Now's the perfect time to be out on the ice in search of great-tasting bluegills, walleyes, yellow perch and more. Here are five "hard-to-beat" places to try! (January 2007)
Winter bluegills can be caught on a variety of small jigs. Try experimenting with different colors until you determine what color works best.
Photo by Tom Berg.
Last January featured some extremely unusual weather for us Hoosiers. There were few continued cold spells and even less snow! Although some people enjoyed it, it wreaked havoc with Indiana's hardwater angling. By the first week of January, there was little or no ice-fishing going on anywhere in the state.
How did this happen? Let's look back at some of the temperatures from last winter. The ice-fishing season actually got underway much earlier than usual. A brutal cold snap hit the area around Thanksgiving, and by the first week of December, the temperature in the northwest part of the state was getting down into the single digits almost every night. Things were looking great for ice-fishermen!
On Dec. 6 (2005), the mercury dipped to minus 4 degrees, and the temperature never rose above freezing for the first three weeks of December! There were four nights of below-zero temperatures, and the ice-making machines on the lakes were really working overtime! Die-hard ice-fishermen (or those with heated shanties) were drilling holes and fishing long before Christmas!
Unfortunately, a strong warming trend embraced the entire Midwest just before Christmas, and temperatures quickly climbed into the 40s and 50s during the first two weeks of January. On Jan. 12, the temperature reached 55 degrees! Quite a bit of rain accompanied the warm weather, and that put a quick end to the ice-fishing.
No one can accurately predict what the weather will be like this winter, but hopefully, the ice will appear early and stay late. As long as we have a "normal" winter (and not a repeat of last January), the ice-fishermen will have a good chance to get out on their favorite waters or try a few new lakes for a change of pace.
With that in mind, Indiana Game & Fish magazine has identified five excellent places where Hoosier ice-fishermen can try their luck. They include: Clear Lake in Steuben County, J.C. Murphey Lake in Newton County, Lake Wawasee in Kosciusko County, Westwood Run Lake in Henry County and the Kankakee River backwaters along the Lake County/Newton County line.
The northernmost body of water on our list of great ice-fishing lakes is the aptly named Clear Lake. Located almost straight east of the town of Fremont in Steuben County, Clear Lake covers 800 acres and boasts crystal-clear water, especially during the winter. It also boasts a fantastic fishery, which includes everything from panfish and bass to pike and trout. Who could ask for anything more?
Many of Clear Lake's ice-fishermen are there for only one thing: bluegills. The lake has many bluegill hotspots, but one of the perennial favorites is near a 20-foot-deep hole along the northern shoreline. Local angler Bill LaVigne from Fort Wayne is an expert when it comes to fishing Clear Lake; he points to this spot for its consistent bluegill action.
"That is one of the winter hotspots," he said. "There are a lot of big bluegills caught from that hole.
"Clear Lake has got some really huge bluegills in it. If you start catching 10-inchers, people don't get too excited about it here. But they're not just 10-inchers, they are 1 1/4 inches thick, too! They are huge!"
One of the drawbacks to Clear Lake's big bluegills, however, is that they are often finicky and won't bite. Some anglers go to great lengths to stay quiet and fish in shanties to minimize unnatural light or shadows around their ice holes.
In addition to bluegill fishermen, there are some panfish aficionados who prefer to fish for yellow perch. "The big flat between the island and the peninsula on the east shoreline is a popular area for perch fishermen," LaVigne said.
The flat is only about 6 feet deep, but it is surrounded by very steep dropoffs. One hole just to the south of it is 90 feet deep, and another is over 100 feet. Sometimes the perch fishermen are harassed by marauding rainbow trout that devour their perch minnows, and then escape by breaking the light line!
Other fishermen will target walleyes and northern pike. Walleyes are abundant, since the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regularly stocks the lake with them. These fish are averaging about 17 inches long. "There are a fair number of anglers who will jig deep for walleyes," LaVigne said. "They might fish as deep as 40 feet, using small jigging lures."
