Wisconsin's Winter Pike Hotspots
September 30, 2010
Sometimes you want to catch something with teeth -- big teeth. Luckily, Wisconsin lakes are full of northern pike.
This angler's day on the ice paid off in a huge northern. Photo by Billy Lindner/Windigo Images.
When you think of ice-fishing for northern pike, you probably think about keeping warm while chasing tip-ups. While I share some of those same memories, I, unfortunately, remember one of my most embarrassing moments.
Back in my college days, I went ice-fishing with my dad and brother on one of our favorite northern lakes. In fact, all we did that day was go after northerns. We had tip-ups set along the deep river channel while we jigged with rods along the edge. So, there I am jigging my brother's rod and reel because I had yet to discover the joys of jigging for myself, when what happens? I get bored. Who doesn't? Sometimes holding a rod with a minnow at the other end gets really old, really fast. So, I put my rod on the ice, with the minnow still down the hole, with the intention of walking 20 feet to the sled for a drink and coming back. I'm sure you know what comes next.
As soon as I am 10 feet away, the rod goes skidding across the ice and down the hole. I dive back toward the hole only to see the butt of the rod swimming past. I think briefly of plunging my arm down into the icy water, but alas, I change my mind as my rod is gone in a flash. I get up, slam my hat to the ground, start stomping my feet and uttering some choice words. The whole time my dad and brother are looking down their holes, pretending to fish while their shoulders are bouncing up and down as they try to hide their laughter. I have yet to live that day down.
So when safe ice finally comes, fishing for bluegills in an ice shack can be fun and productive, yet, sometimes you just want that blood-pumping feeling of a heavy thump, thump, thump of something larger on the other end of the line. Sometimes you want to catch something with teeth -- big teeth. Luckily, there are many lakes in Wisconsin with northerns in them.
Those of you who have fished northerns more than once in your life know the traditional approach of using a minnow and a tip-up. All three of the guides in this article recommend fishing for pike along weed edges, in the weeds, and in open pockets within the weeds. And while this is the standard operating procedure, there are other creative ways to catch pike. Here are some ideas, and some lakes, where you can get started.
Eric Haataja of Big Fish Guide Service likes Browns Lake in Racine County.
"This lake can produce all-day action," he said. "It is primarily a shallow lake. When I'm going for pike, I look for large weedbeds or where thick weeds meet thin weeds. I'll try the traditional large or medium golden shiner on a tip-up around the weed edges.
"I also like Big Muskego and Bass Bay. This system doesn't really have deep holes; it is more like a big flat. Still, there are plenty of weed pockets to try.
"Lake Delevan has a few expansive weedbeds on the north and south ends of the lake inside the big bays. This lake has good numbers of northerns, and some pretty big ones mixed in because of the 32-inch, one-fish limit."
Haataja said when fishing Lake Mendota, look for the big weed edges like University Bay and Dunns Bar and fish 20 feet down in 20 to 25 feet of water.
For some trophy pike, he recommends trying the Lake Michigan harbors.
"There are some really big northerns swimming in the harbors that very few fishermen go after," he said.
"I like to jig for northerns," Haataja said. "I use a Gamakatsu darter head jig. I'll use the 1/4-ounce in shallow water and a 1/2-ounce in deeper water. I start with Fireline on the spool. To that I attach a 3-foot, 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. Then I attach the jig and bait it with a 4- or 5-inch white or chartreuse Gulp! minnow. I prefer snap jigging the bait over rocks, on weeds or around weeds. I just flick my wrist up and let the bait swim down naturally. If you want, you can put on a small stinger hook in the tail of the minnow, but make sure that you hook the stinger in a way that lets the minnow swim naturally. I only use the stinger in rock situations. I wouldn't recommend a stinger in the weeds.
"Another jigging technique that I use is a jigging Rapala. I'll use the same setup on my jigging rod, but I'll put on the jigging Rapala, often switching out the existing hook under the belly with a bigger and stronger hook. For color choice, I prefer the firetiger."
We all know folks do things a little bit differently up north.
