Badger State Panfish Hotspots

Every true Wisconsinite loves catching and eating bluegills, crappies and perch. You'll have to stop to buy tartar sauce on the way home from ice-fishing on these waters.

By Ted Peck

Cabin fever got you down already? The cure is just down the road at 8 ounces per dose -- maybe 12 ounces on a good day -- on one of Wisconsin's hundreds of panfish waters.

Some lakes, flowages and river backwaters are considerably better than others that may be just a couple miles down the road, especially during the ice-fishing season. Waters that quickly yield 25-fish limits during open-water periods can be downright stingy when it's time to chase panfish from a vantage point on a six-gallon bucket. On a scant few other spots the water isn't worth fishin' until you can walk out there to do it.

Although we are blessed with a number of lakes that are perpetual panfish producers, the cyclical nature of panfish populations in many lakes can produce boom or bust years on about a five-year rotation, especially on crappie waters.

There aren't many secret waters in heavily populated southern Wisconsin. Winter anglers in the Madison and Milwaukee areas behave like early-season teal - three guys on buckets can quickly lure in a dozen more ice-fishermen. Pretty soon there are 50 folks out there, and nobody is catching fish anymore because of the hoopla on the ice.

With Arctic high-pressure systems dominating weather patterns for the next month at least, the active bite window on most waters is maybe a half-hour at dawn and again at dusk. With cold water slowing panfish metabolism and an Arctic high exacerbating the situation even further, it is often critical to concentrate ice-angling activities around those times when you would rather sleep in or watch the evening news. In the stained waters of flowages and river backwaters the bite can come at a more reasonable hour after sunrise and similar time frame before sunset.

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

No matter where you're fishing you want to be there - and be ready - when it happens. Did you ever watch an old guy shuffle out on the ice with a dozen jig poles in his bucket and chuckle to yourself? While you're trying to re-tie a tiny lure on a high-tech graphite wand after getting broke off by a whopper, the old guy is still icing fish. The learning curve for bucketeers can be a long one, with patience being the toughest concept of all to master.

Here's a look at the Badger State's sure-thing panfish waters, many of which are multi-species options. Just like the fool who brings a knife to a gunfight, you don't want to be out there with perchin' gear when the crappies are on a rip. If you need to leave anything at home, leave your wristwatch. On the January ice, the fish will let you know when it's time to catch 'em.

Second in size only to Lake Mendota, this large natural lake in the Madison Chain is the most overlooked in this southern Wisconsin fishery.

Early in the ice-fishing season, catching a nice mixed bag of bluegills and crappies is easy in Squaw Bay and "the triangle" off of John Nolan Drive. But between now and when we hopefully see a January thaw near the end of the month the key to icing a mess of 'gills lies in finding patches of green weeds in less than 10 feet of water and poking enough holes to find breaks in the greenery. Weeds just out from where Monona joins Mendota via the Yahara River channel can be productive all winter if you do enough frogging around. Ice near open water out from the Convention Center also holds fish, many of which are suspended in the water column, seeking both slightly warmer water and higher oxygen levels.

Because it's easier to follow the crowds on Mendota, Waubesa and Kegonsa, relatively few anglers cash in on Monona's winter bluegill bounty. Those who find perpetual success here have adopted a run-and-gun philosophy, using power augers and either snowmobiles or ATVs to move quickly around the lake. Several anglers heading out in different directions with two-way radios can be a great strategy on this 9,000-acre lake.

Madison City ordinance limits weight of machines to 750 pounds, and requires flotation devices affixed at two points that must be inspected by the Dane County sheriff prior to heading out on the ice.

Contact: Ron Barefield's Fishing Adventures Guide Service, (608) 838-8756 or; D&S Tackle & Bait, (608) 241-4225.

A series of stumpfields and weedbeds just west of Stoddard on the Mississippi River south of La Crosse promises exceptional bluegill action again this winter if the open-water bite last summer and fall is any indication.

Access is out from the village boat launch, located off Highway 35 behind the Thirsty Turtle on the south side of town, with the best angling action found out from the north side of Stoddard.

Last winter there was more ice than water beneath it here, with tiny green/black or green/orange Marmooska Jigs and Demons in similar hues or pink/white being the hottest baits. Location of the tie-eye on the Marmooksa affords a natural horizontal presentation that bluegills prefer. With the Demon - and many other lures - you constantly need to re-adjust the lure to offer this presentation.