Pike, on the other hand, are neither abundant nor small. Their numbers are not large, but some of the individual fish can be huge. Most pike anglers will use large minnows set under tip-ups spaced along the edge of dropoffs. Clear Lake usually gives up at least one pike every winter in the 20-pound class. As a matter of fact, the state-record northern pike was caught here in 1992. It weighed a whopping 30 pounds, 2 ounces.
J.C. MURPHEY LAKE
Ice-fishermen in the northwest part of the state should experience fantastic panfish action this season in the newly renovated J.C. Murphey Lake near Morocco. The lake, also known as Willow Slough, is a shallow 1,200- acre impoundment inside the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA).
J.C. Murphey Lake was recently drained and renovated to remove undesirable rough fish such as carp and shad. In the fall of 2004, the lake was allowed to refill, and it was re-stocked with several species of game fish, including bluegills, redear sunfish, black crappies and largemouth bass. Additional stockings of northern pike and channel catfish (and more of the same panfish) were completed in 2005.
As is typical of newly renovated lakes, the fish in Murphey Lake have been growing at nearly unbelievable rates. One factor that has benefited the growing fish population is the lake's shallow water. The average depth here is only about 3 feet, and the abundance of weedy, brushy cover that grew while the lake was drained has provided cover for the young fish and a veritable smorgasbord of insects for them to eat.
According to Jeremy Price, a District 1 assistant fisheries biologist, J.C. Murphey Lake will definitely be a great place for ice-fishermen to try this year. "We were pretty impressed with what we found here," he said. "We started stocking fish in the fall of 2004, and during a fish survey in May 2006, we were already seeing redears up to 9 inches. The biggest bluegill we caught was just shy of 8 inch
es, too. The majority of the redears that we caught were between 7.5 and 8.5 inches," continued Price. "We caught lots of bluegills over 6 inches, and we also got some smaller fish to indicate that there is natural reproduction. There is excellent size structure already."
Mike Schoonveld is Willow Slough's assistant property manager. He reported that although the fish will likely experience another growth spurt in the fall, they had already grown quite a bit between the May survey and press time.
"Right now," Schoonveld said, "a limit of bluegills includes about one-third bluegills over 8 inches, with the remaining two-thirds of the fish ranging from 7 to 8 inches. Also, redears over 9 inches long are being caught regularly," he added.
"The huge surprise at Willow Slough, though, is pike," Price said. "We stocked pike in June 2005 (fry and fingerlings), and in May 2006, we caught pike up to 23.1 inches long! That's huge growth!"
Price took some scale samples and verified that the fish were only 1-year-old northern pike. "Those fish grew 20 inches in a single growing year," he beamed.
Note that J.C. Murphey Lake has some new regulations that were started in 2006. Anglers may keep a total of 25 panfish per day (a total of 25 bluegills, crappies and redears in any combination). There is also a two-bass bag limit, and an 18-inch minimum size limit for the bass.
Anyone who enjoys having plenty of room to roam while ice-fishing will absolutely love Lake Wawasee in Kosciusko County. At more than 3,400 acres, Lake Wawasee is the largest natural inland lake in Indiana. So there are a tremendous number of places to drill a hole and start fishing on this vast lake.
According to Jed Pearson, the District 3 fisheries biologist, Lake Wawasee is a popular destination for area hardwater anglers. Panfish are the main target of these enthusiasts, and for good reason. A 2004 fish survey found bluegills up to 9 inches, redear sunfish up to 11 inches and crappies up to nearly 14 inches. The lake also has excellent populations of perch, northern pike, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass.
Since this water is so large, the main lake usually takes longer to freeze than its smaller bays and channels. The channels, in particular, usually host the first ice-fishermen of the season, and first-ice action is typically excellent. "A lot of the early ice-fishing occurs in the manmade channels around the north end of Johnson Bay," Pearson said. "Later, Conklin Bay, on the lake's west side, is very good for bluegills and other panfish."
Steve Roth is a local angler from Syracuse who likes to fish Wawasee during the winter. He reports that the fishing was good last year until the warm spell in January. "The bluegills and crappies were really in the channels at first ice," he said. "I used ice flies almost exclusively for bluegills, redears and crappies, and I did very well."
