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Wisconsin's Best Bets for Ice-Fishing

Would you like to catch some walleyes this winter? How about perch or pike? Well then, sharpen up your auger, grab your gear and head for these waters.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Ted Peck

The Ice Man is just beginning to make his glacial presence known across America's Dairyland. Just how long he will be able to keep water frozen in Wisconsin won't be known for several months, at least.

Serious bucketsitters can only hope for a repeat performance of last year, when a lack of snow cover and frigid temperatures resulted in ice depths not seen for years across this state. Winter's hand was felt until the arrival of a honest summer, with some anglers complaining of seasonal fish movements two weeks or more later than in "normal" years. But there weren't any complaints from folks prone to "bucket butt" who hope last winter was the start of a trend toward the good old days when ice-fishing was a good excuse for missing the April 15 income tax deadline.

Only time will tell how long we'll have good ice this season. In the meantime, here's a look at some of our best options for drilling a hole with a genuine expectation of getting your string stretched.

Our western border is one of the most diverse fisheries in the world, with waters from La Crosse south to Prairie du Chien the tip of a multi-species spear.

There are essentially two ice-fishing seasons on Old Man River and its numerous sloughs and backwaters. The first is happening right now, with a first-ice bite that has to be experienced to be believed. Walleyes are cruising with panfish in places like De Soto Bay. Bluegills are stacked by the thousands in the stumpfields west of Stoddard. And pike are in the backwaters from Lawrence Lake around the Highway 82 bridge clear south to sloughs just a five-minute drive from the Cabela's complex at Prairie du Chien.

When winter becomes most brutal around New Year's Day, fish over on the river tend to go into virtual lockdown just like they do everywhere else in our state - except for Big Green Lake and waters of both of our Great Lakes. About the end of January we usually see some kind of brief thaw. Last winter this amounted to the Ice Man just shaking off a little sweat before getting into serious winter. But for several years prior to the winter of 2002-03 the thaw came and pretty much took all safe ice with it. What will happen this year is anybody's guess.


Killer baits last winter were an orange/white Demon or a Moon Glow jig in essentially the same hues. The Moon Glow is very effective because position of the tie-eye allows for a horizontal presentation without needing to move the knot after every fish. The problem is, these eyes are painted shut and you need to bust the paint out to tie the bait on. A word of advice: Don't use one of the end hooks of a Jigging Rapala to bust the tie-eye loose. Even a little No. 3 has plenty of steel to reach the end of your thumb's metacarpal bone - once it gets past the barb. In the time it takes for profanity and blood flow to subside, you can be halfway to a 25-bluegill limit here on a good day.

A No. 7 Jigging Rapala in chrome/blue is the best bait for walleyes on the wing dams directly below the lock-and-dam complex at Genoa. Quite a crowd gathered here on the generally safe ice we had last winter. I watched those foregathered ice a number of walleyes here from the safety of the parking lot with the help of good binoculars. River currents are always unpredictable. This is true in spades below the dam. No walleye is worth dying for. And a weak spot in the ice here translates into an instant statistic.

It's better to chase the jumbo yellow perch that are now swimming in the backwaters in good numbers after a requiem from the last major flood. These perch are whoppers. I was snickering quietly about three honest 12-inchers that were flopping with bluegills and crappies in the bottom of my bucket when Jim Boardman sauntered over and remarked that my fish were about "mill run." Before I could offer a comment, Boardman showed me a photo of an honest 17-inch perch lying on a yardstick! Stop by the Bright Spot café in De Soto and he'll show you the photo. A Friday night visit can give you ammo for a future argument on the best fish fry in Wisconsin.

Contact: Mississippi Sports and Recreation, phone: (608) 648-3630; Web site:

Our deepest inland lake is one of few places in southern Wisconsin where you can get hooked up with lake trout that don't have enough PCBs to qualify as a finned Weapon of Mass Destruction.

Ciscoes are often part of the mix on your way to a two-trout bag limit on any given day, with a real shot at pike and maybe walleye, too. This is especially true during about a three-week window that opens about Super Bowl Sunday, which usually means safe ice clear across this popular recreational lake. Since Big Green is so deep, it is among the last lakes in the state to freeze. During warmer winters, thousands of Canada geese stage here, remaining until the lake locks up or they are unable to get to food because of snow cover.

