Delavan'™s Panfish Potpourri

While the ice-fishing was sporadic on this southeast Wisconsin lake last winter, the panfish are still there! Here's how you can outsmart the bluegills, crappies and perch this season. (January 2007)

Photo by Tom Evans

Some die-hard Delavan Lake hardwater anglers were quietly smirking last winter because many of their fair-weather brethren skulked off the ice with few little fish flopping in their buckets destined for the frying pan. After at least six years as southern Wisconsin's premier frozen panfishery, some anglers rated the action last winter somewhere between "fair" and "good" -- which is a dramatic change from hearty laughter followed by "do ya wanna see some pictures?" from previous winters.

Ice-fishing is a community sport. Well, pretty much anyway. Although finer points and subtle nuances are held close to the parka vest for bluegills, perch and Delavan's legendary night-bite crappies, enough common knowledge was available to enable casual, average anglers to venture forth on this 2,072-acre Walworth County fishery with high expectations for success.

Not so last winter. Consistent success here required more than a little effort. More often than not, even the saltiest bucketeers found themselves digging deep into their bag of tricks to ice a nice mess of filets.

At first ice, there's good fishing for bluegills on Delavan's shallow west end along the weed edges. Bluegills are still cruising the weeds on the long bar off Lake Lawn Lodge now like they have every winter since the lake was drawn down and rehabilitated in 1987.

But fishing is getting tough again as we move into 2007, causing many people to ponder the possibility that the good old days of ice-fishing on Delavan Lake are gone. The answer is probably "yes" if you are a couch potato looking for an excuse not to fish in January's sometimes brutal weather.

January is probably the toughest month Wisconsin anglers ever have to experience. This is a statewide status quo driven by a perpetual Arctic high-pressure system overhead bringing bitter cold temperatures and a predictable decline in metabolism of cold-blooded creatures like fish. Fish still have to eat, but the active feeding window could be only 30 to 60 minutes per day.

For Delavan's bluegills, this feeding time typically comes at the break of dawn and the cusp of dusk. Perch are willing biters a few minutes later in the morning and a few minutes earlier in the evening. Crappies -- when they feel like biting -- should be making their move over 45 to 50 feet of water out from the Yacht Club and off Willow Point at about 6 p.m. Last January, the "peak" bite was about 9 p.m., with the most active fish coming through at about 12 to 20 feet. At least this was the case in my portable tent.

If there is a "ninja fish" in Delavan, it has to be those black crappies. Crappies are notorious for biting light. Through the ice, the bite can be even lighter. But over the gin-clear waters of Delavan at night, bite detection is akin to hearing a whisper in a windstorm.

The first key in defeating this survival trait comes from a close look at crappie anatomy. A crappie's eyes are positioned near the top of its head. This optimizes a feeding attack from below. When a bite comes from below, the strike indicator is a bobber that comes up or moves laterally rather than going down.

Catching crappies that are suspended in less than 15 feet of water requires using a low-resistance float like the Thill Mini-Stealth. This is a fairly straightforward proposition on many waters. But this is Delavan. The crappies here can come through at any depth, at any time. They are so spooky that moving your bait to intercept the "blips" on the electronics will cause these electronic signatures to ghost away.

An unhealthy amount of time spent on the Delavan ice over the past few winters has led to a game in conversation with myself called "vertical roulette." There are no blacks or reds in this game, just depths from 12 to 49 feet. As noted earlier, the most active crappies under my tent last winter tended to drift through at 12 to 20 feet over 45 to 50 feet of water.

This tendency was a strong argument for dropping a small minnow hooked under the dorsal fin down to about 15 feet under a float on a "dumb line" when arriving on the ice just before dark. Although small minnows are the ultimate natural crappie bait presentation, my experience is that maybe only 20 percent of bites came on this live bait last winter. However, the minnow is a great fish attractor -- and a benchmark for gambling on the magic depth that most interested crappies will come cruising through.

Here is a pearl to remember on all future fishing outings: One fish does not make a pattern! This is especially true on Delavan's ice. The first fish to pass beneath the hole at, say, 17 feet is duly noted. Ditto the second swimming under the locator's sonar cone. If a third crappie comes under the hole at 17 feet, the minnow on the dumb line and subsequent jigging efforts are moved to about 15 to 16 feet. Remember, crappies almost always feed from below. They can absorb a lot of sensory input through those big, black eyes. Anything less than the perception that they are invisible ninja predators will send your potential fish fry away to cower in fear.

