Best Bets Ice-Fishing
December 14, 2010
You won't even feel the cold when you start hauling fish through the ice at these great Wisconsin locations!
Angling buddy Kyle Allen offers a humorous but accurate summary of last year's ice-fishing activity across the state of Wisconsin. "It was slow early," he says, "but then it slacked right off."
Allen is a hard-water gypsy, following the bite all over the Midwest out of a home base in Evansville. You'll find him astride a bucket somewhere between Lake Erie and Devil's Lake, North Dakota, at least five days a week, all winter long.
"Good days were few and far between," Allen recalls. "I had a couple of decent days on Madison's Lake Waubesa and Delavan in southeast Wisconsin early on. First ice in the North Country was as dismal as the firearms deer season up there."
Deer? What's a deer?
With ice-fishing essentially a full-time avocation, Allen's expectations are considerably higher than the casual bucketeer. During one week in February he iced more than 100 walleyes on a No. 3 chrome/blue Rapala, fishing on the Mississippi, Lake Mendota and the Petenwell Flowage.
A half-dozen of us were fishing tailwaters below the Genoa dam on Mississippi River Pool 9 one day. Allen had already caught and released as many fish as the rest of us put together. An angler who was fishing nearby walked over and offered Allen $100 for his bait.
"This baby's not for sale," he grinned, then promptly lost it on structure 15 feet below the hole. "My ice-fishing season literally went south after that," he recalls. "I thought 'late ice' would save it, but we went from safe ice to open water in about a week all across the state. The season was at least two to three weeks shorter than average last year."
There is no rational explanation for last winter's slim pickings. Ice is likely covering sheltered northern waters as you thumb through this issue of Wisconsin Sportsman. Soon we will be light-footing across the ice all over the state. It's a brand new ball game, sports fans. Here's a look at some waters with home-run potential.
This Dane County chain of natural lakes has been a popular hard-water venue since the Swedish cup auger was new technology. Mendota is still the best place to go if you're looking for a big-fish surprise from pike, walleyes or even perch. But guide Ron Barefield said this biggest lake doesn't have the consistency of more fertile Lake Waubesa at the southern end of the chain.
"Waubesa is a numbers lake," said the veteran fishing guideguide. "Perch, crappies and bluegills you catch there are seldom worth bragging about. But if your goal is action or a mess for the fry pan, the south end of Waubesa is real tough to beat."
Barefield said Kegonsa, Mendota and Waubesa are the most popular Mad City fishing destinations. "As a result, Lake Monona sneaks under the radar. This lake is a sleeper; especially for big pike and stout perch.
"February and March are the months you want to target perch in Monona. Fishing can be tough all over the chain during mid-winter. But those few quiet souls who make the walk out from Wildhaven with hanger rigs fishing over 57 to 65 feet of water eat fish all winter long."
Contact: Ron Barefield's Fishing Adventures (608) 838-8756.
This Walworth County lake rivals the Madison chain in popularity among the southern Wisconsin ice-fishing set, offering very nice bluegills, crappies and a shot at an honest trophy pike.
Guide Steve Everetts likes to target pike on Delavan's west end around the north side of the island with a combination of tip-ups and tip-downs. "Tip downs give the angler a chance to fight the fish on a rod/reel with a drag," he said. "This can be a real asset when the long, green critter on the other end of your line is pushing 20 pounds."
Everetts said he takes a smorgasbord of live suckers, shiners and dead smelt for Delavan pike, which are cruising the shallow flat on the west end looking for bluegills.
"I've always got a jig stick out there looking for 'gills, "Everetts said. "Often a 4- to 5-inch bluegill is the best possible pike bait going."
This guide says he probes slightly deeper water on the west end for crappies during low-light periods, setting up along the edge of the big bar out from Lake Lawn Lodge when fishing at night.
"Sometimes it takes considerable finesse to ice those suspended night-bite crappies," Everetts said. "I like to dead-stick a small minnow hooked through the lips while working a Hali jig a couple of feet away. Electronics are key. I can't tell you how many times I've jigged a crappie up and have the blip on the flasher change as the fish turned to eat the minnow struggling under the dead stick."
Contact: Steve Everetts' FinSeeker Guide Service (847) 707-1827.
Fishing guide Bret Alexander says Door County has more potential for producing trophy walleyes, like this one he's caught, than anywhere else in the Badger State. Photo by Ted Peck.
BIG GREEN LAKE
Our deepest inland lake is home to a solid population of lake trout that cruise the mid-lake basin all winter long.
