suspended 25 to 40 feet over soft bottom expanses. Probing the vast area of deep water takes time to find where they are schooled up. Minnows enticed to the bugs in the soft bottom give feeding crappie a dual food source through January. Try ice flies with a live minnow pinned with a small split shot a foot or so above. Or try any of the new tungsten tipped with small plastics, slowly jigged.

It goes without saying: Ice is never safe. Caution is always advised. Recent post-Christmas snow insulates and slows the formation of a thicker ice crust. Avoid pressure ridges and spots with water on top. Some anglers foresee problems pulling the permanent fish houses and use portables.