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Finding fish, battling snow, braving cold made this winter a bag of mixed blessings for anglers

The gathering of fish houses around the fishing pier on Foot Lake indicates that the fish are probably biting in that area. A number of important dates are coming up for anglers to remember. Sunday is the end of the winter fishing season for walleye, northern pike and bass, and March 2 is the date that permanent ice houses need to be removed from lakes. Tribune photo by Ron Adams1 / 2
Michael Wagner, 7, of Cold Spring prepares to fish with his grandparents Doug and Joan Mohs of Belgrade Feb. 7 during the annual Family Fishing Derby held on Green Lake sponsored by the Spicer Sunrise Lions Club. Tribune photo by Ron Adams2 / 2

WILLMAR -- The fish were biting, the fish were not biting, the fish were there, the fish were not there.

Those are the reports heard most often when determining how the winter fishing has gone.

The game fish season -- walleye, northern pike and bass -- ends Sunday and not to far after ice houses have to be removed from lakes during overnight hours (March 2).

Compared to recent winters, 2008-09 brought more wind and cold. It also brought thicker ice in many places, but also more early snow. It played havoc with ice anglers who were becoming used to milder temperatures and more time on the ice.

"A lot of people didn't want to go out and sit in the cold weather," said Tim Damm of Atwater Bait & Tackle.

Wind chills tipping under minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit were more the norm than the exception in December and January. What was even worse was went the bone-chilling winds were howling.

"As an overall, the ice fishing wasn't bad. It was just that we had lousy weekends. It was snowing and blowing or 30 below," said Brad Foshaug of Brad's 71 Bait and Sports north of Willmar.

Walleyes were biting early, as usual, but panfish were the talk of lakes around Sibley State Park west of New London.

"This winter has been a lot better. The crappies had been too small the last couple of winters, said Sue Bentz of Last Chance Bait and Grocery at Norway Lake. "The last few years, we haven't seen anything with any size to it. This year, they're catching 12- to 13-inchers. It must have been time for them to be big this year."

Around Diamond Lake north of Atwater, Damm said mobility was the key to finding fish.

"People had success when they traveled around to different lakes," he said. "All the lakes around here produce fish. It just wasn't as good as has been in the past. That's what people have told me."

But we can't blame just the weather for a relatively slower ice fishing season. The nation's recession has made its presence felt on the frozen water.

"There's not as many going out as a normal when the fish are biting," Bentz said. "There would usually be tons and tons of people out there. So the economy is affecting everybody. And I don't think people are driving as far."

In other areas, the economic downturn might have affected initial spending, but didn't keep those love ice fishing from going out.

"People are going to hunt; people are going to fish," said Russ Lesniak of Yellow Stripe Sports in Olivia. "Instead of buying it all at once, they spread their shopping out. From a retail standpoint, it helped me out."

Fishing is not over. With panfish seasons running continuously, there's always some action out there. Then we can look forward to the spring fishing opener May 9.

There's also some good news for next year. The game fish season will last an extra six days, ending Feb. 28, 2010.