When the rest of Wisconsin's fish population goes into virtual lockdown, lakers and other critters on Big Green are just beginning to eat. Since we're looking at essentially a "first-ice" scenario, fish are stacked between 40 to 70 feet of water instead of hanging in the 200-foot-plus depths found out in the main-lake basin.

If you've never ice-fished, Big Green is a great place to start. Guide Mike Norton and his family have had fishing shacks here for generations. And Norton will show you how to get hooked up using the most basic of tackle - a 16-inch stick. The perfect Sunday afternoon? Packer's game on the radio and brats cooking just outside one of Norton's shacks on Big Green.

Contact: Guide Mike Norton, phone: (920) 295-3617; Web site:

Since we're on the subject of Green Bay, let's talk about the other green and gold: the walleye.

If whopper walleyes are a passion, this is where you want to be this winter, about half way up the bay, due west of Fish Creek, where the Thorp House Inn and cottages is pretty much a Door County base camp - and with good reason. Long-time pal and pro angler Brian Bliske iced the state ice-fishing walleye record here last winter. And we continued to beat up on the big green gals all summer long, targeting offshore reefs with Rapala Husky Jerks behind planer boards.

Right now the

boards you want to use remain stationary and lie flat with a fair-sized roach or shiner dangling just a foot or two above rocks on one of the reefs. Setting two boards and jigging a third line with a big Swedish Pimple or Jigging Rapala is a good plan, especially when you can cover more ice with several anglers. Pay your dues, and icing an honest 10-pound walleye is pretty much a sure thing.

Jumbo perch and brown trout are also part of the mix out on the reefs. For some weird reason, the ringed devils would rather hit a tip-up than typical perch lures on a jig stick. And they tend to take the biggest minnow you put down there. And brownies go for dinky little minnows.

A snowmobile is the best way to access these fish. A GPS unit is extremely handy for relocating structure on a generally flat landscape. Take a compass, too. White-out conditions can blow up without any advance warning. And big ice is just as unforgiving as being on big water when the weather comes.

Valentine's Day is approaching. Experience has taught the wisdom of getting away with your significant other to a place like Door County and the Thorp House Inn about Feb. 14. My wife loves the quaint charm of the place - sometimes not even noticing that I haven't come in from the ice for a couple of days.

Contacts: Guide Brian Bliske, phone: (920) 429-0934; Web site: Lodging: Thorp House Inn, phone: (920) 868-2444; Web site:

This diverse chain of lakes that shares the common thread of the Yahara River is within an hour's drive of over half our state's population. As such, the chance that you'll be fishing alone is a long shot at best.

A gaggle of anglers is often a clue that fish are active somewhere nearby - or at least where they have been coming through the ice within the past few days. This gathering can provide a real key to general fish location, with the best strategy often beginning near the crowd's edge and working your way out, and using a power auger and electronics.

First ice arrives at ditches off of County AB near Lake Kegonsa outside of Stoughton, and on Cherokee Marsh at the upper end of the chain above Lake Mendota. This is followed a few days later with generally safe ice in protected bays like you'll find in Monona's Squaw Bay, Barber's Bay on Lake Kegonsa, and both the north and south ends of Lake Waubesa - the most consistent winter producer of all the Madison lakes.

In a good ice year, Lake Mendota will freeze over by about New Year's Day, with hot action on midlake bars for walleyes at low light for several weeks thereafter. By Christmas it is usually possible to jig for bluegills and run tip-ups for pike around the edges of the crowd on University Bay, just out from the University of Wisconsin campus.

The bluegill bite here is one situation where stealth is often a better option than walking away from the crowds. Whopping big bluegills found here get educated pretty fast. By using a long pole, 1-pound-test mono and a tiny black Rat Finkee jig tipped with a single wax worm - or better yet, a piece of plastic - you can fill a 25-'gill limit even after folks have been beating up the spot for several weeks.

Mendota is also home to trophy pike, with your best chances for hooking up a couple months from now on weed edges around the Tenney Park locks, Second Point and the sailboat basin off of Middleton by using smelt or big roaches under tip-ups.

Monona sees relatively light fishing pressure, with the exception of "the triangle" off of John Nolan Drive and the ice out from the warmwater discharge near the convention center. Those who take the time to probe weed edges like the one found near the Yahara River entry point can frequently ice nice 'gills and crappies with little attention from the crowds.