This is why minnows are hooked under the dorsal fin. Hook the bait through the lips or tail and it usually struggles too much when crappies approach, intimidating even the biggest slab to shy away. Sometimes they back off about 18 inches to ponder the circumstances. With any luck, this will be in the direction you are fishing another line, doing your best to keep the lure perfectly still.

This endeavor is virtually impossible with one of the new soft plastics like the Lindy Munchie Teeny Tails. Plastic tails come in a number of colors. Crappies on Delavan seem to have an affinity for purple, white and pink, with the "nail tail" usually producing better results than the "spade tail" plastics.

Little ice jigs presented in a horizontal orientation are generally more effective on these fish. I've had good results with the smallest Genz Fat Boy jig available in gold or glow-in-the-dark, with either the red or blue eyes. Before dropping the glow baits down the hole, they get charged with a blast from a little strobe light. The glow capability enables night-bite crappies to locate your lure quicker. But there are times when the fish are really pensive that the gold Fat Boy or maybe a Russian hook gets the nod.

On nights like this, the Hali Jig is a tremendous weapon. With the Hali, the hook is separated from a tiny spoon. The spoon attracts crappies, which are supposed to bite the hook. Tipping the h

ook with a couple spikes or mousies is a favorite local ploy. But don't rule out those soft plastics on a Hali Jig. Most of the time, bait has to be natural to be effective. If you don't hook spikes just under the skin at the fat end of this carrot-shaped "worm," you'll be scaring rather than attracting most fish. Since the plastic maintains its shape, this artificial lure is really more natural than the natural bait.

There are some evenings when fish simply don't want to eat, but they still come cruising through. This is a good time to break out reaction lures like the Li'l Cecil, or the Li'l Mick. The Li'l Cecil is a tiny willow spoon with a tiny treble attached, and a tiny spinner blade that flashes despite all attempts to hold the lure still. One productive technique is a couple short jigging motions over blips 2 feet below the bait. Just jig, jig, jig, and then set the rod down. When the line starts to move, set the hook!

Probably the biggest key to success on Delavan's night-bite crappies is using light line. Many savvy anglers spool their little spinning reels with 1-pound-test line. I like 10- to 14-pound Berkley FireLine for three reasons: You don't need as much line to fill the spool; the heavy line is easier to see against the ice; and, most importantly, the heavy line is a much better strike indicator than the most sensitive spring bobber. Of course, a much lighter leader is tied at the business end of your line. Four feet of 1/2-pound-test is just about perfect. A fairly stiff but ultralight IM-7 or better quality graphite jigging rod completes the rig. Although the index finger is placed on top of the rod blank, most strikes are indicated by subtle changes where the FireLine enters the hole.

Of course, fishing for suspended night-bite crappies is a waste of time without good electronics. I prefer the Vexilar FL-18 flasher. This particular model eliminates feedback from others using flashers nearby, while maintaining good target separation. A flasher is the only way to go, primarily because the sight picture is in real time. There is a delay in LCR/LCD units even if the unit is set at the highest scroll speed possible. A guy on the ice with an LCD sonar is a guy in no hurry to return home carrying nothing but an empty bucket.

Such an angler is liable to lament the downfall of fishing on Delavan and the fact that there aren't any 15- to 16-inch crappies swimming here anymore. According to DNR fisheries surveys -- and a high-tech invention called the ruler -- the biggest slabs in Delavan are 12 to 13 inches, which are respectable fish, but not monsters. Perhaps this is one reason why folks are speculating on Delavan's decline. Crappies tend to school by year-class. There are still a few slabbers in excess of a foot in the lake. But the DNR survey completed last spring indicated the greatest number of crappies is in the 8- to 9-inch range.

Although the bluegill population remains stable with multiple year-classes swimming in Delavan, DNR fisheries biologist Doug Welch said the average size has gone down from previous years' surveys.

"The average size of the dominant year-class of bluegills is about 7 to 7.5 inches," Welch said. "There are still occasional 8- to 8.5-inch fish turning up, but most of the fish you'll catch through the ice this winter will be about 7 inches, maybe smaller."

