Wisconsin's Best Bets for Ice-Fishing

Perhaps no state has better ice-fishing for a variety of species than the Badger State. These waters are where you'll want to be this winter.

By Ted Peck

That bucket full of jigging sticks in the corner of the garage hasn't had much time to gather dust since the last time folks in northern Wisconsin got out on the ice. Late in April, many folks were wondering if they should put new line on the long rods or re-sharpen hooks on the tip-ups with opening day of the general fishing season just days away.

Tip-ups are already getting a workout on sheltered waters in the northwoods as you read these words, with downstate anglers taking tentative steps on the hardwater as well. In a couple of weeks the entire Badger State will have the deer guns cleaned and be in ice-fishing mode again.

The following is a look at some waters where you can chase the finned equivalent of the "turdy-point buck" this winter.

BIG PIKE IN FOREST COUNTY

Northern pike of biblical proportions are cruising the remaining green weeds in Wisconsin's north country, with two of the best lakes almost within earshot of the snowmobile music pulsing out of Eagle River. Butternut and Franklin lakes are about 12 miles due east of the world's snowmobile capital, just off of Highway 70.

The one-fish-daily, 32-inch-minimum limit in place on both these Forest County waters has created the true potential to ice a trophy on either of these lakes, with a large percentage of pike hanging in waters less than 6 feet deep.

Pike are primarily sight-feeders. With few weeds to obstruct their view in 900-acre Franklin, it won't take the fish long to see your bait hanging just under the ice. Although the pike population is low, the quality here is tremendous. Get a flag, and your next call may be to the taxidermist.

On Butternut, set two boards along the edge of any remaining green weeds. A slightly squished smelt on a quick-strike rig is a good way to draw pike out of hiding. Pass the time waiting for a flag by jigging a third line with a No. 3 Jigging Rapala. You never know what you'll catch.

Contact: Eagle River Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-236-3432 or www.eagleriver.com.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

LAKE PUCKAWAY

Ice safety is questionable on this shallow, weedy Green Lake County lake until the Packers come home with another Lombardi Trophy next month - hopefully. Department of Natural Resources fisheries surveys indicate a solid pike population here, with most fish just below the 32-inch legal size limit in place.

Puckaway still holds Wisconsin's northern pike record. Although besting this mark is an incredible long shot here, there is no better lake for teaching kids the finer points of running boards. Encourage the youngsters to bring along a toy rake. A major key to success can be opening up a hole in the weeds below the ice, and a rake that will fit through an 8-inch hole is a wonderful tool for this purpose.

Smelt have an edge over shiners for pike on Puckaway, maybe because scent can be a factor in the heavy weeds. Puckaway is also full of forage. The aroma of something that will obviously be easy to catch may also be a factor.

It is important that the smelt be suspended below the ice in a natural horizontal orientation. A "Bortz Bullet" is a great leveling device. The late, great Fred Bortz came up with the idea of using a 30.06 shell to help the bait hover seductively - an accomplishment that outweighs this legend's record for taking out the greatest number of mailboxes in a single pass with a county snowplow truck, and fathering a lummox named Mark who played a major role in helping Da Bears to their last Super Bowl win.

Contact: Green Lake Area Chamber of Commerce 1-800-253-7354.

SHAWANO LAKE

Pike are a major draw on this northeast Wisconsin lake that is certainly in the top five as a multi-species fishery.

This is one place where you want to have a second battery of tip-ups ready to go and rigged for walleyes when the light gets low. Shawano has some truly humongous marble-eyes swimming within its 6,000 acres. Locals will tell you that it's easier to catch one of these big gals now than during the open-water period.

Ice roads crisscross the lake. The key is to trudge away from these paths and set tip-ups baited with golden shiners along the 12- to 15-foot contour, targeting main-lake points.

Contact: Shawano Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-235-8528 or www.shawanocountry.com.

LAKE WINNEBAGO

No other water in Wisconsin even comes close to matching the walleye production of Lake Winnebago. This crown jewel of the Fox River Valley has at least six huge year-classes of walleyes cruising endlessly under the ice, with two of the most dominant year-classes now approaching trophy status in the 26- to 29-inch range, and another big school of 23- to 25-inch fish thundering silently around this giant basin as well.

Like Shawano Lake, Winnebago has a fairly sophisticated ice road system in place once serious winter arrives, with a veritable city of permanent shacks dotting this vast lake's numerous humps and reefs. Play enough hands of euchre in one of these hardwater hotspots, and a tip-up will eventually pop. But if you want to catch walleyes rather than debate the benefits of brandy over schnapps, you've gotta be mobile.

