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Wisconsin's Sure-Thing Ice-Fishing

Wisconsin's Sure-Thing Ice-Fishing

This global warming thing has us Cheeseheads concerned about our favorite winter activity. But rest assured, because Nanook knows of a bunch of places where you can ice walleyes, panfish and more! (December 2006)

Photo By Ron Sinfelt

The issue of global warming is a problem we tend to smirk about after Thanksgiving comes and goes here in the Land of Cheese. But in recent winters, even the most-stubborn northwoods norskis are pondering this worldly situation.

There is no doubt our environment is changing. Just flash back 20 years ago. You could always count on setting tip-ups on the smaller lakes in Sawyer County to catch northern pike at midday between morning and afternoon trips to the deer woods during the gun season. Over the past decade, there have been several winters when it was nearly Christmas in the northwoods before it was possible to walk out on the ice with confidence.

Downstate, the ice starts to come just a little bit later. Spots like the "ditches" off County Road A-B near Stoughton, Cherokee Marsh above the Madison Chain, the "triangle" off John Nolen Drive in Madison, Whalen's Grade on Lake Wisconsin and several backwaters over on the Mississippi River all see the vanguard of bucketeers skulking out there about Dec. 10.

Dane County's Lake Mendota always used to get flat and hard about New Year's Day. Four or maybe five years ago, virtually the entire southern Wisconsin ice-fishing fraternity was looking forward to the magic moment when it would be possible to get out to midlake and chase jumbo yellow perch that were present in both size and numbers. Mendota never really froze to the point where anglers thought the required flotation on ATVs and snowmobiles enforced on the Madison lakes was anything more than political wrangling.

The perch population remains stable on Mendota today, but Department of Natural Resources biologists say it will be a while before we see the golden years of 12-inchers here again.

Between now and the arrival of safe ice on Mendota, ice-anglers around our capital city can expect good action on crappies and bluegills in Monona Bay, with considerable speculation on what will happen on Lake Kegonsa once the ice forms.


Many people are also pondering what will come flopping through their holes on Delavan Lake in Walworth County, arguably the best multi-species ice-fishery in southern Wisconsin -- until last winter. Although DNR fisheries biologist Doug Welch said the fishery on this heavily pressured southeastern Wisconsin lake remains stable, inquiring minds can hardly wait to find out if Delavan will return as a productive winter destination, and especially for walleyes.

There's a funny thing about us ice-anglers. We will discuss waters that aren't what they used to be at great length while we quietly focus on other places where it is possible to be on the cutting edge of the next hot bite. Thinking about Lake Kegonsa? You're not alone. This shallow lake at the lower end of the Madison Chain is a good place to start on a quest to put scales in five-gallon buckets over the next several months.


This shallow, fertile basin lake is a perpetual producer of crappies, bluegills and perch along the deepwater weedline that essentially rings the entire shoreline all summer long.

Anglers also target the weed edge out from Quam Point and over by the state park when winter comes, starting their quest in the shallows of Barber's Bay. In recent years, the arrival of ice has been like flipping an "off" switch here, with Kegonsa turning into an instant "dead sea." However, the biomass is changing here. There are still plenty of panfish, but throughout last summer, this lake gave up some impressive stringers of walleyes, as in a lot of mid-20-inch fish.

It's a long walk out to the lone rocky hump at midlake on Kegonsa. But rest assured, many anglers will make the trek out there to set tip-ups when a front is on the way, and during periods of low light.

Will the walleye bite here continue? Will Kegonsa just be a good place to chill this winter? There is only one way to find out!


Chances for success are certainly better on Lake Waubesa just a couple miles farther north up U.S. Highway 51. This Madison lake has a well-earned reputation for consistency, in both producing winter catches and giving up smaller fish than other Dane County destinations.

The whole show starts out from Goodland Park on the lake's south end, with bluegills being the primary draw. This bite usually continues throughout the winter, with mobility being a major key to success. Moving just a few yards and poking a new hole between the weeds can spell the difference between fish and no fish -- or little 'gills and real respectable slabbers.

Springs near the Yahara River outlet point at Babcock Park on the lake's east side make it a little tougher to get out on the ice here. But once you get beyond the perpetual patch of open water, setting tip-ups for northerns can be very productive, with a real shot at icing pike in the mid- to upper-30-inch range.

