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Icing Wisconsin's Panfish

Icing Wisconsin's Panfish

Perch, crappies and bluegills are abundant in the Badger State, and some estimates claim that 90 percent of the winter catch is panfish. You can ice your share of these popular species on these waters.

By Gary F. Martin

Game fish get all the glamour, but yellow perch, bluegills and crappies are easy to find and catch. Panfish cooperate with the angler, and they taste great. If that isn't enough to convince you to fish for panfish, consider that the general inland season for panfish is open all year and the bag limit is 25 fish per day with no size limit. Not to mention that there are thousands of excellent panfish waters in Wisconsin. Every angler has some good panfishing close to home.

"Good panfishing" can mean different things to different people. Some lakes and rivers produce a mixed bag of panfish, and that mix can vary from year to year as different year-classes of fish dominate the population. Other waters are known for one species, and for either quantity or quality panfishing.

Of course, the recent mild winters require caution when taking to the ice. In 2001, safe ice never formed on many southern Wisconsin lakes. In some cases, safe ice lasted only a short time. Early and late ice provide the best fishing action, but these panfish do feed all winter, so it's wise to wait until the ice is safe before venturing onto frozen water. First ice will be safest in the shallows, and panfish action will also be good there.

In midwinter, panfish - especially crappies and perch - will be roaming the water looking for food. This makes them tough to find, let alone catch. You will need good ice to move around and search for active fish. Local anglers can be a great help because they will congregate in locations where fish were caught recently. Locals are a good source for information on what's catching fish and what's not.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Ten or 12 years ago Green Bay was Wisconsin's No. 1 perch hotspot. Today the Great Lakes' perch population decline - and the resulting restrictive seasons and reduced bag limits - has sent anglers inland to catch perch to eat. Perch are not only favored by anglers - game fish like to eat them, too. Almost any lake or river known for pike or walleye fishing will contain a good perch forage base. The best time to catch perch is dawn and dusk.

Kentuck Lake
Kentuck Lake is located 10 miles east-northeast of Eagle River on the Forest/Vilas county line. This 957-acre lake was once a walleye hotspot, but today it is known for muskies, smallmouth bass and panfish. Ice-fishing access is available at the public boat ramp on the west shore. Exit Highway 70 at Forest Road 2196 and go north to get to the ramp. Another public boat ramp is located on the northeast end of the lake off Forest Road 2203.


Mixed catches of panfish are possible throughout winter in the shallows off the boat ramp. Perch anglers will do best by concentrating on the deeper flats on the south end of the lake, and by using jigs and spikes or small minnows. The flats range from 10 to 20 feet deep and the perch roam these areas in the winter. Kentuck's keeper perch run about 7 to 8 inches long, but there's plenty of action with the smaller fish.

Bait, lodging and guide services are available in the area. Contact the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center, 1-800-359-6315.

Lake Winnebago
A good walleye lake is usually a good perch lake and Lake Winnebago is, of course, both. This east-central Wisconsin fish factory is a good bet for winter perch fishing. The only problem anglers have is finding the fish. Winnebago is huge, with over 137,000 acres of surface area. The lake is also quite shallow, with a maximum depth of 21 feet. Boat ramps and parks are located all around the lake and that makes ice-fishing access easy when there is safe ice.

Lake Winnebago contains thousands of acres of mud flats, and winter perch often roam these flats feeding on lake fly larvae. Fishing the flats is a hit-or-miss proposition. Not all the lake's perch, however, are roaming the mud flats. Some perch schools will hold on the edge of the reefs along the west shore and others stay in the shallows near shore. Perch are also taken by walleye anglers, and perch catches are reported from all over the lake. The most successful anglers are those who fish the lake often and use small shiners for bait.

It's essential to use a map and GPS unit when fishing Lake Winnebago. Your first stop should be the local bait shop to see where the perch are biting. Some general areas will be the breaklines at the 5- to 7-foot level, rockpiles, artificial reefs and weed edges.

Early ice and late ice are dangerous times to venture out onto a large lake like Winnebago. Ice conditions vary with the amount of cold and wind. Always call ahead before you make the trip.

For information on lodging or to locate local bait shops, contact: Fond du Lac Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-937-9123; Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, (920) 303-2266; or Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-999-3224.

Big Green Lake
With over 7,000 acres and a maximum depth of 236 feet, Big Green Lake - located five miles west of Ripon - contains a lot of water. This water is very stable and resists temperature change. This means Big Green, besides being Wisconsin's deepest lake, is the last lake in our state to freeze in winter, but its perch fishing is worth waiting for. The good news is that the shallow bays sometimes freeze solid enough for foot travel and fishing early in the winter.

The shallow flats of Dartford Bay on the north side of the lake at the city of Green Lake are a favorite early-season choice with local panfish anglers. Another perch choice is Norwegian Bay, on the west end of the lake. Both the shallow flats and the nearby dropoff to deep water are early-season perch hotspots when safe ice is present. Two more excellent and productive perch fishing locations are the far east and west ends of the lake. Both areas are easily accessible by foot from boat ramps, and perch congregate in these shallows.

Big Green supports a good population of yellow perch in a variety of sizes. Of course, the larger fish are sometimes hard to find, so don't be afraid to move if you are catching only small perch.

Call North Bay Sport in the city of Green Lake for current fishing and ice reports at (920) 294-6462. Contact the Green Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, (920) 294-3231 or 1-800-253-7354, for travel and lodging information or to locate a guide service in the area.