Guide Justin Kohn has taken chasing these fish to an art form, employing 21st century electronics and custom built, species-specific tackle in a one-two punch that puts a lot of lakers on the ice.
Kohn positions three semi-permanent shacks over 80- to 150 feet of water, fires up the heaters and turns on sophisticated Lowrance sonar units. He then breaks out heavy jigging rods tailored to get the most out of particular lures like the Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon and No. 9 Jigging Rapala.
"The characteristics of these rods make it possible to get the most out of the baits," Kohn said "with one eye on the electronics you can tell exactly what the fish are doing. From that point hooking up is a simple matter of giving them what they want."
Kohn said that most fish holding in deeper water are feeding heavily on ciscoes and baby white bass, making white or glow baits the most productive. Kohn's electronics have revealed a different population of lake trout that hold much higher in the wa
ter column and have a real affinity for pink and light-orange baits that resemble freshwater shrimp.
"I kept seeing big electronic marks down about 30 to 40 feet," he said. "I had a whippy little panfish rod handy with a pink Rat Fink on it and dropped it down a hole just out of curiosity. It took a good 20 minutes to ice that 8-pound trout, which was followed by another fish of about 5 pounds to complete my limit. Since that winter three years ago, I've tweaked this presentation considerably. Now it seems I can't go more than 20 minutes without thinking about tempting those trout."
There is a 17-inch minimum length limit on Big Green's lakers. Kohn said most fish average 19 to 25 inches. His biggest last winter was a whopping 11 pounds. Best time to fish is first light until mid-day. A Wisconsin inland trout stamp is required in addition to a fishing license.
Contact: Guide Justin Kohn (920) 229-3494.
From first ice to mid-winter, Kohn spends virtually every day probing the ice of sprawling Petenwell flowage. His primary quarry is crappies. Whopping big crappies.
"I keep thinking the crappie population will cycle and the fish will get smaller," Kohn said "but they still average somewhere between nice to 'oh my gosh.'"
Winter crappies on Petenwell and other Wisconsin River flowages like Lake DuBay tend to spend the cold water period swimming somewhere in the old river channel.
Outside river bends are high percentage spots, as they allow crappies to move easily when food, barometric pressure or other variables drive fish behavior.
Kohn attacks river bends with a matrix of tip-downs and jigging sticks, covering water from deep all the way in to shallow. Tip-downs are baited with Rosy Red minnows, set about 5 feet off of the bottom. He prefers small jigging Rapalas or Swedish Pimple spoons on the jigging rods.
"Once you locate the crappies you may have to move 50 yards to find the hottest action," he said. "These critters aren't tied up, you've got to ride herd to rein them in."
Crappies aren't the only fish relating to Petenwell's old river channel. The same tactics may result in hooking up with monster catfish, walleyes sheepshead, sturgeon or even muskies.
"Last winter we caught one particular sturgeon six times," Kohl said. "We nicknamed her The General. She is all of 6 feet long, commanding attention every time she finds a hook."
Our western border offers an ice-fishing potpourri of panfish and game fish. Most fishing activity is in backwaters away from the main channel on both sides of the river. Reciprocity agreements with Iowa and Minnesota allow you to fish with a Wisconsin license to railroad tracks, which parallel both sides of the Mississippi.
Although walleyes and saugers are often caught in backwater areas, the most consistent action for these species is directly below dams that separate the Mississippi into pools. On a good day you can ice a six-fish limit in an hour. On a bad day you can go past wet to dead. If you choose to fish here, use good judgment and extreme caution.
Wisconsin DNR surveys indicate most game fish and panfish spend most of the winter in backwater areas with little current flow. Waters like Lake Pepin and Lake Onalaska are essentially vast flowages, with the old river channel a high percentage place to find fish.
A good map will show you all the water in the Mississippi River basin. It will not reveal dangers like swift water below the ice between the riverbank and Hayshore Lake on River Pool 8 or weak ice near a small tributary entry on the way to Ambro Slough on pool 10.
Many popular backwater areas have local names that usually don't appear on maps. For example, a large cottonwood tree is generally considered the point that separates Big Missouri Slough from Little Missouri Slough on pool 10. These waters are just a little north of Ambro Slough, which goes by other local names.
Backwater areas generally are shallow, making a 48-inch pole with a sensitive spring bobber a very effective tool. Some backwaters are more than 10 feet deep. A jigging rod with a small spinning reel is a better weapon over deeper water.
The Web site www.lake-link.com is a great source of information for locating the hottest action on the Mississippi and on other ice across the state.
