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Wisconsin's Best Bets for Ice-Fishing

Wisconsin's Best Bets for Ice-Fishing

If we get back to having a normal winter, you'll want to be drilling holes at these locations this season.

by Ted Peck

Wisconsin anglers will have a "fourth season" to follow their passion this winter. Of that there is no doubt. But whether it will come on safe ice or on open water is the question. Will it be like 1999-2000, when ATVs were virtually useless due to deep snow? Or will it be like last year, when the only way to avoid getting wet was to leave the snowmobile and ATV at home and go fishing from a boat? It's anybody's guess.

Last year may have been the low-ball benchmark for the past century for ice-anglers in America's Dairyland, with the hardwater never absolutely safe on any lake in our state. On Madison's Lake Mendota, we were jerking perch from boats off of Governor's Island in February - a scenario nobody had seen in the Mad City for over a century.

Not like there were any more than rudimentary attempts at ice-fishing back in 1902 - or 1972 for that matter. The generation that saw the genesis of the Swedish auger, three-color electronics and underwater cameras is still out there on the ice. We're making quantum progress in understanding the sport of ice-fishing. But even with a shortened learning curve, serious hardwater anglers are still making baby steps toward good fishing - especially after the tentative ice of last year.

Groups of dedicated anglers like the Ice Team are the cutting edge of fishing's fourth season, sharing information via the Internet and through other means. The progress these die-hards are making toward understanding the sport is staggering. For example, have you ever gone out on the ice and successfully targeted smallmouth bass? Didn't think so.

The following is a look at where you should see the very best ice-fishing in Wisconsin in the months ahead, if we have safe ice.

Ice Team co-founders Denny Clark and Paul Fabian have been pondering the winter travels of smallmouth bass under the ice for years. The arrival of underwater cameras coupled with common sense hunches have paid off for them in the Great Lakes, where smallies are active all winter long exactly where you would expect to find them - at the first deepwater breakline offshore.


Photo by Ron Sinfelt

According to Fabian, it was the Aqua-Vu camera that unlocked the mystery.

"The electronics told us we were over fish," Fabian said. "But we couldn't get a hook into 'em. Once we lowered the camera down and saw that the bass were taking the bait, swimming off and then eating, it all came together. It's the same kind of behavior you see in the summer when they hit a minnow suspended under a bobber. But for some reason nobody figured they would act the same under the ice."

The first key to success is locating the fish, which may move great distances along the first deepwater breakline in the course of a single day. The second component in sticking serious bronze is using a noisy bait and keeping it moving. The Lindy Rat-ler spoon is ideal under most conditions. Big Genz Worms tied with a loop knot and tipped with colored spikes are also effective.

The exact location of Fabian's honeyhole is a well-kept secret. But he has been able to replicate the pattern from Sheboygan to Green Bay on Lake Michigan and up on Lake Superior wherever these fish are found during open-water periods in late fall. There is every reason to believe these tactics will work in other clear, deep waters where smallmouths swim.

Just remember to release these wonderful smallmouths so they can fight another day.

Contact - Paul Fabian: phone (612) 325-2415, or on the Web go to

This sprawling, shallow basin in Jefferson and Rock counties may see the best winter walleye action in nearly 20 years this season. That's because there are dominant year-classes in the 4- to 6-pound range now cruising the waters over 6 feet deep, looking for golden shiners and roaches under tip-ups.

You might think that targeting all the water over 6 feet deep in 10,400-acre Lake Koshkonong is an impossible task. Not true. Only about 19 percent of the water in this fertile south-central Wisconsin lake measures a fathom. And if you find any water deeper than 8 feet, go recalibrate your electronics.

Other than a couple of green weedbeds and a rockpile or two, Koshkonong has virtually no bottom structure. Finding success here requires close study of the predator-prey relationship and using considerable stealth.

Walleyes are following minnows, which follow zooplankton - the movements of which are determined by current flow in the Rock River as the river passes through the lake. Although there are no absolutes, walleyes usually migrate toward the east end of the lake out from Blackhawk Island when the river is rising and toward the west end when river levels are stable or dropping.

Fish the old now-underwater shale road that runs essentially between Thiebeau and Carcajou points and you'll catch them on the move. But here are a couple of important caveats: Stay away from crowds and established travel paths, and use a hole cover or tip-up that prevents unnatural light from entering the hole. Don't overlook the daytime bite, especially if there is considerable snow cover on the lake.

