Wisconsin's Panfishing Hotspots

Our state, it's been said, has five months of good fishing and seven months of poor ice conditions. That's a fairly accurate desciption of our perch, bluegill and crappie fisheries at these locations. (January 2006)

Photo by Dan Donarski JR.

A friend of mine used to quip that most of Wisconsin has five months of good fishing and seven months of poor ice conditions. In the southern part of our state, you could change those numbers to four and eight, respectively. That statement, although meant in jest, is a fairly accurate assessment of the Badger State's fantastic ice-fishing opportunities.

Across the state, armies of ice-anglers venture out onto every conceivable body of water, from farm ponds to the two Great Lakes. Most of them are after panfish such as perch, bluegills and crappies. In winter, these species often congregate in great numbers, making them easy pickings for the angler with the right gear and know-how. The ice-fishing harvest on some waters equals or exceeds that during open water, even though the winter season is shorter.

Here's a look at a handful of Wisconsin's top winter panfishing waters, with enough tips to help you get in on the great action they provide.

LAKE WAUBESA & UPPER MUD LAKE

Located on the Yahara River just downstream from Lake Monona in Madison, Lake Waubesa and Upper Mud Lake offer a fantastic winter ice fishery for bluegills and crappies, with enough perch tossed in to make an outing interesting.

Waubesa is shallow and quite fertile, so its panfish are abundant and fast-growing. Look for bluegills and crappies over two humps on the west side known as "Hog Island." These humps come up to within 6 or 8 feet of the surface, and they hold panfish all winter long. The waters off Goodland Park, also on the west shore, are another good place for both species. The dropoff along the east shore off the Yahara River outlet at Babcock Park also holds bluegills and crappies. This is a good late-winter crappie spot, especially at night. Try tiny jigs tipped with plastic tails or wax worms for both species. Perch hang out in deep water off Rockford Heights, where you'll find them schooled just off the mud bottom. Tiny gold jigs tipped with spikes should take them.

Get on the lake on the east side either north or south of the Yahara River outlet, which usually stays open through the winter. Goodland Park is a good access on the west shore and the best if you're driving an ATV or snowmobile.

The deep hole in Upper Mud Lake usually holds bluegills in winter. To get there, simply walk under the railroad trestle at the north end of Waubesa and head for the petroleum storage tanks.

Contacts: D&S Bait, Tackle and Archery at (608) 241-4225 or online at

www.dsbait.com; Ron Barefield's Fishing Adventures Guide Service, at (608) 838-8756.

BEAVER DAM LAKE & FOX LAKE

These two Dodge County lakes hold tons of panfish. They are popular ice-fishing destinations, but there always seems to be room for more anglers, even on the busiest days. Crappies are the main attraction on both lakes, although both also give up some nice bluegills and perch.

Beaver Dam was drawn down and treated for carp a decade ago, and both panfish and game-fish populations have responded well. The lake is shallow, with little structural diversity, so panfish tend to roam here. Look for subtle changes in depth, sometimes only a foot or so, which hold fish much the way sharp dropoffs do on deeper lakes. Don't spend a lot of time in one place. Instead, move around until you locate fish.

In the winter, crappies bite best early and late, from sundown until about 9 a.m. Look for them wherever you find rock or hard bottom. In late winter, crappies tend to congregate in the deeper water near the city of Beaver Dam. The best action often comes just as a front is moving through, but be wary of storms that can dump a foot or more of snow in short order. Try jigging with small silver spoons to locate fish, then switch to small shiners on a slip-bobber rig. Don't be surprised if you catch walleyes on these baits, too.

Bluegill and perch action is best during daylight hours. The flats around the islands at the south end produce good catches. Small jigs tipped with plastics, spikes or waxies should take fish.

Get on the lake at public landings in the city of Beaver Dam, at several landings on both east and west shores, and at the south end off Highway G. Avoid open water and thin ice near the three aerators along the east shore. Their locations are posted and marked on most maps.

Last winter, Fox Lake was the best game in town for crappies. I fished there with guide Eric Haataja and Wayne Johnson, inventor of the Fillet King fillet board, and we caught a mess of nice crappies in a couple hours. There was a veritable village of anglers near the islands in the middle of the lake, but Haataja prefers to freelance with a portable locator. Schools of crappies move around a lot here, so either fish near other anglers who are catching fish or use a locator to find your own.

Some anglers prefer live minnows or wax worms, but rocker-type jigs tipped with little plastic tails like Custom Jigs & Spins Finesse Plastics work just as well. The bite is hot for the first few hours of daylight, then tapers off until late in the afternoon.

