By Ted Peck
Long before Prozac, Wisconsin anglers discovered that putting a mess of bluegills and crappies on the ice was a great way to cope with winter here in America’s Dairyland.
Bluegills may be the most populous sportfish in our state, found almost anywhere there is water. Crappies are plentiful, too. But then there are crappie waters and there are slabber haunts.
Here is a look at some great places just down the road where you can get your string stretched and chill out without getting cold – if you remember the portable shanty and a good heater.
Microsoft should pick guide George Langley’s brain. The longtime Eagle River resident is a walking CD-ROM of virtually every lake in Vilas County. When asked to pick the two best panfish lakes in his neck of the woods, the little “hourglass” in his eyes which signals deep thoughts only flashed for a nanosecond before he blurted out “Boot and Pioneer.”
“You have to go looking for the really big ‘gills in Pioneer,” Langley said. “Mobility is a real key in finding the bigger fish.”
Langley usually begins his quest behind the island on the south side in Boat Landing Bay in this 427-acre lake five miles north of town.
“There is a long finger bar and weedy delta in front of Pioneer Creek,” he said. “This is a great place to look for both bluegills and crappies, especially the weed edges of the delta and the point off of the island for crappies.”
“Boot Lake is a real sleeper,” Langley continued. “Just full of nice bluegills and slab crappies.”
Langley says that access can be difficult if the snow is deep, but if you can get on the lake, the large bay north of the boat landing at the edges of the large weedflat are notorious for holding big bluegills.
“The weedline in the dark waters of Boot Lake is very distinct,” said Langley. “Just work the weedline, especially around the lake’s two points, and you’ll find the fish.”
Contacts: Eagle Sports, (715) 479-8804 or www.eaglesports.com; Eagle River Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-359-6315.
Sawyer County is another northwoods panfish mecca with more water than land. The crown jewel for bluegills and crappies has to be Nelson Lake, which holds its own with any panfish lake anywhere in Wisconsin.
Nelson is a stained, shallow flowage of the Totagatic River with an amazing array of natural timber supplemented by numerous manmade cribs. The epicenter of panfish activity is Dutchman’s Hole, a community spot where woody structure and a natural hump combine to hold fish all winter long. Crappie Bay holds plenty of slab papermouths and bluegills, too.
It doesn’t take long to fill a 10-fish limit once you find them. And having a limit tipping the scales at over 10 pounds is not out of the question. Nelson has produced two state-record ‘gills over the years, with fisheries surveys indicating 2-pound fish still swimming here.
Nelson is one of the most popular panfish lakes in Wisconsin for at least two reasons – quality fish and easy year-round access.
At only 323 acres, Smith Lake is tiny compared with 2,502-acre Nelson just down the road. Although Smith has similar water color characteristics to Nelson, it is known for numbers of fish rather than whoppers, and as a great place to get kids hooked on fishing.
If you’re looking for bluegills, target weeds near the lake’s north end. A pink-glow Genz Worm tipped with a wax worm is a deadly bait. Crappies are a little tougher to find, especially during midwinter. Poke a bunch of holes across the faceless midlake basin and use electronics to find fish suspended about halfway down over about 19 to 22 feet of water.
Sawyer County is splattered with many smaller lakes, many of which are scarcely larger than farm ponds. Most of these have good to excellent panfish populations that can be probed efficiently with very little time on the ice. Derosier, Tranus and the Colton flowage are all great places to ice a mess of panfish.
Fifty-eight acre Chippanzie may be the very best of the little lakes for both size and numbers. Access is best accomplished by snowmobile. Finding fish is a run-and-gun operation using a power drill and electronics.
With very little structurally to hold fish and lower oxygen levels that come with heavy snowcover at midwinter, look for fish cruising the midlake basin, suspended over about 30 feet of water, 4 to 10 feet off the bottom. A good flasher like the Vexilar FL-18 is worth its weight in gold when fishing lakes like Chippanzie. Glow-in-the-dark Rat Finkees work quite well here, taking care to adjust the knot after each fish so that the bait hovers in a horizontal orientation.
Contacts: Hayward Lakes Resort Association, (715) 634-4801 or www.haywardlakes.com; Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce, (715) 634-8662 or www.hayward.org; Pastika’s Sporting Goods, (715) 635-4466.
Although bordered by the Chequamegon National Forest, this sprawling, stained flowage has a definite farm-country ambience. All services and amenities are available in Medford, just a couple miles down the blacktop in Taylor County.