Bluegills also tend to school by size, with any specimens over 8 inches that remain in the gene pool being extremely proficient in biting lightly. Because larger 'gills have learned discretion in feeding ensures survival, the heavy bulls tend to hold at the outside edge of deeper green weeds. Catching more than three or four whoppers in a limit is unusual.

Between now and ice-out in March, the active feeding window for bluegills will typically be at dawn and dusk, or ahead of an approaching weather system. When cardinals start singing and geese are moving north, it's time to head back to Delavan's west end. But don't forget to wear your PFD.

Bluegill anglers tend to develop personal favorite lures over the years. A lifetime on the ice has taught that presentation is almost always more important than bait profile or lure color for catching these fish. You can spend a wallet full of money on little ice jigs. If you're just getting into the sport of ice-fishing and have limited funds, there are several baits that are killers on Delavan 'gills.

My favorite bluegill weapon is a No. 10 or No. 12 green/black Marmooksa. Batting second is No. 10 black Rat Finkee. Third is a gold Demon, with the chartreuse/hot pink one always being handy. The Marmooska has an inherent advantage because placement of the hook's eye allows presentation in a horizontal orientation without "tweaking" the knot. With the Rat Finkee and Demon, the pull of a fat bluegill coming through the hole will move the knot around so that the hook hangs vertically. Catching subsequent fish requires moving the knot around so the lure hangs horizontally in the hole.

Here's another tip: Leave those wax worms at home! This is the fourth winter I have refused to use live bait for bluegills. Waxies, mousies, spikes and maggots all die. Then they freeze, leaving you with a Copenhagen can that can double as a cheesy rattle but won't catch any fish. If you want a cheap thrill, simply face the wind and open the can. There's nothing more invigorating than eyes full of sawdust. Plastics never die, never freeze and are not packed in sawdust.

Anybody who wants to partake in a "battle of the baits" for a sizable wager can find me on Delavan's west end or out from Lake Lawn Lodge in the blue Fish Trap portable tent with "game warden inside" written in Sharpie marker on the front. This signage -- when coupled with mumbling and talking to yourself -- works wonders at keeping others from invading your space.

A great deal of the discourse between Hanna the yellow Lab, me, myself and the other three voices inside my head that only show up when fishing gets tough has to deal with the unexplainable mystery surrounding Delavan's legendary yellow perch. DNR biologist Doug Welch confirmed there are true giants in the 12- to 14-inch range here that regularly turn up in DNR surveys. The surveys indicate that the perch population is of low density with only a couple of year-classes represented. Every once in awhile you catch a whopper perch while fishing the deep weed edges for bluegills or jigging for walleyes, but you'll seldom see more than one or two in a mixed-bag limit of panfish.

Could predators be the reason for this? Delavan has an incredible population of adult walleyes. Welch estimates there are 11,868 adult walleyes swimming in the lake, amounting to about 5.7 adult walleyes per acre. The biologist also says the northern pike population is "approaching the ideal" in this water, with an estimated 4,895 adult fish in the lake. Muskies swim in Delavan, too, with a low-density population and 40-inch minimum in place. The biggest muskie in last spring's survey measured 43 inches by a technician well versed in how to read a tape.

The same survey revealed a "fair" population of smallmouth bass and a "good" population of largemouth bass, with the biggest specimen of this self-perpetuating population measuring

over 24 inches.

Last winter may have been tough when compared with previous years on this heavily fished southeastern Wisconsin lake. But the fish population is certainly in excellent condition, according to DNR statistics. Welch deserves the lion's share of credit for maintaining balance in this lake that he resurrected from dirty-mudhole status almost 20 years ago.

Keeping Delavan in balance requires constant and judicious monitoring, which is one reason why this lake has a full-time fisheries technician who began doing a yearlong creel survey last May. This person will be doing daytime and nighttime surveys five days a week all winter long, and is certainly a good resource for fish activity levels. Find this person, and you will gain knowledge.

Brian Gates at Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle is another good source of information. The bait shop phone number is (262) 245-6150.

For lodging or other amenities, contact the Delavan Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-624-0052, or on the Web at DelavanWI.org.

See you out on the ice!

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