Known as "Death's Door" for the hazardous strait between its northern tip and Washington Island, Door Peninsula and the waters of Green Bay offer some of the best walleye and whitefish ice-fishing in Wisconsin. (December 2009)
Sturgeon Bay guide Dale Stroschein and a young client show off a first-rate walleye caught through the ice off Door Peninsula.
You might want to add a taxidermist's contact information to your speed dial if you're planning on a walleye trip to Door County this winter. Waters west of Sturgeon Bay hold the shortest odds of tangling with a trophy in the entire state.
Unlike most other Wisconsin ice-fishing destinations, where anglers face short windows of fish activity at dawn and dusk this time of year, those who are serious about the sport find fast action virtually all day, all winter long off Door County's 70-mile-long peninsula, bordered by Green Bay on the west and greater Lake Michigan on the east.
"Like most other winter fisheries in Wisconsin, the walleyes are most active on Green Bay during low-light periods," said Capt. Bret Alexander, whose Alexander Sport Fishing Guide and Charter Service is based in Sturgeon Bay in Door County. "But we also have a whitefish bite that comes on strong all day long and is as close to a sure thing as you'll ever see out on the ice. The only way to waste time here is not having your hook in the water."
DOOR COUNTY'S WINTER SECRET
In a fishing-crazy state like Wisconsin, you would think local entities would promote Door County as an angling destination, but fishing is mentioned only briefly -- if at all -- in many of the tourism brochures and guidebooks on Door County.
You might also think that a county with more water per surface acre than anyplace else in the state would have a wealth of bait shops and tackle stores. Other than a couple of businesses that happen to sell minnows and one entity in Sturgeon Bay who markets trout flies, Door County is devoid of outlets where the itinerant angler can find out about the bite.
But fishing is an option in Door County, and an excellent one at that!
The best source of current fishing information for Door County is found on the Internet at www.lake-link.com. Door County guides Bret Alexander, Dale Stroschein and Scott Gutschow post regularly on this Web site. They are on the Door County ice virtually every day, all winter long.
"We do a number of corporate ice- fishing trips together," Stroschein, who runs Wacky Wally Guide Service in Sturgeon Bay, said of his interaction with Alexander and Gutschow. "We've had groups of over 30 anglers and can provide an all-inclusive package."
The typical day for these ice guides starts about 4 a.m., when they begin drilling 50-100 holes in the ice with gas drills, setting up portable shanties and firing up propane heaters. They then return to shore and rendezvous with clients at Sand Bay Beach Resort to caravan out to rocky reefs and humps that hold walleyes of humongous proportions all winter long.
"If the ice is a minimum of 15 inches thick, we give folks the option of following us in their personal 4-by-4 vehicles," Stroschein said. "We can transport up to 12 anglers and gear in our Polaris crew-cab UTVs. This can be a better way to get to locations where travel by bigger vehicles is not a good idea."
The trek out to places like Henderson's Point or Monument Shoals is not a straight-line vector from shore. Drastic changes in the bottom contours of Green Bay result in massive ice heaves, which must be negotiated with considerable caution.
A GPS unit and a compass are standard equipment on any trip out on the Door County ice, even if the destination is just a couple hundred yards from shore.
"The best walleye action typically occurs during the first and last two weeks of the hardwater season," Alexander said. "We don't go offshore for whitefish at first and last ice, because it's just too dangerous. There are several spots within walking distance that hold really nice walleyes at these times, but you'll want to bring navigational equipment because white-out conditions from either snow or fog can come on quickly and without warning."
Trophy walleyes never come easy. But if a wallhanger walleye tops your bucket list, the ice west of Sturgeon Bay is the best place in the state to realize this dream.
"We get many, many walleyes over 30 inches through the ice every winter," Alexander said. "Last year, the biggest fish was almost 33 inches long."
Fooling one of these dreadnaughts and successfully bringing her through the ice is a study in both technique and patience. "About 30 minutes before sunrise, we'll instruct clients on productive jigging and rigging techniques, how to read the dial on a Vexilar sonar and what to do when you hook up with a big Door County walleye," Alexander said.
