Wisconsin's Sure-Thing Ice Fishing

The Badger State is speckled with countless hardwater locales that hold perpetual promise for ice-anglers. (December 2007)

Ron Barefield of McFarland lands a fat pike from Butternut Lake, where a one-fish, 32-inch daily bag limit runs up the possibility of a trip to the taxidermist after a day of fishing in the northwoods.

Photo by Ted Peck.

Although winter officially arrives in the Land of Cheese just before Christmas, it may be early January before we can get a good handle on the hardwater season across the southern two-thirds of Wisconsin.

Last winter was a strange one by any measure around my home southwest of LaCrosse.

We were ice-fishing in Green Lake at Blackhawk Park near DeSoto on Pool 9 before the gun deer season even arrived in mid-November. Setting tip-ups Thanksgiving weekend is a tradition in the North Country. However, first ice -- at least, safe first ice -- has been pretty unusual the past few years from LaCrosse south. However, just when conditions pointed toward a long hardwater season, the weather warmed.

Global warming wasn't a major topic at the Great River Roadhouse until Christmas. On Dec. 27, the neighbors and I were still vertical jigging for catfish with blade baits below the Genoa Dam, and a sweatshirt was enough to keep you warm out there on the open water.

Was winter over before it even really started? This preposterous notion was dashed shortly after New Year's Day. Before it was all over, we were using hippers to wade through thigh-deep snow, and the power head on my Strikemaster gas auger was mere inches from kissing the ice when the blade finally found the river.

By mid-February, there was no further talk about global warming spewing from barstool pundits at the Roadhouse. An ambient temperature of minus 9 degrees at noon on Feb. 12 dashed even the thought. No one was out on the ice that day from Genoa Dam clear down to Ferryville. One wag even opined we would be using tip-ups on opening day of the spring fishing season on the first Saturday in May.

I stopped for coffee and to mull over a dilemma: Follow the entries in a fishing diary I've kept since 1976 or yield to common sense and go tie some buck-tailed jigs in front of the fireplace at home.

According to the diary, crappies have traditionally stacked up around several stumps pretty much due west of the Roadhouse around Valentine's Day. Although an arctic high-pressure system was definitely squeezing this part of the state, fish in a river system don't seem to be affected as much as their lake-borne brethren.

A little voice whispered, "You can only catch fish if your line's in the water," and won out over other mental muses based on sanity and common sense. Twenty minutes later, I was probing the first of a triad of holes poked with a hand auger. I never got to the third hole; the first two yielded a 25-fish limit of fat flopping crappies.

The area was still producing a month after this initial eureka moment. However, a secret spot doesn't hold this designation for long within sight of the Roadhouse and Highway 35 that runs in front of it.

Wisconsin is speckled with countless hardwater locales that hold perpetual promise for ice-anglers. Following is a look at some of the state's best deep-winter ice-fishing holes, beginning with the Mississippi River, considered by many to be the best multi-species fishery in the state.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

Ice-fishing on the backwaters of the Father of Waters holds tremendous panfish potential from Onalaska south to the Illinois border on Pool 12. Although these sloughs vary considerably in character on the river's journey south, there seems to be one common key: Fishing tends to be best in those backwaters with little or no current.

In some cases, winter and early spring are the only times you'll find fishable populations in extremely shallow backwaters. And there are some winters where there can be less than a foot of water between the bottom of the ice and the bottom of the river.

Northern pike often inhabit the same areas, feeding on panfish in a vivid illustration of the predator-prey relationship. Pike in excess of 40 inches come through the ice every year.

Probably the best pike habitat on Pool 9 is south of the Highway 82 bridge, which spans the river south of DeSoto. On Pool 8, there is great piking just west of Stoddard, from the boat ramp behind the Thirsty Turtle to riprap-boxed weedbeds at the north end of town.

Pike fishing is also good across the river in Lawrence Lake on the Minnesota side. Reciprocity agreements with Iowa and Minnesota allow fishing with a valid Wisconsin fishing license essentially anywhere between the railroad tracks that parallel both sides of the river.

Goose Island County Park on the south side of LaCrosse, the backwaters behind the hospital and several other locales near this popular river town hold both numbers and good-sized pike. Onalaska, just north of here, is in a class by itself.

The affinity of crappies for woody structure holds true on backwaters of the Mississippi River. My favorite stumps in DeSoto Bay are under 10 feet of water, with crappies typically holding about halfway down in the water column, making electronics a plus.

In many shallow backwater areas, you can literally find success with a stick, 5 feet of line and a sensitive spring bobber or tiny Thill float. But lure choice for panfish can make a profound difference.