There is good winter access off the Indian Point landing in the city of Fox Lake and off Chief Kuno Trail on Kuno Point.

Contacts: Phil & Son Tackle, (920) 885-6766; Eric Haataja's Big Fish Guide Service, (414) 546-4627 or

www.wibigfish.com.

LAKE WINNEBAGO

Last summer, anglers zeroed in on the perch bonanza on Lake Winnebago, and there's no reason to doubt the perch fishing will be good this winter, too. The largest lake in the state, Winnebago can be intimidating in summer or winter. Fortunately, perch seem to concentrate at the south end and along the west shore, so you can do the same.

Look for other anglers, then drill holes nearby until you locate fish. Perch like to hang out near rocks and other hard-bottomed areas. Try small ice jigs tipped with spikes or wigglers. If the bite slows down, try finessing them with slivers of plastic on the smallest jigs you have.

Wendt's Tavern on the west shore at Van Dyne is a good winter access, or you can get on the lake right in Fond du Lac.

Contacts: Fond du Lac Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, (920) 923-3010 or www.fdl.com; Dutch's Trading Post, (920) 922-0311.

DELAVAN LAKE

A perennial favorite among southeast Wisconsin hardwater fans, Walworth County's 2,000-acre Delavan Lake offers an excellent mixed-bag winter fishery. DNR fisheries biologist Doug Welch oversaw a drawdown and restocking of the lake about 15 years ago, and he says perch, crappies and bluegills are all doing well now.

For bluegills, try the weeds on the long bar off Lake Lawn Lodge or the weedflats at the west end. Ice flies and tiny jigs tipped with spikes, mousies or plastic tails should do the trick.

Perch hang out in 40 feet of water off Willow Point on the north shore. Try the same jigs you would use for bluegills, tipped with spikes or wax worms.

Crappies are now the real story on Delavan, Welch says. There are some monster slabs over 14 inches and plenty of smaller but still respectable fish as well. They bite best at night suspended over deep water off Willow Point. Ultra-fine lines are necessary to fool these wary fish. Locals favor a lure called the Hali Jig, but I'd bet an old standby like a Rembrandt would work here, too.

There are several good access points of the north and south shores. Look for the crowds and you should find fish.

Contacts: Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle, (262) 245-6150; Delavan Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-624-0052 or

www.delavanwi.org.

WIND LAKE

Located in Racine County, Wind Lake doesn't get as much attention as Delavan, but this 936-acre lake is a good bet for winter bluegills and crappies, according to Welch. There is a 50-foot deep hole, but most of the lake is shallow, with plenty of weeds. Tiny ice jigs tipped with wax worms or plastic tails will take both species, although you might catch bigger crappies on small minnows.

Early in the winter, concentrate on the shallow eastern basin. You'll find crappies and bluegills on the weed edges and in openings in weedbeds. Later in winter, panfish move to deeper water. Good spots include the east side of the island on the lake's west shore and the dropoffs along the southwest shoreline.

Contact: Racine County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-C-RACINE or

www.visitracine.org; Gundy's Sport, (262) 895-7935.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER POOL 7 BACKWATERS

From La Crosse upriver to Trempealeau, there are enough backwaters on the Mississippi to keep an angler busy for several seasons at least. At 7,700 acres, Lake Onalaska is the biggest of them, but Third, Round, Mud and Long lakes are also worth an outing or two. All these backwater areas support good populations of bluegills, crappies and perch. Ice conditions vary considerably due to currents and springs. Local bait shops can tell you which access points are safe.

Top spots on Lake Onalaska include the deep holes near the three dredge-spoil islands and the side channels near Lakeview Restaurant, known locally as the "H."

Bluegills hang out in the weeds and near bottom in the deepest holes they can find. Tiny ice jigs tipped with spikes and wax worms will take them.

Perch also like the deep water around the dredged islands and Rosebud Island. Seven- to 9-inchers are common, but there are enough 13-inch jumbos to make it interesting. Try small jigging spoons tipped with plastics or minnows.

Crappies like the 10-foot depths, especially those with wood, which attracts the freshwater shrimp that slabs feed on. Small silver jigging spoons tipped with wax worms are a popular local choice.

In the Trempealeau area, try Second Lake for crappies. Fish the midlake channel or right off the handicapped-access pier. Third Lake is good early in the season for all three species. As the winter progresses, panfish head for the deep spring-fed holes. On Round Lake, you'll find bluegills and crappies in the shallow weeds early in the winter and in deeper water by midwinter. Mud Lake produces good panfish catches until the ice gets thick. On Long Lake, fish the midlake sandbar and deep channels.