"Electronics are a critical component of the winter fishing season," Stroschein added. " I wouldn't even think about going out there without my Vexilar, but an entire sequence of events happens between seeing the big red blip that screams 'walleye' and getting the fish out on the ice."
Part of the pre-fishing clinic is devoted to illustrating subtle techniques using OddBall jigs tipped with big lake shiners, Lindy Rattlin' Flyers or jigging Rapalas. These guides rig their jigging rod/spinning reel combos with 6-pound-test Trilene Max line.
"I always bring an underwater camera along," Gutschow, who owns and operates Sturgeon Bay-based Reel Action Sport Fishing Charters, said. "The video image is the best way to illustrate how to work a bait and what is likely to trigger a strike."
There is a five-walleye, 15-inch minimum size limit in place on the Green Bay ice. These guides encourage release of any walleye over 22 inches.
"We walk from hole to hole offering instruction," Alexander said. "We always have a camera handy and keep our eyes open for somebody who hooks into a pig so we can coach them in getting the fish through the hole.
"Jigging technique is important 10-12 inches off the bottom. You want to start and end 3 inches off the bottom. It's all about repetition -- just like trolling with a line counter reel. Once you find a productive pattern, continued success often hinges on repeating that pattern."
"I always tell folks our mothers taught us that the girl you take to the dance is the girl you take home," Stroschein continued. In
other words, if you find a technique that works, stick with it.
"Starting and stopping your jigging motion 3 inches off the bottom is what puts the most fish on the ice at the end of the day," Stroschein said "I don't care how big your hops are in between or how fast or slow you jig, just as long as you start and end your jigging action at the same point. This will make you a Door County winter walleye master."
When these guides head out on the ice in the pre-dawn darkness, they drill holes over an area about 100 yards wide by 600 yards long, spanning depths of perhaps 18-40 feet of water.
RUN AND GUN
"There is a definite progression in walleye movement throughout the day," Gutschow said. "We might start out over 22 feet of water at first light and be working fish over rocks twice that deep by 9 a.m."
"The importance of hole-hopping can't be over-stressed," Alexander noted. "Even if your electronics indicate walleyes are swimming under the hole, if they don't bite in 15 minutes it's time to move."
"Our run-and-gun operation is definitely the most successful for winter walleyes in the Door," Stroschein said. "Move! Move! Move! Active fish may be ready to strike just 25 yards from where other fish are just loafing."
These waters also have a couple of constants that are just as true today as they were back in the early 1970s when I iced my first "trophy" Door County walleye: Tip-up fishing is a waste of time, and once serious darkness arrives, the walleye bite is over.
Although I've caught some whopping big perch on tip-ups on this ice over the past 35 years, I can count the number of walleyes that ate a minnow under a tip-up on one hand.
A corollary to this Door County hardwater truth has to do with bait size. The bigger the minnow you hang under a tip-up, the bigger the perch or burbot you'll catch.
The night-bite for walleyes here is essentially nonexistent. Do your own research if so inclined, but more than a century of experience from yours truly and these three outstanding winter guides says the only thing that might stretch your string after sundown is a burbot, known locally as a "lawyer."
Gutschow is more of a perch specialist than legendary walleye chasers Stroschein and Alexander. He has a number of semi-permanent heated shacks over structure in the Sugar Creek area where clients jig for yellow perch with one stick while waiting for a flag on a couple of tip-ups baited with big shiners.
When the walleye bite slows down, Gutschow will continue to soak shiners under the boards while switching over to lighter tackle intended for whitefish on jig sticks in his heated shanties.
Alexander says if you need to wear sunglasses, time is better spent chasing whitefish than walleyes.
"Usually we transition over to whitefish about 9 a.m.," he said. "For whitefish, we keep a separate set of rods rigged up with FireLine and six-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders. Probably the best spot in the entire Door to chase whitefish is over 30-70 feet of water not far from Henderson's Point.