Just north of here is a steep breakline off Rockford Heights that holds the potential for eater-sized walleyes at low light, and for a mess of respectable crappies just about anytime.

Get out over 30 feet of water in the main-lake basin between Babcock Park and the slide at the Bible Camp where you can usually find a mess of perch by using Genz Fat Boy jigs, especially gold ones, tipped with a red Lindy Mini-Munchie plastic tail. Once you locate the fish that are feeding on little bloodworms emerging from the soft bottom, your rod will be in a state of nearly constant bendage. Filling a 25-fish limit is usually not that difficult, and if you are adept in using an X-Acto knife to fillet with, a limit is usually a big enough mess for supper -- if you have plenty of potatoes.

Contact: Ron Barefield's Fishing Adventures guide service, (608) 838-8756; e-mail:


The vaudeville performer with plates spinning atop sticks has nothing on DNR biologist Don Bush, who has managed to tweak 10,400-acre Lake Koshkonong into a state of nearly perfect balance.

The vast Rock River wetland that became this shallow lake straddling the Rock/Jefferson county line with construction of the Indianford Dam in the late 1800s has a maximum depth of 5 to 6 feet, depending on how much water is moving down Rock River.

Walleyes are the main draw here, with six adult year-classes now swimming in Kosh. Since this is essentially a shallow,

amorphous basin with little more than a couple of shale flats and rock humps to relate to during winter months, fish in this lake are always on the move.

The key to consistent success lies in targeting "deeper" flats with fathead or rosy red minnows suspended just off the bottom on No. 8 treble hooks below tip-ups. Wisconsin law allows three lines per angler. You can also cover more ice by fishing with several buddies. After selecting a couple acres of promising ice, drill holes in a triangle pattern 50 to 75 feet apart. Set your boards while taking care to cover the holes by using either round tip-ups or employing hole covers made from a section of dark fiberboard to keep your presentation natural. Back off a few yards from the nearest tip-ups, toss the brats on a gas grill, and wait. One flag doesn't mean a pattern, but when the same tip-up or boards in close proximity pop up twice, it is a good idea to move other tip-ups to open holes close to where the action is. You can eat the brats later after they soak in beer, onions and butter for a while, which of course is the Sheboygan way of doing brats right.

Conventional wisdom says this will be the first winter since 1987 to see 10-pound walleyes coming through the ice on Koshkonong. Back in the winter of 1987, I took home several fish of substantial proportions, just like everybody else. This was stupid. It has taken Don Bush 20 years to put things back together again. By keeping only smaller 15- to 20-inch walleyes, the double-dorsaled, marble-eyed goose that lays those golden eggs can keep us grinning for a long, long time.

Contact: Patten's Marine, Fort Atkinson, (920) 563-5350.


After more than 30 years of bouncing all over Wisconsin, I finally set up a semi-permanent base camp over on Pool 9 of the Mississippi River. Why? Because Old Man River is the most dynamic multi-species fishery ever to see my hook.

In working as a guide on the Miss, my most profound source of amazement comes from the percentage of middle-aged clients who tell me this is their first trip to the river. Folks, your Wisconsin license provides the privilege of fishing boundary waters with other states. But not many anglers have fished the Cisco Chain north of Eagle River, the bays of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, the Menominee River system upstream from Marinette -- or the Mississippi, even though your fishing privilege extends clear over to the railroad tracks that parallel the river in Iowa and Minnesota.

Backwaters and sloughs along both sides of the river are generally the best places to target during winter months. Fish activity is driven by river level, which influences both water clarity and current velocity. Some sloughs and backwaters are productive when the Miss is high, and some are good when the river is low. And narrow sloughs that connect with other backwaters can be outstanding when the river is in a state of flux.

I thought the 13-inch perch that came through the Mississippi ice last winter was pretty neat until Mark Clement's kids, Cameron and Conner, both caught perch over 14 inches. The kids have a combined age of 17! Bluegill fishing is almost too easy here. And most folks target crappies by using L'il Cecils or Rembrandts. My biggest slab last winter was over 14 inches. Joe Deuster, the "crappie king" from Ferryville, caught one over 16 inches, and whined about losing a bigger one.

You wanna talk pike? Get down on the Chain-O-Lakes south of the Lansing bridge and there are some whoppers. Two winters ago, the little group of river rats I run with iced five lunker pike over 40 inches. My 40-incher was the runt of the litter.

