You know it's been a tough ice fishing season when you have to wince at the bait shop owner's response to your inquiry as to where the best bet is for getting some fish.
"Cash Wise,'' he said in reference to the supermarket, without so much as a smirk.
Next best bet? "Solomon Lake.''
It's a lot more fun, too.
East Solomon Lake north of Willmar has been a pleasant surprise for many this season. It's no secret, either.
Last weekend saw a steady parade of pickups rushing fish houses to the center of the lake like arrows to the bull's-eye. It's where the crappies are being caught when the daylight fades.
There's about 14-feet of water in the center of the lake, making it the deepest and best -- but not only -- location where crappies and sunfish can be found in this shallow prairie lake.
Interestingly, the other lake offering some promise for action is Foot Lake in Willmar.
Both are named after Willmar's first resident, Solomon R. Foot.
This is a year when fish houses were pulled early from many area lakes. Fishing has been slow, no question.
Still is, in most places. The lakes remain in the dark sleep of late winter. The continued cold has kept melt water from mixing with the ice-cold waters and perking things up. Also, a two-foot thick layer of snow prevents sunlight from penetrating the ice and jump-starting things.
Yet these facts don't deter the avid ice anglers, who love nothing more than a good crappie bite.
"Word gets around,'' said Jara Halan of Glencoe as he started to drill his fishing holes on Solomon Lake last Saturday. "First time,'' he said when asked if he's fished the lake before.
He has a cousin with some experience fishing on the lake, he explained, pointing to the small village of fish houses where his tipster could be found, address not listed.
"It's a beautiful day. Now if the fish would bite, it will be even better,'' said Halan.
A short drive away, Kerry Kolle of Felton was drilling his own holes to begin his search for sunfish closer to the shoreline. He has a relative who lives along the lake, and he comes every so often depending on the fishing reports. This was his first try for the year.
Nearby, Louie Pirrotta of Spicer and Shad Palmquist of New London were already at work, jigging in about 10-feet of water. Their eyes were fixed on their Vexilars. The electronics were lighting up, but the fish were not taking the bait.
The anglers remained optimistic. They've had some luck previously. "Wasn't too bad,'' said Pirrotta of their previous outings.
Palmquist said the fish had gotten "finicky'' ever since the cold returned, but he pointed out that hard work could still be rewarded.
"We're going to be doing a lot of jumping around today,' said Palmquist.
That's the theme to carry into the days ahead too. The walleye and northern pike season is officially over, but March can offer some fantastic pan fishing and warm, sunny days to enjoy it.