Mobility is also a major component for success on Lake Waubesa at the lower end of the chain. No flotation is required on snowmobiles or ATVs operating on Waubesa or Kegonsa, but the city of Madison requires flotation for rigs operating on lakes within city limits. Flotation is a good idea no matter where you run on southern Wisconsin lakes, even if we have a great ice winter like last year. For some bizarre reason Waubesa had an open spot out in the middle almost all winter long, with weak ice also found near a pressure crack that develops every year between the access point at Babcock Park and the Green Lantern tavern on the lake's west side.

Guide Ron Barefield knows that leapfrogging across the lake, punching holes as you go, will eventually result in finding fish. Barefield likes to target weeds near the south end for bluegills, chasing crappies and perch near midlake off of the Bible Camp - at least for starters.

Sometimes these lakes are willing to give up walleyes, sometimes pike, while other times it's bluegills or perch. Take your entire winter arsenal along and be prepared to set up for the active species.

Contact: Guide Ron Barefield, phone: (608) 838-8756; email:

This flowage at the gateway to Wisconsin's northwoods at Tomahawk is one of Badgerland's best-kept hardwater secrets. Stump-strewn Alice is a multi-species lake, but the real draw is whopper crappies.

First ice is a good time to target walleyes using tip-ups baited with 3-inch golden shiners along the old river channel. Due caution should be used, especially in the best areas, which are adjacent to current.

The best access is off of Horseshoe Road, one of several landings located on County Road A. From this point you can probe for the channel edge with a Vexilar and set the boards.

Evening is the best time to ice the walleyes, but fishing is so good at first ice that those getting on the hardwater by mid-afternoon often have their bag limit before prime time arrives.

When the walleye bite begins to slow about three weeks after ice forms, it's time to chase Alice's jumbo crappies in deep water between the big island and the shore. Most locals use a combination of tip-downs and jig poles baited with small minnows for these slabs that average an honest foot and get bigger from there.

The crappie bite slows for a while about mid-January, picking up again after March 1. In the meantime, bluegills are a worthy target just a little bit shallower in the stumps. Typically the best bluegill action comes from shortly after sunrise until about 10 a.m., with another flurry from maybe 2 p.m. to almost sunset. Since these waters are somewhat stained, bright colors are your best bet, with the Demon and Rat Finkee being local favorites.

Contact: Chuck's Sport Shop, phone: (715) 453-3101; Web site:

In Wisconsin's north country where there is so much water and so little time, where do you go? The perennial favorite for panfish is Nelson Lake, a stumpy flowage of the Totagatic River just outside Hayward that has been giving up bluegills and crappies since Sven and Ole used to stumble out there with a spud and pail of minners.

Nelson is one of the first lakes in the north country to have safe ice, with a shallow, stained nature that lends itself to the most basic jig-pole presentations. This is one lake where folks without electronics will catch almost as many fish as those hunkered over a flasher.

Vestiges of structure in the form of stumps and deadfalls are clearly visible atop the ice, with other "wood" just under the surface nearby. With a little imagination and a good depthfinder you can locate the old river channel, which offers spot-on-the-spot targeting when wood is located nearby.

Just about any colorful jig designed for icing bluegills will work on Nelson, but herein lies the rub: for some reason the fish tend to hammer just one or two ice jigs on any given day. Bait profile and color are both major keys to success, with the effectiveness of both changing on a regular basis. Last winter, Genz Worms and little Moon Glow jigs with a horizontal presentation were the shortest route to a stretched string - at least until late ice, when a chartreuse Demon with a hot pink head was strong medicine. Nelson is one lake where changing baits is a better alternative to changing locations if the fish aren't cooperating. Some stumps are better than others. Find one that fish like and you can catch 'em there pretty much all winter long.

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

Wisconsin is a state where you'll find waters full of fish within 30 minutes drive from any given point. Some have better ice bites than others, with each fishery possessing characteristics that make a certain presentation more effective.

Perhaps the biggest key to success can be locating a local bait shop with a good selection of ice-fishing gear. Usually the "marts" are not the answer. It's the mom-and-pop stores with the best information. From there, success is a matter of getting on the ice, early and often.

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