"If we've been targeting walleyes on humps at the north or south end of Larson's Reef, it may take 30 minutes before the crew is up and running with the whitefish bite. It also takes a little longer to relocate if we're out of Fish Creek or maybe Riley's Bay. There are huge schools of whitefish all over the bay in the southern Door. Whitefish love to travel with a current flow. You'll find current -- and whitefish -- off of steep breaks in the bottom contour."
The bait of choice for whitefish is a No. 3 Swedish Pimple in gold hammered pattern.
Studying these fish with an underwater camera led Alexander to modify the basic whitefish rig with a little teaser trick that he refuses to describe in greater detail.
"If the fish are really spooky, the teaser will take 'em every time," he said. "All I do is make a basic modification to the presentation. Sometimes little tricks make a world of difference, and magicians who reveal their secrets don't stay in business very long."
One secret these captains are willing to share is purely common sense: Stealth puts more walleyes and whitefish on the ice.
"We park a good hundred yards from where we plan on fishing," Stroschein said. "The best way to shut down an aggressive bite is to hold a barn dance over top of the fish."
"The difference between icing 10 or 50 whitefish is concentration," Alexander said. "The bite of these fish is whisper-light. You need to both see and feel what's going on. This means light line, a rod with a fast, whippy tip or a sensitive spring bobber."
The daily whitefish limit on Green Bay is 10 fish. The average whitefish is about 18 inches long.
"Once you're on fish, the whitefish bite comes very fast," Stroschein said. "I like Berkley Gulp! minnow heads or waxies because these plastics are more durable than the real thing. You could catch three more fish in the time it takes to thread fresh live bait on the hook."
There is considerable difference between the jigging technique for walleyes and the one used for whitefish. Whitefish prefer a rapid, erratic jigging motion with brief infrequent pauses.
Whitefish also tend to suspend higher in the water column than actively feeding walleyes, with schools of whitefish staggered as much vertically as horizontally.
Line twist can be a real headache when chasing whitefish. A barrel swivel about 30 inches above your jigging spoon is a great way to minimize this problem.
According to these captains, the whitefish population on Green Bay has "exploded" in recent years, making limit catches the rule rather than an occasional feat of angling expertise.
By about 1 p.m., most clients need to take a break. This inkling is fueled by the delicious aroma of grilling brats and burgers wafting across the ice. Some clients spend the next hour or so filling their whitefish limits. Others are overcome by the irresistible need to take a quick nap.
NIGHTTIME IS THE RIGHT TIME
Stroschein says the evening walleye bite is often better than action experienced first thing in the morning.
"Walleyes tend to be more aggressive when they transition from deep into shallower water to spend the night," he said. "Most local anglers set up over their favorite hump in shallow water and wait for the fish to show up, rather than trying to stay ahead of 'em as fish move shallower."
Stroschein likes to drill his holes in pairs, dead-sticking one jigging stick with a pair of 3- to 4-inch-long emerald shiners on an OddBall jig on one lin
e, while vertically jigging a minnow head on the descending treble of a jigging Rapala with the other line.
If the fish aren't aggressive, you can usually trigger a strike by downsizing your jigging Rapala from sizes 9 or 7 to 5 or 3 and minimizing -- or even stopping -- jigging action.
Chrome/blue and chrome/chartreuse are the most productive colors for jigging Rapalas, but don't forget to bring a selection of orange/gold baits along. White is always a good color for the dead-stick line, either alone or in a two-tone scheme with blue, chartreuse or some other metallic color on the jig.
Hiring a guide is definitely a good strategy if this is your first visit to the Door County ice. Fishing tactics aren't much different here than on most inland waters, but nature is in control here, and only fools don't pay attention to nature's cues.
By this time of year, Door County is usually pretty well locked up with ice. Early and late in the ice-fishing season, the presence of open water miles away can result in a dangerous situation with a simple change in wind direction. Last year, this great fishery made national news as anglers had to be fished off a wayward ice pack by helicopter and ice boat.
Although this type of adventure might be worth recalling wherever anglers gather, most of us would rather go into great detail when asked, "How much did that 32-inch walleye you caught in Door County weigh?"
Contact the Door County Visitor Bureau at (920) 743-4456 or visit online at www.DoorCounty.com.