Contact - UCatch'em Bait & Tackle: phone (608) 754-7976 or e-mail

Like Koshkonong, the walleye population in this lake's biomass has developed considerable shoulders along with a penchant for wolfing down golden shiners suspended under tip-ups. Walleyes tend to migrate from the shallow water along the west shore, the flats out from Waterworks Park and bays on the lake's east side into deep water at the north end as winter progresses - especially at the edge of the old river channel.

Beaver Dam holds few secrets from an angler with decent electronics. Essentially, it's a soup bowl, with active walleyes hanging close to breaks around the islands and offshore. You can almost set your watch by the first tip-up that will flag about 10 minutes after sunset during stable weather conditions. The bite continues here well into the night, with silver-and-blue jigging spoons like the No. 3 Jigging Rapala being very effective, especially when most folks are sleeping.

Little tricks seem to make all the difference on these waters. Experimenting with where the hook is placed in the minnow and tricks like fin-clipping the tail or putting two minnows on a treble hook can make a world o

f difference.

Anticipating fish movement is also a good idea. Get on the water well before dark and tap a bunch of holes. Nothing puts walleyes off their feed quicker than somebody making noise on top of the ice close to a "hot" hole.

Beaver Dam produces respectable bluegills and has seen crappies here nearing the peak of their cycle in both size and numbers. Frog around to find the crappies by using a No. 3 orange/gold Jigging Rapala and work it about two feet off of the bottom. Remember to fish above any marks on your electronic flasher because crappies always feed from below. Once you find active fish, set a small minnow hooked under the dorsal fin below a little slip-bobber.

There is good public access out from the city landings in Beaver Dam and on the south side of the lake off of County G, plus at several other access sites on both east and west shores. Driving a vehicle on the ice is not a good idea unless you have your mother-in-law's car and you've already been written out of the will.

Contact - Strikemaster Guide Service: phone (920) 361-4996.

Several years ago, Department of Natural Resources biologist Mike Vogelsang pushed for establishment of restrictive harvest guidelines on predators in this capital city natural lake.

Now, big walleyes are taken here every winter during periods of low light on several midlake humps. Smallmouth bass are present in both size and trophy dimensions - and may feel a hook now that technology is homing in on their winter habits. Mendota has quality panfish. There are at least five year-classes of yellow perch, with the oldest having huge dimensions. Crappies and bull-shouldered bluegills cruise the weeds in University Bay. White bass are present in both size and numbers.

And right at the top of the food chain is ol' Esox lucius - the northern pike. A one-per-day 40-inch minimum size limit on this lake has led to the establishment of a genuine trophy-pike fishery.

The dominant year-class of northerns runs 36 to 39 inches, providing great thrills for tip-up anglers. But there are at least two year-classes of fish swimming here that are now of legal dimensions. Catch one of these critters and you have a whale of a toother - 20 pounds at least.

Look for big pike around any remaining green weeds where there is plenty to forage on. University Bay, Warner Bay, out from the governor's mansion, the weeds out from the Tenney Park locks, the Yahara inlet and the west end near the sailboat moorings all have the potential for you to be making an excited call to the taxidermist.

Nobody knows this lake better than guide Ron Barefield. He's out there every day and half the night from first ice to last ice.

Contact - Ron Barefield: phone (608) 838-8756 or e-mail

This Walworth County lake is another fisheries management success story, continuing to produce multiple species of quality fish in spite of intense angling pressure. Slab bluegills have been an early- and late-ice phenomenon in recent years. The southwest end gives up good northern pike all winter long. Walleyes are a bonus fish that come at night when anglers target papermouths.

This should be another good year for Delavan crappies, especially at night. You'll find them suspended over 40 to 50 feet of water from Willow Point to the yacht club. They're plain fools for small minnows or a Hali Jig tipped with waxies, or a glow-in-the-dark Coped.

Contact - Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle: phone (262) 245-6150.

With so many lakes to choose from in Oneida and Vilas counties, it's tough to pick just a couple. Madeline and Carrol lakes are small enough to learn in a single day on the ice, giving up a mixed bag of panfish, northern pike of various sizes and the occasional walleye.

