Ice-Fishing Until The Cows Come Home

Ice-Fishing Until The Cows Come Home

Wisconsin is full of hardy folks who love fresh fish filets no matter what time of year. You can experience part of life's rich fabric at these hotspots for walleyes, panfish and more! (December 2005)

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

Ice-fishing is more than just a winter pastime in Wisconsin. Ice-fishing is part of life's rich fabric here in the Land of Cheese.


Hardwater angling is both secretive and social-like a playground game where everybody is having fun. But the guy who is "it" with the biggest pile of fish on the ice is having more fun, both with the catching and watching others foregathered rubberneck in an attempt to figure out the hot bait and presentation.



It is a game for all ages from old folks to kids, especially on the weekends. During the week, kids are in school and many adults are working. Hiding under those heavy parkas with backs to the wind are the hardcore anglers who hit it just about every day. Old guys. Seasonal construction workers. Cops and firemen. Some have all the "toys," towing their portable shanty, power auger, electronics, lantern, heater and a half-dozen fancy rods out there behind an ATV or snowmobile. Others walk out with a bucket hooked over a shouldered hand auger like a hobo toting his bindle stick.

Those who spend considerable time on the ice can tell the serious players from poseurs and casual bucketeers. Specialized gear is often a giveaway. Perch-jerkers have their whippy rods and hanger rigs, except some of the old guys, who might have several rods with the big "Mendota reels."


Old guys who are chasing bluegills or crappies might have a dozen rods rigged and ready in their bucket. Tying baits on 2-pound-test line isn't easy with 70-year-old eyes in a 20 mph wind when the temperature is hovering around zero. So they spend the previous night rigging up in their well-lit home.


Icemen who like to run "boards" for walleyes and pike usually have two five-gallon buckets. One holds a half-dozen Beaver Dam tip-ups, a gaff and maybe some tall flags to caution the joyriding snowmobilers. The other holds the bait bucket and other gear. You bring what you think will be needed for a day on the ice, nothing more. The walk back to the truck is always longer. And if everything goes right, there will be a heavy sack of fish to clean.

Most of Wisconsin's waters will be covered with ice for the next several months. That's a lot of ice. So many fish. So many different ways to fish 'em. Here's a look at some of the best spots in America's Dairyland to get your string stretched until the cows come home.

LAKE ALICE

This stained Wisconsin River flowage water held back by the King Dam between the big island and the shoreline outside of Tomahawk offers some of the best hardwater crappie action in our state right now.

Most of the locals use small minnows, setting two tip-downs and jigging with a third rod. Since this water is stained, florescent colors work best, with action best during daylight.

The crappie bite on Alice comes on about three weeks after the flowage ices over. At first-ice, walleyes are the main target. Set tip-ups baited with golden shiners along the old river channel. Most of the walleyes you'll ice will be in the 15- to 18-inch range, but there always seems to be one bigger 'eye in the bucket when leaving the ice. Although dusk is prime time, the walleyes here bite all day long during the first-ice period.

When this bite slows, it's time to chase crappies until about mid-January. Bluegills bite all winter long, hanging in a little shallower water than the crappies around the 10 bajillion stumps and fallen timbers. Prime time for 'gills is from about sunrise until midmorning, with another flurry of activity most afternoons from about 2 to 4 p.m. By the end of February the crappies start going again, with a bite that remains pretty much hot until ice-out.

The best access is off of Horseshoe Road, one of several landings located off of County Highway A. Contact: Chuck's Sport Shop, (715) 453-3101 or

www.tomahawkleader.com.

FOX RIVER

The Fox River at De Pere is probably the most popular walleye water in the state when April rolls around. But walleyes are holding between the dam and Highway 172 bridge all winter long.

The major key to success is being on the ice from about 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. when fish are active. Although the strike window is relatively short, this is probably your best shot at icing a wallhanger walleye.

Setting two tip-ups just off bottom with a small egg-sinker above a No. 8 treble hook baited with a golden shiner or fathead while working a Swedish Pimple or Jigging Rapala on your third line is an effective strategy.

Fish higher in the water column and you're liable to tangle with a catfish just about anytime of day. Don't even think about eating these toxic critters unless you have a death wish. But if you're just looking for a really good pull, thread several redworms on a hook and fish about 8 to 12 feet down just out from the canal at Voyageur Park.

GREEN BAY'S WEST COAST

Pike and perch are major winter draws along Green Bay's western shore from Oconto clear up to Peshtigo Point.