Green weeds are the primary key for locating this flowage’s finned biomass. When a water body gets covered with heavy snow, photosynthesis becomes difficult, with dying vegetation becoming an oxygen consumer rather than an oxygen producer. Find green weeds and you are assured that oxygen levels are adequate to support fish life as well. Landing “on the green” may take a little frogging around to accomplish, but the hour it may take to find healthy weeds is worth the effort. Access to the lake is good from several different points around the lake.
You’ll be fishing less than 10 feet of water. Because this flowage has typical stained color, loud, obnoxious florescent colors and glow baits are the best way to go. By far the hottest bait going on Miller Dam Flowage – also known as Chequamegon Waters Flowage – is a red or green-glow Fat Boy jig with a Lindy Techni-Glo Tail plastic trailer and no live bait. Lindy Little-Joe is marketing several new colors this year, with red-hued plastic resembling a bloodworm – a primary winter forage here – offering exciting potential.
Fuzzy’s General Store, (715) 785-7977; Taylor County Tourism, 1-888-682-9567.
Fertile Lake Waubesa at the lower end of the Madison Chain has been a predictable producer of winter panfish for as long as anybody still fishing can remember. Although it is rare to catch a 10-inch bluegill or 13-inch crappie, there is no better place in southern Wisconsin to consistently ice a limit of keepers.
Because of this long-standing notoriety, many anglers seldom venture far from established “community spots” like the vast flat out from the Babcock Park boat ramp. Access can be a little tricky here because the Yahara River remains open into the lake almost all winter long.
On the north side past the tiny island out from the ramp is a steep breakline off of Rockford Heights that is the most popular crappie spot on the lake. Although you can catch a nice mess of fish during daylight hours here, the best action is typically after mid-February – and a good hour after sunset.
Hordes of anglers camp on weedbeds on the south side of this lake out from Goodland Park in search of bluegills. If discretion is less important than filling a limit, this is the place to go.
I’ll never forget a firehouse meal of Waubesa bluegills as a rookie for the City of Beloit Fire Department over 25 years ago. A firefighter known as “The Hammer” brought in a limit of fish, which was 50 in those days. When the crew of seven guys had finished eating, only a couple of filets remained on the platter. Hammer’s paramedic partner decided to display the remains of our feast for the oncoming shift by tacking the filet to the wall. It was years before Hammer fed us again.
Not that all of Waubesa’s gills give up mere “potato chip” filets. You can fill a limit of truly respectable bluegills by simply moving northeast away from the crowds and locating openings in the deep-water weed edge where there is at least 12 feet of water. These fish are a long walk from any access point, so few people bother to look here. And concentrations of fish move around somewhat over perhaps 15 acres of lake through the weeds. So you have to find ‘em every day. But when you do find the fish, you’re in business.
Contact: Ron Barefield’s Fishing Adventures Guide Service, (608) 838-8756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crappies and bluegills from this amazing 2,072-acre Walworth County lake have captured top honors in an annual ice-fishing tournament sponsored on all public waters by U-Catch Em Bait Shop south of Janesville every year since the event started three years ago. Last winter, shop owner Mike McLain simply inked in “Delavan” under both of these panfish columns so he only needed to fill in the winning name and weight at tourney’s weigh-in. Delavan is that good.
The dominant year-class of crappies is about 13 inches, with a few larger specimens still swimming beneath the ice here, any of which is a serious contender for breaking Wisconsin’s crappie record.
Finding consistent success on Delavan’s crappies means venturing out at night. You won’t need a GPS – just look for the cluster of ice shanties scattered between Willow Point and the yacht club.
This is a finesse bite, with considerable expertise required in coaxing a possible 17-inch crappie from suspension halfway down in 50 feet of water through the ice on 1-pound-test line. Although a number of crappie baits will work, the hands-down local favorite is a little ice fly called the Hali Jig tipped with a Lindy Techni-Glo Tail.
Bluegills also receive a fair amount of attention, especially early and late in the ice-fishing season. The long bar off Lake Lawn Lodge holds ‘gills in the weeds and off of the edges all winter long, with weed edges on the far west end of the lake a quick place for a sure limit just before ice-out.
Contact: Delavan Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-624-0052 or www.delavanwi.org; Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle, (262) 245-6150.
This 6,000-acre northeastern Wisconsin lake has to be one of the top five multi-species lakes in the entire state, with solid populations of bluegills and crappies providing hardwater action all season long.