The Li'L Cecil -- especially in purple, pink or orange -- is by far the best crappie bait on the Miss. It will also work quite well for bigger bluegills and perch. A small Genz Fat Boy with a Lindy Munchie Teeny Tail, Moon Glo, Marmooksa and the venerable Rat Fink are in a distant second-place tie behind the Li'L Cecil.

Last year's good old-fashioned winter enabled anglers to venture out for several weeks on the hardwater below several of the huge dams that separate the river into pools, looking for walleyes and perch with No. 3 Jigging Rapalas and Swedish Pimples. Most winters, this treacherous bite lasts only a week or so, if it happens at all.

The Mississippi River may be the most unforgiving water (besides the Great Lakes) in the entire state. If the opportunity comes up to chase walleyes below the dams, stay on the beaten path to and from the fishin' hole. Straying off smooth ice onto "shove ice" can be a fatal misstep.

Because waters of the Mississippi are somewhat stained, fishing

action is almost always better an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset rather than the dawn and dusk bite commonly found on many lakes.

River levels can fluctuate even under the ice, affecting water clarity, fish location and overall success. Some backwaters traditionally produce better at some times move than others. Calling ahead is a good idea.

Contacts: Bob's Bait & Tackle on French Island, phone (608) 782-5552; on Pool 9, Cap'n Hook's Bait & Tackle, phone (608) 689-2900, Web site: www.captainhookstackle.com; on Pool 10, B-Fish-N Tackle, phone (608) 412-0170.

LAKE KOSHKONONG

Just when you think ice-fishing on Kosh couldn't possibly get any better, it does! Local anglers say this past summer offered the best walleye action since 2004, with every reason to believe the winter now at hand will be the best big-fish year since 1987.

A huge year-class of 'eyes from 1993 still has good representation in this 10,400-acre lake that straddles the Rock-Jefferson county line in far south-central Wisconsin. These fish are at -- or very close to -- 30 inches. We're talking honest 10-pounders!

Back in '87, ice-anglers beat the daylights out of big walleyes on Koshkonong. It has taken 20 years to bring this wide spot on Rock River back into balance. Fisheries biologist Don Bush of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said Kosh is in "a better state of balance than I've ever seen" -- encouraging words from the guy who has managed these waters for a quarter-century.

Walleyes here resist classic winter patterns. There is little structure to hold fish in what amounts to a vast, dark-bottomed basin no more than 6 feet deep. Koshkonong's walleyes are constantly on the move, herding baitfish to a point of easy ambush. This attack can come at any time, day or night.

Besides keeping your bait in the water, you need to keep tabs on only three key elements for success here: 1) Set tip-ups over water at least 5 feet deep; 2) use hole covers or those round tip-ups to minimize unnatural light penetration; and 3) try to stay away from the crowds.

Wisconsin ice-fishing regulations allow three lines per angler. Set tip-ups in a triangle pattern with rosy reds or fathead minnows suspended about 1 foot off the bottom on a No. 8 treble hook tied to 10-pound monofilament line.

A power auger is a wonderful tool for poking many holes. Grind at least nine per angler about 50 feet apart, then put the drill away. If you don't get a flag in 45 minutes, move the quiet tip-up to another hole.

Leave your vehicle, ATV or snowmobile in a central location. Approach flags quietly. Be patient. Big walleyes will often mouth the bait and not move away from the hole for several minutes.

Contact: Dick's Tackle & Bait, phone (608) 362-8712.

LAKE WINNEBAGO

Last summer, the specter of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) had anglers across the state sounding a death knell for the walleye population on this east-central Wisconsin walleye factory.

Further review indicates VHS may not be as serious as WDNR biologists first thought.

"There are at least six strong year-classes of walleyes swimming here," said Capt. Greg Karch of the MDNR's Oshkosh office. "Filling a five-fish limit is almost too easy some days. That's why I target the perch on Winnebago instead."

Winter is truly fishing's fourth season on this lake, which boasts an impressive ice-road system once winter arrives in earnest. This travel matrix provides access to hundreds of permanent ice shanties, which are typically placed atop Winnie's countless reefs and humps.

While there is much to be said for munching hot nachos fresh from the microwave while watching Oprah on TV in some of the better equipped ice "condos," this isn't necessarily the best way to ice a five-fish limit of 'eyes or a mess of jumbo ring perch.

The key to consistent success on this vast fishery is mobility. Hard-water shantytowns are great reference points for locating sub-surface structure. However, if you're out there to catch fish rather than a buzz or a few Zs, frog around with a jig stick and two "boards," targeting transition zones at the edges of more significant structures.

Like Koshkonong, the basic treble hook, split shot and minnow is the way to rig tip-ups. Milwaukee shiners are the bait of choice, set about 18 inches off the bottom. Once fish are located, the action can be intense.