The best way to find active fish is hitting the ice with several other anglers who fan out on different vectors via ATV or snowmobile, equipped with portable marine radios. Fishing HotSpots (1-800-500-MAPS) has an excellent map with GPS coordinates. Each member of your search team should also have a map. Savvy anglers know better than to refer to locations by names printed on the maps. It's better if all in your party have a numbering system when they head out. An urgent call to "bring a gaff to No. 3" enables your party to take advantage of a hot bite without drawing a crowd. GPS, compass and a marine radio can be more important than a gas auger on this big water.

Milwaukee shiners are a popular bait for Winnie's walleyes. Keep the presentation simple - just a No. 8 treble hook and split shot, with the bait hovering about 18 inches off the bottom. And hook the minnow under the dorsal fin.

Success on Winnebago is a run-and-gun operation. Start by poking at least nine holes, then move tip-ups every 20 minutes until you find active fish. Keep a jigging stick handy. Once walleye

s are located, there are days you can fill out the rest of a limit jigging a Swedish Pimple before the rest of your gang can arrive on scene.

Contact: Dutch's Trading Post, Fond du Lac, (920) 922-0311.

CHEQUAMEGON BAY

The old adage "big water, big fish" could have been coined with this vast southern expanse of Lake Superior in mind. Communications and navigation gear is even more critical here than on any other water, as Gitcheegumee tends to make its own weather.

A variety of game fish and panfish species are present, with pike, walleyes, smallmouth bass and salmonids all having trophy representation in the bay, with great action often found a long stone's throw from the ports of Ashland and Washburn.

Even though there is good fishing within sight of land, the only way to fish here is with a snowmobile or ATV. And by season's end you may very well need an extension for the Strikemaster power auger. Get away from shore and you'll find game fish attracted to subtle humps, many of which are clearly marked on the newest Fishing HotSpots map. The first few times you experience this ice, venturing no farther than the first breakline offshore is a real good plan.

The walleye bite is essentially low-light or ahead of an approaching weather system. Smallmouths, salmonids and pike can bite all day long. Although tip-ups and fishing after dark are sound tactics for Chequamegon's walleyes, a jigging stick with a Lindy Rat'lr spoon is the way to go for other species, with a Vexilar FL-18 flasher definitely part of hooking up on a consistent basis.

Contact: Outdoor Allure guide service, (715) 373-0551 or www.outdoorallure.com.

NELSON LAKE

This stained 2,502-acre Sawyer County lake is one of the best in the northwoods - if not our entire state - for icing a great meal of crappies and bluegills.

This is the kind of place where you can consistently fill a 10-panfish limit all winter long, with three fish of either species enough to feed the heartiest appetite. Nelson has a history of producing whopper bluegills, with a chance of icing an honest 2-pounder, with 14-inch crappies also a part of any serious day spent on the ice.

Since Nelson is fairly shallow, it is one of the first lakes to freeze in the cool, blue north. However, use due caution because ice is often weaker under the serpentine Totagatic River that winds through the lake, and under bogs that drift around Nelson which are now locked up in ice.

Locals know these bogs are panfish magnets, especially under first-ice conditions. Later in the year, remaining green vegetation and wood in Crappie Bay is a popular community spot, just out from the boat ramp access, as is Dutchman's Hole where the old river channel runs in close proximity to a large hump covered with woody structure. Locals have augmented the appeal of "The Hole" with several cribs and other cover. You won't need a GPS to find this spot. Just look for the light of lanterns. Come within earshot and you'll hear considerable laughter and the sound of fins slapping the ice.

Contact: Hayward Area Lakes Resort Association, (715) 634-4801 or www.haywardlakes.com.

THUNDER & PIONEER LAKES

If you're coming to Eagle River from downstate with a powerful hankerin' to get your string stretched, Thunder Lake can take the edge off before you head north into town to look for lodging.

There is good access on either end of the lake, but the best action is typically around the island or just out from the access point on the lake's north end. Set a couple of tip-ups for pike along the weed edge and then poke a few holes in weedy pockets to look for crappies.

Mobility is the key for finding crappies here. If the Vexilar says there are no fish suspended down there and nothing takes your minnow within 10 minutes, try moving 100 yards away. Once you find 'em, don't get comfortable. Filling a bucket usually means staying on the move ahead of the silvery herd.

