Conventional wisdom says it's best to ice-fish for walleyes at night. But our state has a bunch of waters where fishing during the day can pay big dividends. (January 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
A typical day on the ice chasing Wisconsin walleyes this time of year starts out slow, and then slacks right off once the sun comes up. But the all-too-brief active bite for these notorious nighttime raiders comes at midday when the sun is shining on some of our hardwaters, providing ample opportunities for a fresh walleye dinner without a need to be out there when the owls go hunting.
Fisheries biologists will tell you walleyes are crepusculent feeders -- a 10-cent word that means these fish are most active during periods of low light. You only need to glance at those opaque eyes for a minute to realize why this is so.
Walleyes working in the role of predators quickly learn the advantage of seeking dinner when minnows and other prey believe they are hiding safely in the darkness. With slowed metabolism in cold water and a perpetual Arctic high-pressure system in place over the state putting a squeeze on Walter's air bladder this time of year, the active feeding window can be 30 minutes or less in a 24-hour period. Even when weather conditions are "mild" by Wisconsin standards, the bite may only last an hour at dawn and again at dusk, with a flurry of flags followed by hours with nothing better to do than count your minnows.
On classic lakes with clear water and structure, you can actually see when walleyes go on the move, tripping tip-ups as they slide ever shallower on a hump or rockpile to feed during those brief interludes between night and day and ahead of approaching weather systems.
Flowages can offer a stark contrast to the activity pattern found on lakes, with stained water creating visibility problems for sight-feeding walleyes that clear up with a little help from the sun. The midday pattern that flowage anglers take advantage of all summer long also tends to hold true during winter months, with a feeding window that lasts longer than is typical on clearer Wisconsin winter waters.
Most flowages are either basins with a nearly uniform bottom structure or a series of flats and dropoffs found where the old river channel ran before the flowage was created. In a basin-bottomed flowage, fish tend to stay on the move, casually dogging their forage base until an opportunity to eat without effort arises. The location of this forage base is often driven by current, with bait location changing as flowage levels rise and fall. Current introduces oxygen into the watery ecosystem in addition to moving food a little lower on the food chain, drawing in everything with gills like a victim to a window in a smoky house fire.
Although flowage locations with current flow are walleye magnets, oxygen and current combine to create a potential for hazardous ice conditions. Ice can be 2 feet thick at the boat ramp or another access point, but only 2 inches -- and unsafe -- out where the 'eyes are hiding.
In some cases, most notably flowages that transition from flats into old river channels, minnows that walleyes feed on have learned that a tasty meal of invertebrates like bloodworms comes wriggling up off the soft bottom as light levels increase. Minnows ease higher in the water column and move across the flats to feed, and the walleyes will be in pursuit. On a deeply stained flowage, this soft parade is often most pronounced on the sunniest of winter days, especially when snow is a factor.
Once you home in on this pattern, timing of the bite can be profoundly predictable if weather conditions remain stable. Peak feeding time may be 45 minutes earlier or later a month from now when walleye activity should pick up across Wisconsin. Flowages and other fisheries that are quicker to experience hydrologic changes spiked by runoff typically turn on first.
The same holes on a transitional area of a flat can produce all winter long if you cover them with a piece of masonite or plywood painted black to minimize hole freezing. Of course, this kind of marker practically screams, "fish here!" This makes the best hole cover a 6x8-foot shanty with all the comforts of home, and a padlock on the door.
On many waters, ice shanties must be removed by March 1. Since this is Wisconsin, there could still be plenty of winter left on that day, or the shanty could be sinking into the ice.
Whether you choose to cover a "honeyhole" or not, saving the location as a waypoint in a portable GPS and carrying the GPS with you on every outing is a good idea. Whiteouts and heavy fog conditions are always a possibility, with the potential for creating a truly dangerous situation.
Even if you don't choose to leave clues to your favorite walleye spot in the form of a shanty or hole cover, some means of covering the hole to minimize unnatural light penetration will greatly enhance your chances for success. Round, floating tip-ups designed by ice-fishing legend John Rinehart of Janesville are one of the most important innovations in winter fishing over the past 20 years. The latest generation is equipped with a little tackle box to store terminal gear, and you can stack a bunch of them in the iceman's standard accessory -- the five-gallon bucket.
Some traditionalists insist on using the venerable Beaver Dam boards. Others like to incorporate Polar Windlass tip-ups or some variation of tip-downs. Regardless of how you want to fish remote lines, keeping the presentation natural by minimizing light penetration is an important part of a day-bite winter walleye strategy.