Bait choice can also be critical to success. Mississippi River bluegills have a real affinity for wax worms over spikes or mousies. Take time to make sure the wax worm is impaled in natural alignment with the lure.

The old-guy wisdom of sallying forth with multiple rods came through in spades here at dawn one chilly January day last winter. Marmooska Jigs invariably have the tie-eye painted shut, with a need to bust the paint out before you can tie on the jig. Here's a hint and a revelation: Choose your tool for cleaning out jig-eyes carefully. Did you know that the end hook on a No. 3 Jigging Rapala is long enough to reach the end of your thumb bone after penetrating past the barb into the skin?

Contact: Merfeld's Hardware, (608) 457-2580.

This 2,500-acre lake east of Crivitz in Marinette County may be the best place in our state to ice a mess of slab bluegills.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, there are two hearty year-classes of bluegills swimming here in excess of 9 inches, with several more up-and-coming year-classes that could be tossed in the bucket without shame just about anywhere else in Wisconsin.

If you just have a short window to put a 2

5-fish limit in the bucket, simply fish green weeds in less than 12 feet of water. Move around a little bit with electronics and you'll find fish that will cooperate even near midday, even at this time of year. Although bluegills tend to school pretty much by size, a couple of the fish in your typical outside-of-prime-time-bag will likely be genuine whoppers that whisper the revelation that if there is one 10-incher, there has to be more.

Noquebay's super slabs don't get big by being foolish. You'll find them holding in prime habitat of inside turns of deep weed edges in deeper water right now, with little impetus for biting outside of a 40-minute window right at dusk.

Last winter, 18 feet of water seemed to be the "magic" depth for big 'gill location. A glow-in-the-dark Rat Finkee tipped with either two spikes or a little orange or pink piece of plastic was the key in hooking up.

Stealth is another important component for success on the big fish, coupled with finesse. One-pound-test line - or even lighter stuff - is part of the matrix. So is a good electronic flasher like the Vexilar FL-18, as well as perpetual attention to detail in bait presentation. Even though the Rat Finkee's tie-eye lends itself to a more productive horizontal presentation, every fish will pull your knot around to a vertical orientation. Check the knot before you go after the next fish. The only lure that will play even and sometimes surpass the Rat Finkee for Noquebay 'gills is one of those glow Genz Fat Boy jigs with either a pink or blue eye.

Get on the ice about 3 p.m. and grind enough holes to locate the best locations on the deep inside weed edge. Then put the auger away. Tapping even one more hole within 20 yards of the action once they decide to turn on can shut 'em down for the rest of the evening bite.

Contacts: Hook, Line & Sinker bait shop, (715) 854-2055;

The dominant year-class of crappies that was an honest foot-long in this 2,072-acre Walworth County lake this time last year are an honest 1 to 2 inches longer as we ring in 2004. You'll likely catch more fish about 10 inches long as numbers continue to thin out in the last class of the 20th century. But just one of the old guard is enough for a meal. And two fish is more than you want to eat.

If you're looking for a crappie for the wall, Delavan is the place to go. But the bite doesn't start until a good hour after dark with fish moving through suspended at various depths between Willow Point and the yacht club over 45 to 50 feet of water.

A little lure called the Hali Jig that features the hook separated from the spoon is a local favorite for these wary fish. One-pound-test line is a must. And it's not uncommon for fish to get spooked by anything more than even the subtlest jigging presentation. A soft plastic tail is the answer, undulating even with your best attempts at holding the rod still.

Contacts: Geneva Bait & Tackle, (262) 245-6150; Delavan Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-624-0052.

Many lakes in Wisconsin's far northwoods hold crappies. But little Van Vliet Lake on the Presque Isle Chain is one spot where you can go catching rather than just fishing for 'em - even in January.

Van Vliet is an easy lake to "read," with a weedline extending along much of the lake's perimeter at a nearly uniform 10 feet. Crappies hold in just a little deeper water here all winter long, suspending out from the deep weed edges in 13 to 14 feet.

Electronics will help you locate these suspended fish that are almost too easy if you go after them with a little crappie minnow. Remember to hang your bait a good foot above the electronic blips because the eye placement on crappies makes it more efficient to attack from below. Little Mini-Mite jigs or an orange or chartreuse Dot Rocker tipped with a waxie will also produce a nice sack of fish in short order on these waters.