Pioneer Lake is another water that you can cover effectively in a very short time. This panfish and pike water is a predictable basin with fish relating to any green weeds you can find. The bay directly across from the access point on the lake's south side off of Chicago Avenue west of Highway 17 is a good place to start, with a good chance that your next move will be someplace warm to clean fish.

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

MILLER DAM FLOWAGE

Located just off the beaten path near Medford is one of the best crappie waters in our state. Five year-classes of crappies swim here, and when you figure the life cycle of a crappie is about five years, it's easy to see why Miller Dam Flowage is a perpetual papermouth producer.

This is classic crappie water - also known as Chequamegon Waters Flowage on some maps - with fish relating close to the amazing amount of wood. Probably the best spot is around the Bear Creek access point where a number of cribs have been placed to hold fish. An aerator placed here several years ago keeps fish active all winter long. However, use due caution because all the aeration causes weak spots under the ice.

At first ice, most anglers are up in the shallow, weedy Beaver Creek sanctuary. In a few weeks when snow cover depletes oxygen levels here, the fish will relocate along the old creek channels where you'll find them all winter long.

Although Miller Dam Flowage borders the Chequamegon National Forest, the surrounding area is more farming country than pristine wilderness, with access to all kinds of services close at hand.

Don't overlook some of the other little lakes in Taylor County. Rib, Spirit, Richter, Sackett and Esadore all hold fish. The High View Inn, overlooking Esadore, has my vote as the best fishing "shanty" in Wisconsin. There is something special about watching your tip-ups through a picture window while sipping a perfect Manhattan - and waiting for the king-cut prime rib to arrive.

Contact: Fuzzy's General Store, (715) 785-7977 or www.medfordwis.com.

DELAVAN LAKE

If Doug Welch ever decides to quit as a DNR fisheries biologist he can always get work as a magician. His work on Walworth County's heavily pressured Delavan Lake is nothing short of amazing.

Watch me pull a crappie out of a hat. Whoops! Jumbo perch! Shucks! Nice walleye. Pay no attention to my assistant who is running for another pike on a tip-up. Aha! Nuts, another bluegill. Finally, a crappie. This one's only 12 inches.

If you're fishing after dark with a Hali Jig over 45 to 50 feet of water off of Willow Point, there is a real good chance that whopper crappies will be the main attraction. Duri

ng daylight hours at other points on the lake you can bank on a duke's mixture of other species, most of quality dimensions.

Delavan is one of the most heavily pressured fishing lakes in the state. But thanks to sound fisheries management, this 2,072-acre lake continues to produce year after year. The downside is, once "hooked" on Delavan, few anglers want to venture out on other southern Wisconsin lakes.

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

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

Except for a couple of weeks in early January, finding a mixed bag of panfish in backwaters of the Mississippi River approaches sure-thing status almost all winter long. Sometimes fish are hitting all over the place. Sometimes just a couple of areas are producing consistent catches.

Between now and New Year's Day and again from Valentine's Day to ice-out sometime in March you can experience a low-tech, sure-fire bite somewhere along our western border, with fish just a short walk or quick snowmobile ride from the closest access point if the ice isn't thick enough to permit vehicular travel.

If you have an ice auger, $10 for a jigging stick and a few lures, you can be a serious player here. No ice auger? Somebody will probably tap a couple of holes for you at no charge, and even tell you what lure is working best. The Mississippi is just that kind of place.

Bass and the occasional pike come through the ice here, some of whopper proportions. But the real draw is crappies, bluegills and perch. Two years ago I thought I was hot stuff with three 11- to 12-inch perch on the ice. Then Jesse Boardman showed me a Polaroid of a 17-incher, its length confirmed by a yardstick. The fish looked like a smallmouth bass in a yellow-and-black-striped jail jumpsuit.

Sometimes you just want to see how quick you can catch fish. One morning last winter three of us planned on going crappie fishing on Pool No. 10 near Prairie du Chien. Then one - who shall remain nameless - whined about getting called into work and needing the overtime money more than a mess of crappies to feed his family. It didn't take much goading to convince this misguided soul he could cover all the bases with less than an hour on the ice. Dave Koonce and I helped him fill a 25-fish limit in 18 minutes. Koonce had seven fish flopping on the ice before the "Unknown Sportsman" or I could even get a jig down.

The fishing really can be that good. But you're only a weapon if you're out there on the ice. Doing the couch potato thing or surfing the Web won't give you any reason to fire up the deep fryer. But checking the Web site noted below before heading out will shorten the time between thinking about going fishing and looking for the fillet knife considerably - both on the Mississippi and at other waters.

Contact: www.In-depthangling.com.



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