Northerns up to 40 inches and beyond get iced all winter long out from Breakwater Park at the mouth of the Oconto River near the harbor, with easy access right at the Oconto Harbor. Although many ice-anglers drive out from this access, use due caution even on foot during prime pike times of first and late ice. There is also good access at two county parks, the better of that is Second County Park, which is also a top spot to jig for perch while waiting for a pike to trip your flag.

There is really no significant structure to key on when fishing these waters. The big toothers can be anywhere, always cruising in search of a meal. Because pike are primarily sight-feeders, setting your dead smelt or roaches about a foot under the ice is solid strategy while working from the 8-foot contour into shallower water -- sometimes much shallower. Because the fish are essentially moving parallel to the shoreline, setting your three tip-ups in a line perpendicular to the shore is a good plan.

The ice out from Second County Park is a great place to spend a sunny December afternoon with several buddies. Don't forget the bratwurst!

Contact: Oconto Area Chamber of Commerce,

www.ocontocounty.org.

LAKE NOQUEBAY

If you're looking for a bluegill "st

ringer" mount, this 2,500-acre Marinette County lake just east of Crivitz would be a good place to find the star players.

As is the case in many lakes, bluegills in Noquebay tend to school by year-class. If you're just looking for a quick limit of hand-sized "eaters," target the weed edges and pockets in less than 12 feet of water. The giant "bulls" tend to hold in deeper water, congregating in much smaller schools. A good place to start looking is along inside turns of the deep weed edge at about 18 feet. The dominant year-class of giants this winter will run about 9 to 10 inches. There are a few larger fish in the system of near-dinner-plate dimensions.

Most anglers use a couple of lightly hooked spikes and small ice jigs with jigging action somewhere between slow and subtle, with a deadstick on the side for these wary panfish. Electronics and 1-pound-test mono are also part of the success matrix.

This winter I'm going to try an opposite tack on these sometimes aggravating fish: aggressive jigging with the new Lindy Munchie "tiny tails" on a Lindy Little Fat Boy jig. Last winter I refused to use live bait for panfish, relying entirely on plastics. The result was equal or better success than in previous years with waxies, spikes and mousies -- without the frustration of frozen bait or the joy of sawdust in the eyes.

Taxidermist Don Rich Jr. already has my deposit and a gold-plated clip-stringer. All I have to do is head to Crivitz and catch the fish.

Contact: Hook, Line & Sinker Bait Shop;

www.crivitzrecreation.com.

DELAVAN LAKE

For the past several years, southern Wisconsin anglers have been waiting for the hot multi-species action in this 2,072-acre Walworth County lake to go belly-up. But there is simply no ice from Madison south that consistently produces like Delavan.

Pike of dreadnaught dimensions swim here. The walleyes aren't monsters, but you can expect to take home a three-fish limit of 18-inch-plus fish using either tip-ups or a jig pole. The panfish are really, really nice. Expect a mixed bag of jumbo perch, slab crappies and whopping big 'gills.

Savvy anglers have resorted to "reverse prevarication" downstate over the past several winters. When anybody questions an ice-angler on where he caught a bucketful of nice panfish, its easier to just say, "Delavan" than to tell the truth because those inquiring will accuse you of catching the fish on Delavan anyway.

The ice off of any main-lake point will usually produce a mixed bag during daylight hours. Slab crappies are the real draw. If you want to be species-specific for slabs, fish at night off of Willow Point with a Hali Jig or a Li'l Cecil.

Look for the fish on electronics 12 to 26 feet down, fishing above the blips. Even though it's a night bite, 1-pound-test will result in more hook-ups than heavier line.

Contact: Delavan Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-624-0052 or

www.delavanwi.org.

LAKE KOSHKONONG

Walleyes are the main draw on this 10,400-acre shallow basin lake straddling the Jefferson/Rock county line in southern Wisconsin. You may catch a pike or even a slab crappie on a tip-up here. But it's the walleyes in this slow-moving stretch of the Rock River that bring anglers from miles around.

A midlake rockpile east of Thiebeau Point is essentially the only permanent fish-holding structure in this enigmatic lake. There are a couple of weedbeds, too, that may draw fish through the end of this month. But the weeds tend to die off once heavy snowcover blankets the lake, causing walleyes to cruise elsewhere looking for food.

There really is no prime time to be on the ice here. Some anglers like to fish all night. Others find success at midday. Shiners and fathead minnows are both effective baits when fished about 30 inches below the tip-up's windlass on a No. 8 treble hook with 10-pound-test monofilament and a split shot pegged about six inches above the bait.