Contact: Tim Bowler, Alpine Resort, (715) 686-2800 or

This shallow, fertile 500-acre Oneida County lake outside of the town of Three Lakes is a great place to chase midwinter crappies with a No. 2 Rembrandt willow spoon. The best way to access the ice here is off of County Road A on the lake's south end.

Guide George Langley says Thunder is like a "mini-Vieux Desert, without the muskies," an analogy that is right on target. Thunder does have a healthy pike population, however. And setting a tip-up or two about 50 yards from where you're fishing will often produce a flag.

Thunder doesn't have much in the way of structure. Essentially it is an extension of the cranberry bogs in the Three Lakes area. As a result the actual depth tends to vary with the local water table.

This is one lake where electronics aren't a necessity. All you need is a jigging stick with about 6 feet of line, affixing the Rembrandt to one end with a Fas-Snap. A number of anglers peg a small float several feet above the Rembrandt, which is fished without any bait. Once you've established how much water is under the ice, the float is pegged accordingly. Then catching fish is a simple matter of lifting the jigging stick, giving it a wiggle and allowing the float to plop back in the hole. Crappies usually don't take the float under very far. Usually it just moves to the side of the hole. When this happens, set the hook. Bright-colored Rembrandts work best, especially pink. But don't leave the orange or glow-in-the-dark lures at home.

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

If you would prefer to target jumbo perch rather than crappies, Langley suggests North and South Twin lakes in Vilas County.

"The perch population in this 3,340-acre fishery south of Phelps is virtually untouched, especially during the winter," Langley says.

The key to finding perch lies in locating coontail weeds that stay green all winter long. Deeper weeds tend to give up bigger perch than shallower greenery. Find weeds where there is 10 to 15 feet of water, and the perch won't be far away.

Perch here seem to prefer wigglers presented on a small, brightly colored jig by the time mid-January arrives. But don't leave the spikes at home.

Although perch can be found pretty much anywhere in the system, Langley suggests starting along the southern end of North Twin and moving out from there.

There are two sizes of yellow perch in this stained-water Vilas County fishery: big and real nice. At only 234 acres and a maximum depth of just 24 feet, the perch here are fairly easy to find even without much direction or a good map.

It takes longer to get to this lake from either Boulder Junction or Presque Isle than it does to locate perch. Once on the ice off of County Road B you want to ease around to the south side of the lake on Armour Lake Road and look for a pair of rock bars extending out from shore. Perch are always cruising somewhere on the rock bar edge on the bar extending out on the west side of the point out from Ruff's Resort, almost due north of the private ramp here. They may also be holding on a couple of smaller bars to the northwest, but these are difficult to locate.

Another rock bar that is easier to find is out past the weedline from the Armour Lake inlet. There is a weedy flat as this inlet starts to widen into the lake that turns into a nice rock bar once you get deeper than about 9 feet. The perch will likely be holding along the edge of this bar, too, perhaps off the deeper edge where it drops away into about 15 feet of water. Last winter the best bait here was a small gold Genz Worm tipped with two spikes.

Contact: Seven Islands Guide Service, (715) 686-7155 or

Perch are where you find 'em, and on vast Lake Winnebago, there are plenty of places to look. But if the pattern is anything close to last winter, your best bets are along the far south side of the lake and along the west shore, about halfway between Wendt's Bar and Willow Resort.

Bright colors are a major key to success here, with fish generally relating to hard-bottomed areas. A good strategy is working a Dot Rocker with a couple of spikes on one rod while keeping an eye on a "dumb line" nearby baited with a small minnow.

Although these perch always seem to move in a perpetual counterclockwise circle, they usually don't migrate too far in a single day. The best plan is looking for clusters of anglers out on the ice, then probing around the edges of the pack until you hit fish.

An ice shanty is your best friend once you find the fish. Other anglers who are venturing out know that you aren't raising your hand for permission to use the restroom. By hiding in a portable shanty, you can keep folks at a distance and they won't see you setting the hook on perch after perch. Since these fish are in fairly shallow water - about 10 feet - a barn dance and the sound of augers overhead isn't conducive to your continued success.

* * *
Good luck this winter, and don't forget to buy the tartar sauce on the way home!

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