"Yeah, I suppose that's true," said Roger LaPenter of Anglers All in Ashland. And the same holds true when talking about northern fishing.
"Have you heard about how we spear northerns in Chequamegon Bay?" he asked. "It is an old technique and there are still a few guys who do it. They will make a large hole in shallow water less than 10 feet deep, cover it with a dark house and then work a decoy. They will make the decoy swim or move slowly up and down. The decoy will be either a perch, sucker, walleye or sunfish. If a legal northern swims by, they will spear it much like they spear sturgeon farther south.
"Another good technique for northerns is to use live smelt. Be aware that to legally fish live smelt, you need to catch them in the same lake that you will use them. To catch smelt in the bay, you use a small jig tipped with a wax worm in 25 to 30 feet of water. Most of the time, you will need a Vexilar to find the schools of smelt. On a good day, you can catch 50 to 200 smelt in a day. There is no limit on smelt, but you cannot bring any smelt off the ice alive."
"Once you have a live smelt, run the hook through the back so that the smelt can still swim around naturally. Or you can cut the smelt in half and suspend the smelt above the weeds or alongside the weeds. I use 80-pound braided Dacron with a 9- to 12-inch wire leader. I prefer the soft wire to the hard, jerkbait wire." (The northerns in the bay can run 40 to 50 inches. LaPenter advises again using monofilament for a leader because the northerns will cut right through it.)
"I'll use a single hook in a one aught or two aught size. If the northerns are really fussy, I'll use ones or twos."
LaPenter also uses large muskie jigs with Mr. Twistertails and other unique presentations.
"The new plastic baits like the Storm Kicking Minnow and other minnow imitations can
be deadly," he said. "I've even seen some guys using spinnerbaits. Esox Cobras can be good, too, and you can buy those with leaders already on them."
Chequamegon Bay is a really large place and has many unique features. To have the best fishing experience, LaPenter recommends hiring a guide.
"We have seiches out here that most people aren't used to. Your bait can be moving in or out depending on the seiche. You'll need different sizes of bell sinkers depending on the power of the seiche and the depth you are trying to fish. We also have ice floes, and if you aren't familiar with them, it is pretty easy to get stranded."
Another consideration before going out on Chequamegon Bay is good gear. LaPenter recommends an Otter sled and a really solid shelter. Jacquart makes a teepee specifically for the bay and Mackey makes a five-sided pop-up tent in a couple of sizes that can stand up to the winter elements on the bay. Also, LaPenter advises that ATVs are too dangerous to use on the bay. "If you are going to get serious about ice-fishing the bay, get a snowmobile. Too many people get their ATVs stuck on the other side of the cracks. Snowmobiles can jump the cracks where ATVs can't."
For inland lakes, LaPenter recommends Lake Namekagon, Lake Owen and the Pike Lake Chain with Eagle Lake being the best lake in the chain.
"On the inland lakes I look for weed edges and weedtops," he said. "I fish all of these lakes the same way even though they are different waters. Northerns are opportunistic and if they see a baitfish stranded, they will eat it. You can't fish smelt on the inland waters, so I use a large golden shiner or a large sucker minnow. I've found that if you scale the minnow before you put it down it works better than one with scales. I'm not sure why, I just know that it works. Also, I am finding that the Gulp! Alive products work as well as live bait. Sometimes you might need a little flash to get their attention. Then you can put on a spinner blade above the wire leader. I've even seen guys use tin foil."
For more information about fishing in northwestern Wisconsin, call LaPenter at (715) 682-5754.
In the middle part of the state, a good place to look for northerns is on backwaters and lakes associated with the Wisconsin River.
"I look for large weedbeds, but not the weeds that come to the surface," Phil Schweik of Hooksetters Guide Service said. "You want to find those weeds that are 1 to 2 feet below the surface. Once you've found the weeds, I find that the biggest mistake guys make is they put the bait 6 to 8 inches off the bottom. You don't want to do this. I put the bait right under the ice. Northerns have eyes on top of their heads, so they are generally looking up. If you put the bait 6 inches from the bottom, they are much less likely to see it than if you put it right under the surface.