Both of these waters are great places to visit on a sunny winter afternoon with the kids, jigging weed edges for perch, bluegills and some real nice crappies while watching for a flag to pop on a "board" set for pike.

A party atmosphere occurs on the ice at Carrol when weather conditions permit, primarily because of its easy access. Veer left from the parking lot and boat launch for a short distance and you can find fish quickly on the weedflat here. Mudflats along Carrol's east end are a great place to whack a quick limit of perch. Don't overlook the south side of the big island for perch suspended about five to seven feet off the bottom over 25 feet of water.

If you're headed to Madeline, it's just a short run by snowmobile from the boat launch at the southwest side of the lake to the big weedflat on the north end. Or you can leave the sled on the trailer and vector just a little to the left about 100 paces and find fish on an even better weedflat.

Contact - Eagle Sports: phone (715) 479-8804 or go online to

Slab bluegills are the draw on this 2,500-acre Marinette County lake located just east of Crivitz. Stealth and mobility are the keys in targeting the really big fish, which can measure in excess of 10 inches.

The fertile nature of this lake makes targeting the real slabbers tough during open-water months. But when the ice man cometh and a considerable portion of the weeds die off, finding bluegills is very easy.

If you just want to catch a mess of hand-sized gills, target weeds in less than 12 feet of water. Bluegills tend to school by year-class, with the bigger ones in smaller schools and deeper water. Inside turns in the deep weed edges at about 18 feet hold the whoppers. Drop down to 1-pound-test and fish a bait like the Demon in a horizontal presentation by sliding the knot around after every fish. Start with chartreuse/hot pink or gold, then go to orange and finally glow-in-the-dark right at dusk when the best action typically occurs. Once you've located the fish with electronics, fish two spikes hooked gingerly between the brown spots at the fat end of the grub, barely piercing the skin, with very subtle movement.

Noquebay may hold the best big bluegill population in the entire state. Even the dinks are almost keepers.

Contact - Hook, Line & Sinker Bait Shop: phone (715) 854-2073. For guide service, contact Mike Mladenik: phone (715) 854-2055 or log onto

Those who chase bluegills on Sawyer County's Nelson Lake may argue about who should have bragging rights. This flowage of the Totagatic River has been a top panfish producer for long as anybody can remember, with the north end

near Grass Island seeing the most angler activity when the lake ices up.

Since Nelson is so shallow and stained, it is one of the first lakes in the area to have safe ice. The stained nature of this flowage also keeps weed growth at a minimum. As a result, savvy anglers target stumps, deadfalls and areas adjacent to the old creek channel.

Little Dots and Dot Rockers tipped with a wax worm are probably the most consistent lures. But don't leave your Rat Finkees at home. And make sure there is a rainbow of colors in your ice fly box. Nelson's bluegills develop almost a cosmic affinity for a certain lure and color every winter - or even every month, with little conventional wisdom behind why they choose a particular bait. The mobile, versatile angler with a Fas-Snap for quick lure changing is usually the first guy to fill a limit.

Contacts - Pastika's Sporting Goods: phone (715) 635-4466; Hayward Chamber of Commerce: phone 1-800-826-3474.

This Taylor County flowage, also known as Chequamegon Waters, is inconveniently located in the fork between Interstate 94 and Interstate 39 - just far enough out of the way to keep the crowds away. Word travels fast in the town of Medford when the bite is on. Get out there and it's hard not to catch fish.

One of the favorite winter hotspots for panfish is around Brush Creek on the east side of the flowage. Fish the edge of a deep-water area adjacent to a big, weedy flat. The river channel that snakes through this flowage is a natural migration route and, like the well-defined weedline, it is quite easy to find.

Those chasing pike like to target the flats near the Bear Creek access, with crappie anglers looking for slabs in the deeper water of the river channel around stumps. Hot colors are good for all species in this stained water.

Taylor County has several other lakes worth probing. Of special note are Rib and Spirit lakes (in the north part of the county) and Lake Esadore, where you can set boards for whopper walleyes and then saunter into the High View Inn for a terrific fish boil or a mammoth slab of prime rib.

Contacts - Fuzzy's General Store: phone (715) 785-7977; Taylor County Tourism: phone 1-800-257-4729.

* * *
So get your gear together, sharpen up the auger blades and get ready to drill some holes - if Mother Nature cooperates.

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