Northern pike fishing is even better up behind the hospital in La Crosse, north of the runway in Lake Onalaska and in Lawrence Lake on the Minnesota side of the river on Pool 8. Down on Pool 10, guide Dave "Pahoo" Koonce has to go to work at 3M to rest up after a day of icing a mixed bag of panfish and bigger fish on Big and Little Missouri sloughs, or when fishing south of there in McCartney's Slough near Cassville.

Contacts: Bob's Bait & Tackle, (608) 782-5552; Cap'n Hook's Bait & Tackle, (608) 689-2900, or go to


If you want to actually enjoy a day on the ice, you need to kick back in one of Mike Norton's heated shanties on our deepest inland lake.

There have been several winters recently when Big Green's ice-fishing season was short, almost bordering on non-existent, thus provoking a smirk from global-warming pundits. Because of a maximum depth of 237 feet, this water is one of the last places in central Wisconsin to freeze.

This exceptional depth is also terrific habitat for lake trout, especially over deeper portions of the lake that are typically the last to freeze. Even during milder winters, this lake is a productive hardwater destination. In an average winter when most state waters are settling into the midwinter slowdown, ice is just forming out there in laker country, and those fat green footballs go on a rip about the same time we bid farewell to another NFL season.

On another front, the relatively shallow waters around the marina and back in Norwegian Bay freeze quickly, thus providing exceptional action for whopping big bluegills and truly respectable perch.

Contact: Mike Norton, (262) 295-3617.


Winter is about the only time you can expect to see this southern wing of Lake Superior as "flat." Not necessarily calm, but flat. A snowmobile and GPS are just as important as a Vexilar flasher, jigging rod and tip-ups when it comes to putting fish on the ice here.

Although there is some decent action fairly close to shore off both Bayfield and Ashland, "close to shore" is a relative term. This is huge water where everything from pike to walleyes to salmonids hover near subtle offshore structures that are clearly marked with GPS coordinates on the map put out by Fishing HotSpots (1-800-500-MAPS). Pike and salmonids often bite all day long, with walleyes active near the humps during periods of low light. There is real potential for tangling with your "best ever" fish here -- even if you've been a bucketeer for decades.

Safety must be your most important concern on the Great Lakes. The first waypoint to plug into the GPS is where you got on the ice when you started. Don't forget a cell phone. Catching a trophy is only worthwhile if you get home to tell about it. Hiring a guide is a great idea. One of the best is Craig Putchat at (715) 373-0551, or visit


Because it's located just far enough off two interstate highways, most anglers drive on by this shallow Taylor County flowage that offers exceptional action for crappies and feisty pike, with a serious shot at icing a 40-inch "toother" northern.

Check out any remaining green weeds at first ice, especially when they are found in close proximity to both natura

l and manmade woody cover. A month from now when the global-warming bandwagon is noticeably silent, lower oxygen levels tend to congregate the fishy biomass of this flowage into the old river channel. Consult a Fishing HotSpots map for GPS coordinates, and then point the unit toward your destination while entering waypoint numbers. See all those tents out there? That's your destination.

If you're looking for a crappie stringer mount, Taylor County is the place to go. Jig an orange or chartreuse Li'l Cecil while closely watching for tip-ups baited with roaches on your other two lines for the pike.

Contact: Taylor County Tourism, 1-888-682-9567.



Unless we are flooded by the melting of the polar ice caps, you should be able to traverse the hardwater on these small lakes in Oneida and Vilas counties after reading this article.

With so many lakes in the north country to choose from, the locals don't want to work too hard at catching fish. A mixed bag of panfish and pike awaits just a 10-minute walk for an old guy from the boat ramp parking lot to a productive weedflat on Carrol. Most of the panfish you'll catch will be crappies. If you get out there at midday, set boards for pike. Probably the best perch spot on Carrol is over mudflats on the east end of the lake. Perch also suspend about 5 feet off the bottom over 25 feet of water on the south side of the big island.

On Madeline, you have to walk a good 100 yards on a left tack from the boat launch to find panfish. If you're feeling more energetic, run your snow machine to the north end of the lake and fish the big weedflat.

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

* * *

So much water, so little time. If we don't have to contend with personal watercraft come March, walleyes on Lake Geneva, panfish on the Pike Lake Chain near Ashland and pike on Long Lake near Spooner are good reasons to sit astride a five-gallon bucket, too. See you out there!

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