Contact: Peck's Pool 9 guide service (563) 544-4611.
The ice between Idlewild Point and Sand Bay on the west side of the Door County Peninsula holds greater potential for producing a trophy walleye than any other place in the state.
Guide Bret Alexander is out there from before dawn until after dark at least six days a week all winter long, fishing for giant 'eyes during low-light periods and treating clients to sure-thing action on whitefish out in deeper water at mid-day.
"Two years ago we had dozens of walleyes over 30 inches," Alexander said. "Eight of them were over 32 inches. But last winter was tough until late ice near the end of March."
Most of Alexander's walleye action comes on a basic 1/4-ounce jighead tipped with a minnow. But some anglers prefer Swedish Pimples, Jigging Raps or Northland Buckshot Rattling Spoons.
Whitefish average 2 to 3 pounds with a liberal 10-fish daily bag. They bite even on the toughest of days, offering a unique hard-water experience: sight-fishing in 80 feet of water.
If circumstances permit just one ice-fishing trip this winter, Sturgeon Bay is a great choice. Beach Harbor Resort is a short hop from the fishing-and Jon Hanson's chili is beyond outstanding. Rooms are clean. Turn on the TV and odds are it will be tuned to the Weather Channel. This is a fish camp.
Contact: Guide Bret Alexander (920) 851-4214.
NAMEKAGON & PIKE LAKE CHAIN
Most years quiet waters in Wisconsin's far north freeze a week to 10 days sooner than lakes in the southern part of the state. Guide Craig Putchat breaks out the tip-ups and heads for Lake Namekagon and the Pike Lake Chain the day ice around Bayfield County becomes marginally safe.
"You can usually get out on back bays on Namekagon by the end of November," Putchat said. "I like to set big suckers on tip-ups just below the ice while jigging holes in the weedbeds for big bluegills with a gold teardrop spoon."
By early December Namekagon usually freezes over enough to permit access to good ice over deep water. Putchat said that is when he breaks out the walleye gear, targeting gravel points over 12 to 20 feet of water with tip-ups baited with small shiners fished just off
bottom and a Puppet Minnow or Macho Minno spoon fished on a medium-action jigging stick.
Small lakes in the Pike Lake Chain south of Iron River offer safe ice about this time. Putchat said his favorite target in both Twin Bear and Busky Bay lakes is slab crappies.
"At first ice you'll find some big fish hiding near pockets in the weeds," he said. "A week later you'll find them suspended just off of the bottom over about 15 to 30 feet of water relating to deep flats. Try a tip-down baited with a small shiner while jigging nearby with a No. 3 jigging Rapala. The size of some of the crappies we catch is downright amazing."
Contact: Craig Putchat (715) 373-0551.
LONG & RICE LAKES
This aptly named Washburn County lake is one of many Northcountry waters to benefit from work by Walleyes For Tomorrow. Multiple adult year-classes of walleyes swim there now, with specimens in excess of 30 inches almost a common occurrence.
Guide Ron Wilder likes to attack these fish along the weed edges of Gruenhagen Bay and along the sharp breakline in the narrow part of the lake at first ice, moving to offshore rock humps over 12 to 40 feet of water when winter arrives in earnest.
Dawn and dusk are best times to target these fish, setting two tip-downs baited with a medium shiner on a chartreuse jighead while working a Swedish Pimple tipped with a minnow head on a jigging stick.
If clients would rather catch panfish, Wilder targets 1,000-acre Rice Lake in Barron County. Cribs on the south end of the lake are crappie magnets. Fish suspend over that structure in 14 to 20 feet of water.
Wilder said you will find a mixed bag of perch and bluegills just out from shoreline weeds until about mid-January when they retreat until almost ice-out in late March.Contact: Guide Ron Wilder (715) 236-7105.
The term "trophy bluegill" may sound like an oxymoron, but this 2,500 acre Marinette County lake has a substantial population of bluegills that could end up at the taxidermist instead of in the frying pan.
A pair of binoculars is the best fish locator on Noquebay. Look for small clusters of ice-fishing shacks, which are typically set over deep weeds where the biggest 'gills roam.
Noquebay has a maximum depth of about 50 feet, with weed roots in the bottom over at least 18 feet of water.
A horizontal presentation with a bait like the Gill Pill tipped with plastic is the best weapon for Noquebay's alpha 'gills. The active bite usually lasts until about 8 a.m. under stable weather conditions, with a flurry of activity around dusk producing fish too big to wrap a hand around.
Contact: Hook, Line and Sinker bait shop (715) 854-2073.