Lake access can be limited during first ice when the main lake is not completely frozen yet. Get permission for local parking and for crossing private property when heading for the channels, as trespassing is illegal. Once the main lake is properly frozen, access is not a problem -- as long as you have an ATV or don't mind walking!
One recent development at Lake Wawasee was the discovery of white bass by local ice-fishermen. "White bass were not present in the lake until 2003, when ice-fishermen started catching them in a channel off Southeast Bay," Pearson said.
Although white bass are a sportfish, Pearson is concerned that another predator species may cause problems in the forage fish populations. "We're not really happy that they are now in the lake," he continued, "but we'll try to keep tabs on the long-term consequences on the native fish community."
The backwaters, sloughs and bayous of the Kankakee River are a favorite spot for many northwest Indiana ice-anglers, and as soon as the ice is safe, there will be plenty of people drilling holes all over it. Note that we said the backwaters, not the main river. The shallow, brushy, often narrow areas that are out of the river's main current are the places to be.
One of the more popular spots on the Kankakee is at LaSalle FWA near the Schneider and Sumava resorts. Numerous small bayous and out-of-the-way backwaters that are filled with waterlogged timber and submerged tree branches, characterize the LaSalle area.
Past creel surveys showed good catches of black crappies here (up to 13 inches), but chunky bluegills are often the main target of fishermen during first-ice. Large numbers of bluegills can be iced in a short amount of time when they go on a feeding binge just before dark, so be ready for action. Some of the bluegills can top the 9-inch mark, and big crappies are often mixed in with these bluegills, too.
Since the water is typically very shallow in these backwater sloughs, it pays to be quiet to avoid spooking the fish. Many anglers will drill several holes in different locations before they even start fishing, so that later they can quietly walk from one spot to another without making any noise or drilling more holes.
A note of caution: When ice-fishing in any area with moving water, it is important to be very careful. Avoid areas with any appreciable current flow. Those spots can be extremely dangerous, since the moving water can melt away the ice from underneath, making it thin and unstable without any visible signs. Never fish alone, and make sure your fishing partners remain vigilant for thin ice, too. It's also a good idea to carry a walking stick and a coiled length of rope, just in case you or someone else falls through the ice.
WESTWOOD RUN LAKE
Westwood Run Lake, also called Westwood Lake, is located in Henry County's Westwood Park about four miles from New Castle. This impoundment covers 173 surface acres, and reaches depths of more than 40 feet at the south end near the dam. Most Hoosier winters are cold enough to provide safe ice at this popular lake, and once the ice has thickened, enthusiastic anglers arrive in good numbers.
Jan Crider is the property manager at Westwood Park. He said that the lake is an excellent destination for panfish anglers. "The bluegill fishing has been excellent lately," he said. "I would say the average size bluegill ranges from 7 to 10 inches. There are some really big bluegills here!"
Rhett Wisener, a District 5 fisheries biologist, also points to Westwood Lake as a good choice for hardwater anglers this year. "From recent surveys, I know that there are bluegills over 8 inches and redear sunfish over 9 inches at Westwood. Bluegills are the most prevalent species, also."
The survey shows that a very large percentage of redears caught from this lake measure between 7 and 9 inches long.
Fishermen entering the park should go past the entrance gate, and then bear to the left. "There is a plowed-off parking lot before you reach th
e campground," said Crider, "and that's where everyone parks. The parking lot is located where the road makes a sharp right turn; that turn is what locals call 'the Curve.' Park there and walk down the hill to the lake."
Crider recommends fishing the north end of the lake for bluegills, redears and crappies. "The lake is long and narrow, and we have a large resident goose population that tends to camp out in the open water between the boat ramp and the dam. So, the southern end of the lake is generally not visited by ice-fishermen. They go to the upper end of the lake."
Winter fishermen should feel free to call the Westwood Park office at (765) 987-1232 to check on local ice conditions.
Find more about Indiana fishing and hunting at: IndianaGameandFish.com