Those fishing daylight hours use round tip-ups or some form of hole cover to eliminate light penetration. Most set their "boards" in a triangle about 50 feet apart. Most of the main-lake basin is a uniform 6 feet deep, with fish always on the move after food and away from noise caused by people on the ice.

Walleyes here can be both spooky and pensive. Often they will take the bait, tripping a flag, then wait several minutes before actually deciding to move away from the hole.

DNR fisheries manager Don Bush said Koshkonong's biomass is in "near perfect balance" as we get serious about ice-fishing. Conventional wisdom of the angling fraternity says this will be the winter when honest 10-pounders come through the ice. There are several solid year-classes of walleyes in the system now, with good numbers of 26- to 30-inch fish.

Contact: UCatch 'Em Bait & Tackle, (608) 754-7976 or via e-mail, ucatchembait@mcleodusa.net.

VILAS COUNTY

If you believe the finest eating on this planet is a mess of butterfly-fileted perch taken through the ice on a north-country lake, plan a road trip to Vilas County this winter. North Twin and South Twin lakes south of Phelps are better known as one of the state's top muskie waters during summer months. Almost nobody targets perch in the summer, with fewer anglers fishing for them astride a five-gallon bucket.

Veteran guide George Langley likes to find beds of green coontail weeds, targeting the deeper weed edges along the 10- to 15-foot breakline with orange or bright green ice jigs tipped with wigglers or spikes.

According to Langley, smaller fish tend to school in slightly shallower water with bigger specimens, noting "the south end of North Twin is a good place to start looking."

Little Horsehead Lake sees even fewer anglers, located way back in the boonies off of County B beyond Presque Isle. At only 234 acres it doesn't take long to pattern the perch. Perch spend practically the entire winter cruising out the edge of a rockbar located on the west side of the point out from Ruff's Resort, almost directly out from the private ramp.

Rockbars are a key to perch location in Little Horsehead. With a good topographic map, electronics and a snowmobile, you can figure out this lake's secrets in less than a day. Once you find the fish, catching a limit takes about as long as frying a pan full of potatoes.

Contact: Eagle Sports, (715) 479-8804 or

www.eaglesportscenter.com.

NELSON LAKE

This Hayward area lake is one of Wisconsin's most popular family escapes during warmer months because of the willing pike and panfish populations swimming in this stump-strewn shallow flowage of the Totagatic River.

Because Nelson is so shallow and sheltered, it's not unusual to get out on the ice here when the family is still picking meat off of the Thanksgiving dinner turkey carcass. This is a place where a $20 investment in jig poles and a bucket can make you a serious player all winter long -- provided you have the right jig color and bait profile. Bright colors generally work better. Just what bright color will work on a given day is anybody's guess.

Contact: Hayward Chamber of Commerce 1-800-826-3474.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

In over 30 years of writing outdoors stuff and with over 200 days on the water each year, I've had a chance to fish pretty much all over the state. Wisconsin is blessed with a truly diverse fishery, from Great Lakes to small waters to flowages to rivers.

Eventually we find one or two locations that are especially special. My very favorite place of all is on backwaters of the Mississippi River from Bagley up to Stoddard. There are times when winter fishing on the river is slow, but most of the time the action is somewhere between good and downright incredible.

The Web site

www.in-depthangling.com is a real-time source for solid information on fishing Old Man River, with everything from fishing reports to changes in river level just a keystroke away.

I've met some great friends on this Web site. An outing with several of them last winter was hands-down the best trip of the year. Chances are you'll find me out on the ice there right now.

Last year's high point was on De Soto Bay on Pool No. 9. Webmaster James Holst, Dave "Pahoo" Koonce and Mary the Fishing Machine met me on the ice here one morning after some chat on the Internet that may have included a friendly wager between yours truly and Pahoo. Another friend, Joe "Crappie King" Deuster from Ferryville, saved a hole over one of two crappie-magnet stumps for me when we all got down to serious fishin'.

Crappie King and I were just hammering the slabs. Pahoo moved to within 10 feet and could only ice an occasional straggler in a thumping that continued even after we traded poles. Dave is an incredible ice-fishing "stick." Seeing his frustration was almost as much fun as catching all those 10- to 14-inch fish on L'il Cecils and Fat Boys with plastic. By 10:30 a.m., Dave knew he was truly euchered, sat down on a big cooler and started to laugh. Anywhere else a sanity hearing and medication would probably be indicated for the whole lot of us. But hey, this is Badgerland!

There. That should keep you plenty busy until the cows come home. That is, of course, unless someone tipped them over! Now, that's Wisconsin!

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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