At first ice you’ll find ‘gills holding along the 6- to 8-foot weed edge, with the most popular spot out from the Sunset Bar on the lake’s southwest side. As winter establishes a firmer hold and weeds begin to die off, larger bluegills congregate on remaining weed patches before sliding into deeper water like the 12-foot flat off of Schumacher Island.
By this time of year, bluegill activity is a lot like walleye fishing – just a flurry early and late in the day or ahead of an approaching weather system. Green has always been a popular color on Shawano for bluegills through the ice. Somewhere between Kelly green and chartreuse will be the exact shade these fish want on any given day when they finally decide to eat.
From now until late March most panfish anglers on this sprawling lake target the crappie population. According to the DNR, Shawano has at least three solid year-classes of respectable crappies in the system. The bite starts picking up toward the end of January and sees geometric improvement past Valentine’s Day until almost ice-out, with the best fishing coming in the evening over 10 to 12 feet of water.
If you’re fishing alone, poke a half-dozen pairs of holes over perhaps an acre on the 10- to 12-foot contour, then hang a rosy red or small fathead on a basic split shot and hook on one line, and work a No. 3 chartreuse/silver Jigging Rapala on the other.
Electronics are both a great way to locate fish initially and target them at suspended depth. Remember, crappies’ eye placement near the top of their heads makes it most efficient to feed from below. Move until you see fish, then stay with them. If the electronics indicate fish hovering at 8 feet, fish at 6 feet and let the fish come up to you. If they shy away, try downsizing the bait presentation with little jigging. A 6-inch dropper of 1-pound-test line with a single spike dangling below a Swedish Pimple is a crappie killer.
Contact: Shawano Tourism Council, 1-800-235-8528 or www.shawanocounty.com or www.wisconsinsplayground.com.
Wisconsin’s western border – the mighty Mississippi River – is our longest linear fishin’ hole, with backwater action that can be beyond incredible on the hardwater.
Every river pool has spots that attract both fish and anglers on the ice. Pool 10 and the backwaters around Prairie du Chien are as good as any. Many of these backwaters have local names that don’t appear on any maps – besides crude ones with “X’s” drawn on bar napkins and similar stationery. Ask any river rat living within 30 miles of “Prairie” where Ambro Slough is and he’ll tell you it’s right next to Mud Lake, just a short hike
from Big and Little Missouri. In reality, the only discernable difference between all of these sloughs is the distance you have to walk from an access point. Maybe that’s how the Missouri Sloughs got their name – both are a long walk from the truck.
Every winter the crappie action on Ambro/Mud/Big-Little Missouri is a cacophony of fins slapping on the ice when the bite is on. Most years, this is from the end of January until ice-out sometime in March.
Fishing tactics haven’t changed that much since I started ice-fishing on the Mississippi over 40 years ago. The most significant change is many anglers have gone to 4-foot-long graphite poles with coiled spring bobbers rather than the 2-foot sticks used when I was a kid.
There isn’t time to get cold. You don’t need live bait, either. The No. 2 Rembrandt willow spoon that worked so well when I was a kid still catches fish, especially the black and purple models. This is a good lure to pull out when action on the L’il Mick, also known as the L’il Cecil, slows down. Catch somebody on the way back from fishin’ and he may tell you that the crappies are really pounding the L’il Mick on Ambro. He isn’t intentionally lying. The fish in his bucket probably came from Little Missouri on a L’il Cecil. As the saying goes, same difference.
A call to one of the bait shops listed below will give you an idea on how and where the fish are going. Even better is a Web site (www.in-depthangling.com) listing river stages, guides, techniques and more. One of the most knowledgeable anglers on Pool 10, and a regular on the Web site, is Dave Koonce, who goes by the handle “Ecnook” online.
But if you’re looking for Dave on the river, ask for either Big Pahoo or the Mik-Meister, both of which are misleading because Koonce prefers the L’il Cecil and his very close friends call him Little Pahoo. Life has a way of sorting itself out over on the river, where Pahoo and I are likely wailing on the slabbers right now. Probably on Little Missouri. Unless we’re fishing up on Pool 9 in Minnesota Slough.
If you’re still confused, head north of “Prairie” on Highway 35. You’ll see a bunch of folks fishing right along the road. This is called Cold Springs. Don’t ask why. Don’t fish the L’il Cecil here either. Try a chartreuse Rat Finkee with plastic. You’ll catch mostly ‘gills at Cold Springs.
Contacts: Cap’n Hook’s Bait & Tackle, (608) 689-2800; Mississippi Sports & Recreation, (608) 648-3630; guide Dave Koonce, (608) 326-4561.
Those should be enough hotspots to help you cope with winter.
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