"This time of year, if you aren't working, it sure beats sitting in front of the TV," Rick Gerard grinned as he jigged his bait on the white expanse on Lawrence Lake off of the Mississippi River outside of Brownsville.
Ten feet away, Rick's brother Robin agreed. He watched a hole in the ice intently, where a tiny spring on the end of his rod would betray the slightest nibble.
"I grew up in the Spring Grove area and graduated from Spring Grove High," Robin said. "I moved out to California when I was 17... just moved back to Stillwater a few months ago."
Yearning to be closer to family and possibly missing winters with snow could have had something to do with Robin's decision to return to Minnesota, and then there's the ice fishing.
"It gives you a chance to forget about work and all the stuff I'm supposed to be doing around the house," he added from his bucket. "You just let it go."
Nearby, several perch dotted the ice. The Gerard brothers were having some luck.
Brownsville is a popular area with ice anglers. North of town, "the lake" (Lawrence) and "the bay" (where the backwater empties into the channel, near Lawrence Lake Marina) can draw hundreds of hard water fans on a busy weekend.
"Everybody's really moving on to the ice, and I know the perch have been biting. They're biting in the lake, and they're biting in the bay," Bartley Gorman reported last week.
Gorman guides fishermen year-round on Pool 8, all the way from Dresbach to Genoa. "It kind of comes in slow when the ice starts, and right now, everybody's been catching quite a few fish. The bite right now is pretty hot.
"We see bluegills, crappies and perch, and tip-up fishermen are going after northerns and bass. Also, we do have a few walleye spots. People keep those pretty closely guarded.
"The ice has been getting thick enough that people are driving on it in a lot of places, but you should still be real careful. There's definitely some soft spots out there."
Minnesota DNR advises four inches of "new, clear ice" to support foot traffic. A snowmobile or ATV requires five inches. Eight to 12 inches are needed to hold up a car or small pickup. For a medium truck, 12-15 inches of ice are needed for safety.
Currents in the big river and backwaters can create treacherous ice conditions even in the middle of winter, so anglers should always be careful, Gorman noted.
"I see people from all over. There are some who come from as far away as Spring Valley pretty religiously every year. When people know that the bite is hot, and the word gets around."
Wax worms and minnows are popular baits for panfish, which often suspend near the bottom but can cruise anywhere in the water column. Tip-up anglers sometimes opt for larger minnows.
Winter fish are heavily influenced by oxygen levels, Gorman said. In late winter, fish often migrate out of relatively stagnant backwaters.
Fishers who can find those alleys of movement can cash in, but need to always be careful when they approach spots where the ice is thinned from below by moving water.
"There's spots where they just funnel down. They just try to relate to the oxygen and the current. Northerns and bass are going to go wherever their food goes. A lot of the fish move in schools. If you get on some northerns, you might get on a lot of them. The lake might be completely dead later in February."
"We catch quite a few big northerns every year," Gorman said. "Last winter, my son and I caught a 40-incher out of the bay. We had a 41-incher a couple years before that. We had quite a few fish in the 36- to 39-inch range last year."
The big river holds its mysteries, Bartley added. "It never ceases to amaze me. I've seen things caught out of there in recent years that I didn't even realize were around."
"I had a fish jump out of the hole into my shanty one time before he wiggled back down," he laughed. "I don't know if it was one of those Asian carp or not. Another time, we were fishing near the airport, and a muskrat popped his head out of the hole."
"Now, I take my 5 year old ice fishing, so the most fun for me is when I get watch him learning what I've taught him, catching fish. He was along when we caught that 40-incher, and he was really dancing around out there. It was bigger than he was.
"Another thing that's fun is hanging out with your buddies, getting on the fish. Coming home and cooking up a batch of fresh fish that you just went out and caught."
Gorman not only supplies shelters, gear and advice for ice fishers, he also takes folks out in his boat through the warmer months for a variety of species. He can be reached at (608) 406-0096 or (507) 482-6711.