Wisconsin regulations allow three lines per angler. Many bucketeers like to set two "boards" and jig a third line for panfish. Good plan. However, if you're pondering a strategy of two boards and jigging the third line for walleyes, think again. If the bite is so good that you're getting action on the jig-pole, you won't be able to keep up the pace of working the boards. Setting out three tip-ups in a triangle pattern about 50 feet apart is a good way to prospect new areas.
When prospecting new areas, fishing with several buddies enables you to cover more ice. Think like a spider, and set up a base of operations at the center of the web and run lines from this hub. Poke more holes than you'll ever need on different tangents before breaking out the Weber Grill and firing up the brats. There isn't a problem with making a little noise above the ice, but the best way to shut down a hot bite is poking holes close to where the flags have been popping, or running up and down the ice on a snowmobile chasing after flags.
Here are a bunch of day-bite walleye waters where you can test this theory.
The spider-web concept is just one epiphany that has been stumbled over in more than 30 years of chasing walleyes through the ice.
Credit the Beloit chapter of Rock Valley Anglers for coming up with this idea. The winter "clubhouse" was a massive ice shack on Lake Koshkonong with a revolving red light on top to enable anglers to find their way back in darkness and fog. I was enlightened regarding the day-bite walleye concept on Kosh in the winter of 1987. This 10,400-acre lake straddling the Jefferson-Rock County line gave up more big walleyes than anyone can remember -- until today. Koshkonong has a maximum depth of 6 feet. Back in '87, all you had to do was poke a hole and put two crappie minnows on a No. 8 treble below a tip-up with the bait suspended maybe 8 inches off the bottom.
It has taken Department of Natural Resources biologist Don Bush since '87 to bring this fishery back into balance. Big walleyes are swimming here again in substantial numbers, bolstered by at least four smaller year-classes of adult fish.
Access is possible from multiple points around Kosh. Charley Bluff on the lake's south side is probably the best place to get on, but I like getting on the ice off Blackhawk Island on the east end after stopping by Riverfront Resort for a big bowl of chili and a fishing report. You can call them at (920) 563-2757 to see how the bite is going before heading out, but you should really try the chili first.
Tailwaters of several Mississippi River dams offer good day-bite action for a bag that is mostly saugers once winter has arrived in earnest.
Although anglers who fish here routinely fill the six-fish limit allowed on the river in an hour or so, I refuse to fish here because of the strong current flowing under ice of dubious quality. If the thought of drowning doesn't concern you, grab a rod spooled with 8-pound-test Berkley FireLine Ice Line and a couple blue/chrome No. 7 Jigging Rapalas and wear a PFD.
Cap'n Hook's Bait & Tackle in Genoa is a good source of information at (608) 689-2800. Bob's Bait on French Island upstream near La Crosse is another good contact at (608) 782-5552.
Another tailwater bite worth checking out is below the Fox River dam at De Pere just out from Voyageur Park.
NAPA pro Pat Cavins likes to hang bait below two tip-ups just off the bottom and jig a third line with a blade bait. Because the current is so strong, Cavins fishes a 25-inch leader with a shiner hooked through the lips on a single No. 6 hook behind a 1- to 2-ounce egg-sinker stopped by a swivel. Don't be surprised if a massive catfish stumbles into your bait.
Cavins also likes to hit the day-bite for walleyes at the mouth of Green Bay where the Fox River dumps in seven miles below the dam in De Pere. Access is pretty easy. Just walk out from the boat launch parking lot 50 feet and set your boards.
It takes a snowmobile to get out to the long flat off Vincent Point south of Volk's Point and north of Frying Pan shoal. Target the transition area where the bottom drops from 8 feet to 11 to 15 feet of water. Most of the fish run about 20 inches, but a wallhanger is a real possibility.
You can reach Cavins at (920) 246-2769. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
If your idea of a perfect winter outing is a snowmobile safari for walleyes, the Cisco Chain on the Upper Michigan-Wisconsin border is a must-do destination.
A snowmobile trail snakes throughout the entire chain, with specific walleye harvest regulations posted at access points along the way. A 15-inch minimum-size limit is in place on Wisconsin waters. A Michigan license is required if you plan on fishing on the north side of the border. Several of the smaller lakes on the Upper Peninsula side are definitely worth the investment.