"Another technique that I like to use is putting an attractor above the bait. I'll start with Fireline or some kind of braid on the spool. Then I will attach a barrel swivel. Under that, I'll put a colored bead or a blade. This helps to make a flash and draw attention to the bait. I'll use orange or chartreuse for the beads and gold or nickel for the blade. Under this, I'll have 14-pound monofilament leader that is about a foot to a foot and a half in length. When I am fishing in areas with stumps, I'll use braid all the way to the hook. But if there are walleyes in the area, I'll use mono. For bait, I like a large or medium shiner or sucker minnow. The later it gets in the season, the larger the bait I will use."
Here are some of the lakes that Schweik recommends. Be aware that these lakes are part of the Wisconsin River system and are open year 'round.
Lake Wausau is home to some of the largest northern pike in the state.
"This lake gives you both action and a chance at a bigger fish," he said. "The average size for northerns is 24 to 28 inches, but there are some fish in the 40-inch range. My friends and I have seen a lot in the upper 30-inch range. On this lake, I look for the weedbeds. The back bays can be really good early in the season or late in the season. If you like really stumpy bays, try Nokomis.
"Mohawksin Lake is great for action. The water is stained, so you can use braided line all the way to your hook, if you want to."
The Eau Plaine Reservoir is not part of the Wisconsin River system and the fishing season is the regular fishing season for inland lakes.
"This lake is totally different from the others I've mentioned because the water is clear," he said. "I find pike suspended over deep water. For these fish, I'll use a tip-up with a golden shiner over 30 feet of water. I usually put out two tip-ups and then jig with a jigging rod. For the rod, you will need to use a Vexilar because you'll be jigging with a jigging Rapala and you'll need to adjust the depth of your bait depending on where you mark the northern. Also, you will need to use fluorocarbon for line. I'll use a 3-inch jigging Rapala or a Forge minnow spoon. For colors, I like firetiger or perch imitations. You can really use anything that mimics the forage base.
"The best place to start on the reservoir is the old main-river channel. This is where the water is the deepest. I'm not sure why the northerns are that deep, if it is a thermocline thing or if they are looking for food, but I do know they are there."
For more information about central Wisconsin fishing, contact Schweiz at (715) 693-5843.
Naturally, safety comes up whenever you are ice-fishing, but it is even more important on river systems.
"I tell everyone," Schweik said, "that it is so important to walk with a spud until you know where you are going. The current in the river can make the ice 5 inches in one spot and 1 inch only a few feet away. If you don't know where you are going, go slowly with a spud or find a guide who can help you. No fish is worth risking your life."
For more information on the area, the ice conditions or to buy bait, contact Gander Mountain at (888) 282-2582.
Haataja is a big proponent of improving pike regulations to help protect the game fish. While muskie fishermen argue for a 55-inch size limit -- essentially catch-and-release because of the unlikelihood of catching a 55-inch muskie -- and walleye fishermen argue for more slots, very few speak up for northern pike.
"I am the first to admit that northerns are excellent eating and that I do keep a few for the table now and then," Haataja said. "But I would like to see more regulations. Northerns are not stocked. The fish we catch in the lakes are all from natural reproduction. What I would like to see is a slot limit. Northerns that are 26 to 32 inches can be kept. Fish 32 to 40 inches need to be released. Fish over 40 inches, you can keep one a day. Sure, there are a few lakes that just seem to grow stunted northerns, but some lakes would be able to produce really
big pike, if they were protected."
My advice is to try different techniques for northerns. If you are skeptical, put out a tip-up or two with traditional tackle and save that third line for something different. My family has found that the larger guide rods made by folks like Thorn Brothers and HT Enterprises are good for reeling in big fish. Ice buildup can be a problem when jigging and you don't want the ice becoming caught on the guides as you fight a fish. So, by all means, try jigging and other techniques; just remember to take your line out of the hole before you walk away. If not, you might just become the butt of jokes for years to come.
(Editor's Note: Judy Nugent can be seen every week on the PBS show "Outdoor Wisconsin." Check local listings for times and stations.)