Contacts: Bob's Bait and Tackle, (608) 782-5552; La Crosse Visitors and Convention Bureau, 1-800-658-9424 or

www.explorelacrosse.com. Contact the Trempealeau Chamber of Commerce at (608) 534-6780, or

www.trempealeau.net.

RICE LAKE

Located near the city of the same name, Barron County's Rice Lake offers an excellent winter fishery for crappies, perch and bluegills. A shallow, weedy flowage on the Red Cedar River, Rice Lake covers 939 acres. Most of the lake is less than 10 feet deep. You'll find bluegills and crappies on weed edges at the mouths of most bays and perch off the weed edges in deeper water.

DNR fish manager Heath Benike says bluegills are the most abundant panfish here, followed by crappies and perch. Abundant forage makes them fat, although they don't run as large as on some other waters. Fish move around quite a bit here, because there is little structure other than weeds to hold them, so keep moving until you locate a school. Use fluorescent-colored jigs in this dark water.

Last winter, ice-anglers were surprised by river otters that popped out of holes and into ice shanties, according to Gary Fankhauser, fishing department manager at The Bear Paw Company in Rice Lake. Apparently the otters were chasing panfish and came up for air. Using a small-diameter ice auger should prevent otters from paying you an unwelcome visit.

Contact: The Bear Paw Company, at (715) 236-7300 or online at

www.thebearpawcompany.com; Rice Lake Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-523-6318 or

www.rice-lake.com.

NELSON LAKE

Located just north of Hayward in Sawyer County, 2,500-acre Nelson Lake has long been known for its big bluegills. Nelson produced the state-record bluegill twice and was the first lake in our state to produce a 2-pounder. In the last few years, however, crappies have become the dominant panfish, according to DNR fish biologist Frank Pratt.

This shallow dark-water flowage freezes before most other lakes in the area, and it is not uncommon to have safe ice by the end of the gun deer season. Aside from the Totogatic River channel and abundant stumps, there is little structure here.

Look for crappies and bluegills among the stumps east of Eagle's Nest Pass and along the east shore. Another good spot is Grass Island at the north end. Light tackle, small jigs and wax worms are all you need for the 'gills. Crappies hit well on small minnows, but they will also take jigs and plastics.

Get on the lake at the south end at Gerlach's Landing, off Nelson Lake Road or on the east shore at Etlinger's Landing off Tagalder Trail Road. The daily bag limit is 10 panfish, so count your fish carefully.

Contacts: Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce, (715) 634-8662 or

www.hayward.org. Reach Pastika's Sporting Goods at 1-800-844-2159 or

www.pastikas.com.

LAKE NOQUEBAY

If you're looking for a mess of big bluegills and don't mind a drive, head for Lake Noquebay just east of Crivitz in Marinette County. At 2,500 acres, Noquebay is a big chunk of ice to figure out, so just look for groups of shanties and set up nearby. Bluegills grow big in this fertile water, and catches of 9- to 10-inchers are common. Since bluegills tend to school by size, keep moving until you find a school of bulls.

The big 'gills like the inside turns and pockets within the deep weedbeds in 18 feet of water. Shallower water holds mainly smaller bluegills.

Light tackle and delicate presentations are a must. If you can manage 1- or 2-pound test line, you'll get more bites, although you'll also lose more fish in the weeds. Use tiny Rat Finkee jigs or other lures designed for a horizontal presentation. Tip them with spikes or Finesse Plastics and make them just barely quiver. Simply holding your rod and letting your pulse move it will often impart enough action to your bait to trigger a strike.

Early and late in the day are the best times to fish. Before you start fishing, try to drill all the holes you think you'll need to avoid spooking these touchy fish. The best access is at Maple Beach Tavern on the northwest shore.

Contacts: Crivitz Recreation Association, at 1-800-274-8480 or online at

www.crivitzrecreation.com; Hook, Line 'N' Sinker Bait Shop, (715) 854-2073; guide Mike Mladenik can be reached at (715) 854-2055 or mladfish@ez-net.com.

There are plenty of other good panfish waters in the Badger State, but these should keep you busy until the ice goes out.

(Editor's Note: The author's Web site, at

www.dansmalloutdoors.com, offers more information on Wisconsin fishing, along with an online catalog that features the Fillet King and other cool products).

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