Top day-bite walleye waters on the Wisconsin side of the line are 400-acre Mamie Lake, 800-acre Big Lake and 500-acre West Bay Lake. There is no public access on West Bay, other than the snowmobile trail, but you can sled after fish here from access at the public launch or from Bent's Camp on Mamie or from the public access on Big Lake.
Weeds are a major key to fish location, according to local guide Bruce Becker, who likes to set tip-ups baited with shiners. Becker said chubs work better, but are more expensive. According to Becker, the best times to fish are from sunrise to about 10 a.m., and in the afternoon from 1 to 3 p.m. He can be contacted at (715) 360-6001.
The mighty Wisconsin has been called "the hardest-working river in America" because of all the power dams that slice these root-beer-hued waters into flowages.
Walleyes are found from the headwaters at Lac Vieux Desert clear down to confluence with the Mississippi River south of Prairie du Chien. A slot limit that went into effect several years ago on essentially the entire river that protects walleyes 20 to 28 inches long is making great strides toward returning the Wisconsin to its former grandeur as a walleye factory.
Petenwell Flowage is arguably the epicenter of walleye activity on this system, with the lion's share of 'eyes relating to woody cover near the old river channel essentially year 'round.
Guide Dean Stoflet likes to target the ice of Barnum Bay on Petenwell's east side, setting baits several feet off bottom along the 6- to 15-foot contour under stable weather conditions, and between 10 to 20 feet if fish are lethargic. Stoflet uses a single hook baited with a golden shiner most days, but he said there are times when small suckers work better. He can be contacted at (715) 572-5230.
Capt. Greg Karch believes the key to consistent success on Petenwell is mobility. He tows a portable shanty behind an ATV, moving every 10 minutes until active fish are found. Karch starts his hardwater patrol out from Petenwell Park in Monroe Center or Wilderness Park on the flowage's west side at first ice, moving to the old roadbed out from Monroe Center as winter progresses.
"I like to target bends and edges of the old river channel," said Karch, "and will always fish flooded timber if I can find it."
One of Karch's favorite areas is the ice around Long View Point. He also likes to work the edges of Barnum Bay. He prefers to poke six holes with a power auger, quickly checking for fish with his flasher unit.
"If the fish are down, there I'll drop a Jigging Rapala or Swedish Pimple in front of them," Karch said. "If the blips on the flasher are walleyes, they'll either bump the bait or end up getting hooked. If they follow the bait but won't hit it, they are probably perch. I like using smaller Jigging Raps. The No. 3 in orange/gold or fire-tiger is my favorite."
If no active
fish are found, Karch will run about 1/10-mile down the flowage and repeat the procedure.
"Eventually you'll find them," he said. "Then it's time to set out the tip-ups and get serious."
Karch can be reached at (920) 213-0373, or by e-mail at greg.karch@ thrivent.com. Two other Petenwell contacts worth noting are Timberline Bait and Tackle at (715) 325-7662, and Petenwell Sport Shop at (608) 564-7707.
Lake DuBay is the biggest "sleeper" on the entire Wisconsin River system, maybe because anglers get scared off by the minefield of wood that is a boating nightmare during open-water periods. Caution must still be used on the ice, because current areas that attract walleyes can be covered with unsafe ice.
Local guide Phil Schweik grew up on this water and is on a first-name basis with the more notorious stumps found here. Schweik's ability to put fish in the boat -- or on the ice -- has earned him the nickname, "The Sultan of DuBay."
"Some of the best walleye spots are little back bays with no current that you wouldn't think would hold fish," Schweik said. "You'll also find fish up in the river, but caution is important because of uncertain ice conditions."
First-time visitors to DuBay would be wise in accessing this flowage off of either County Highway C on the flowage's north end, from the park at County Road E on the south end where the Big Eau Pleine River joins the flowage or on both sides of County DB around Heckel's Marina, where you can usually ice a mess of crappies and 'gills while waiting for the walleyes to wake up and start eating.
"Their appetite varies on a day-to-day basis," Schweik said. "Take both golden shiners and small suckers, and you can cover all the bases."
Schweik's Web site is the best source of information for fishing DuBay. You can access it at www.hooksetters.biz.
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Fishing is tough all over Wisconsin right now, but as long as your line is in the water, you're a weapon. Walleyes may get active on many waters when the cows come home, but there are spots where the hottest action comes after you set those Holsteins free after the morning milking.
Find more about Wisconsin fishing and hunting at: WisconsinSportsmanMag.com