The most efficient way to chase Winnie's perch and 'eyes is to head out with several buddies with a plan of fishing together -- but separately -- until fish are located. Inexpensive walkie-talkies have a range of several miles. Poke half a dozen holes and probe with a jigging stick and Swedish Pimple. Watch for fish passing through on a flasher or underwater camera.

When one of your crew finds the mother lode, use the radios to summon the troops. The problem here is not catching fish -- it's being the first in your party to fill out, thus collecting the proceeds from friendly wagers.

Contact: Oshkosh Convention & Visitor's Bureau, phone (877) 303-9200.

SHAWANO LAKE

Although this 6,000-acre northeast Wisconsin lake sees considerable recreational use in the summer, Shawano Lake absolutely thrives when the iceman cometh. Local anglers will tell you the next three months offer your best opportunity to catch a trophy female walleye at dawn or when the sun goes down, setting tip-ups off main-lake points in 12 to 15 feet of water.

As is the case with fishing in many other Wisconsin waters, a tackle rig at Shawano Lake amounts to putting the basic split shot, small treble hook and minnow rig within 2 feet of the bottom. But local angler Rob Netrefa adds a twist -- two small shiners or fatheads on the hook instead of one!

The 12-foot contour and points are also great places to target pike, with 10 a.m. and about 2 p.m. being "prime times." The most popular baits here are big golden shiners. Set just two boards for pike, using your third line to jig for panfish. Shawano is certainly in the top 10 as a multi-species Wisconsin fishery.

Like Winnebago, Shawano features a sophisticated matrix of winter ice roads. A major key to success is getting off the beaten path.

Contact: Shawano Chamber of Commerce, phone (800) 235-8528, Web site: www.shawanocountry.com.

NORTHWOODS OPTIONS

You could fish a different lake in the Wisconsin northwoods every day and run out of winter before running out of water. A good place to start fishing is Forest County, just off the snowmobile trail, about 12 miles due east of Eagle River.

There is a one-fish, 32-inch da

ily bag in place for pike on both Butternut and Franklin lakes. Set smelt or a big shiner just under the ice in less than 6 feet of water on either of these lakes and have the taxidermist's phone number on speed dial.

If you're headed up to Eagle River from southern Wisconsin and simply can't wait, check out either Thunder or Pioneer lakes south of town. Pike probably won't be as big as you'll find on Butternut or Franklin, but the same weed pockets that hold northerns on these waters also hold fat crappies, especially on Thunder Lake.

Pioneer Lake can be the shortest route to a panfish dinner if you target the bay directly across the lake from the access off Chicago Avenue, west of Highway 17. This basin lake is both easy to "read" and easy to fish.

Contact: Eagle Sports Shop, phone (715) 479-8804, Web site: www.eaglesportscenter.com.

RICE LAKE

This 1,000-acre Barron County lake hides in plain sight, with anglers passing through bound for fisheries with established reputations. Rice is a great multi-species fishery with super pike action out from the hospital at the south end off the Veteran's Park Landing and at the north end access at Arnold's Landing. Another good place to target is the mouth of Clearwater Bay.

If you're looking for crappies, target cribs and deeper holes on the south end. Slabs typically suspend over 14 to 20 feet of water all winter long. Bluegills and perch are in the shoreline weeds right now, where they will remain until mid-January when they migrate to the main-lake basin. Just before ice-out in March, both predatory pike and panfish return to the shallows. Try an orange Rocker or Rat Fink while waiting for a pike to pop a flag.

Contact: Rice Lake Tourism Bureau, phone (800) 523-6318, Web site: www.ricelaketourism.com.

LONG LAKE

On an acre-per-acre basis, Long Lake in Washburn County probably holds more trophy walleyes than any other Wisconsin inland fishery. Two places to entice a whopper 'eye are fishing the weed edges in Gruenhagen Bay and fishing the sharp break-line at the narrow part of the lake.

Local guide Ron Wilder likes jigging offshore rock humps from 12 to 40 feet down with a chartreuse jighead tipped with a medium shiner.

Instead of using tip-ups for walleyes, Wilder uses jigging rods rigged as "tip downs" -- dead-sticking two lines while actively jigging the third and moving from hole to hole.

Walleyes for Tomorrow has done considerable work on this fishery over the past several years, making Long a "must-do" destination this winter, and again after opening day in May.

Long Lake is located off County Road M, about halfway between Rice Lake and Spooner.

Contact: Guide Ron Wilder, phone (715) 236-7105.

Find more about Wisconsin fishing and hunting at: WisconsinSportsmanMag.com

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