Wisconsin is home to both white crappies and black crappies. Anglers don't care which variety they are catching, because both fight well and taste good. Unfortunately, crappies are sometimes difficult to locate in a lake. Yellow perch are usually on or near the bottom and bluegills favor weedbeds, but crappies can and do cruise open water and suspend. The key to finding them is finding the baitfish they are feeding on.

Crappies feed during lowlight conditions, and unlike perch and bluegills, they do feed at night. Often night-fishing is the best way to catch them on lakes where the daytime traffic might put the crappies off their feed. Give night-fishing a try if you have no success during normal daylight hours.

Wind Lake
Located four miles west of Highway 45 and just off Highway 36, Racine County's Wind Lake is a 936-acre panfish factory. Two boat ramps - one off Loomis Road on the north shore and the other off Wind Lake Road on the south shore - provide winter access to the lake. Unfortunately, the access points are a long walk from the best fishing spots.

The Wood Island area is one of Wind Lake's popular and productive ice-fishing locations. While all panfish are caught here, crappies are a popular target for ice-anglers. Crappies suspend in shallow water, so it's important to use a flasher to find the depth at which they are holding and feeding. If you find a school of baitfish, crappies will be nearby, so don't be afraid to move around in search of them. Wind Lake crappies have a reputation for moving around, and anglers need to do the same to find the active fish.

Another productive location is Grass Island, especially the north side. While many anglers fish at this location, it doesn't pay to stay if the fish aren't there. No matter where you elect to fish, don't stay if you don't catch crappies.

For travel information, contact the Burlington Area Chamber of Commerce, (262) 763-6044.

Lake Waubesa
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources lists all the lakes in the Madison Chain as containing abundant panfish, but Lake Waubesa gets the most attention from crappie seekers. This 2,080-acre lake has plenty of excellent crappie habitat and produces fish in the 9- to 12-inch range. Ice-anglers can access the lake at one of several boat ramps.

Ice-fishers often report the best crappie activity after sundown or before daylight, so it pays to get on the ice early or stay late. When crappies become active on Waubesa they tend to rise up in the water column. For example, they may come up to 25 feet in 35 feet of water. When the fish are biting lightly, restrict your jigging to very subtle motions. Sensitive tackle is required for this type of fishing.

For information on lodging and guide services in the area, contact the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, (608) 256-8348.

Beaver Dam Lake
Located in northwest Dodge County, Beaver Dam Lake covers 6,542 acres, with a mean depth of 5 feet and a maximum depth of 7 feet. Nine boats ramps located around the lake provide ice-fishing access.

The crappie fishing is good, with the fish running over a foot long, but anglers are reporting lower numbers of fish than in past years. The best winter fishing is often in the deepest water in this large shallow lake.

For lodging and travel information, contact the Beaver Dam Area Chamber of Commerce, (920) 887-8879.

The bluegill is the most abundant panfish in the Badger State. In fact, it's difficult to find a lake, or even a river, that does not contain bluegills. As with other panfish, early ice and late ice is the best times to fish in winter. 'Gills go deep and are hard to catch in midwinter, which means shallow lakes are favored by ice-anglers during the midwinter ice-fishing lull.

Lake Onalaska
Lake Onalaska is a Mississippi River backwater lake of 7,688 acres by La Crosse, and it is a bluegill factory. With Onalaska's mean depth of 6 feet, bluegills are easy to locate all winter in the lake's weedy shallows. Numerous boat ramps provide plenty of easy winter access to the lake.

The angler's problem on Lake Onalaska is not finding fish, but finding fish large enough to keep. Local bait shops can help point you in the right direction, but don't be shy about looking for and politely joining groups of anglers already on the ice.

Like many panfish waters, Onalaska can produce a mixed bag of panfish. Contact the Greater La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce, (608) 784-4880, for information on lodging or current ice conditions and fishing reports.

Delavan Lake
Delavan Lake is over 2,000 acres of water with a reputation for producing big bluegills. Unfortunately, it is in Walworth County in southern Wisconsin and there was little safe ice last year.

The lake also has a mean depth of 21 feet, and that means there is usually a midwinter lull in the panfish action when there is good ice. Even so, Delavan is worth a trip or two if ice conditions allow travel on the lake. Interstate 43 passes quite close to the lake, which is just a few miles southeast of Delavan.

Ice-fishing access is available at two boat ramps. One is on the northeast end of the lake off Highway 50 and the other is on the southwest end.

For travel and lodging information, contact the Delavan Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-624-0052.

Lake Koshkonong
Lake Koshkonong is located in the far southwest corner of Jefferson County, about five miles southwest of Fort Atkinson. Its surface area is more than 10,000 acres, but its mean depth is only 5 feet. Panfish are common and bluegills are a popular target of ice-anglers, but mixed catches are common in this shallow lake. Koshkonong has plenty of boat ramps to allow ice-fishing access in winter.

For more information on Lake Koshkonong, contact the Fort Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce, 1-888-733-3678.

Recent winters have been very mild and ice conditions far from ideal. When you go ice-fishing, make safety a priority. Carry flotation and rescue gear on every trip, and don't drive your vehicle onto the ice unless you are absolutely certain it is safe to do so. Wisconsin has so many good panfish waters that you can easily find a lake where good fishing is within easy walking distance of the boat ramp access points.

Fishing for panfish can be the most productive form of ice-fishing. Perch, crappies and bluegills are relatively easy to catch and are found in many waters. It's not unheard of to catch all three species from one lake in one day. In fact, you can plan a whole day on the ice, fishing for the available panfish species

in their preferred locations at their preferred feeding times. From a cook's perspective, they mix well in the frying pan!

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