There's no better time than right now to hit the Winnebago Chain to add variety to your late ice-fishing action.
The Wolf and Fox rivers, which drain a large portion of east-central Wisconsin, meet on their way to the Bay of Green Bay to form lakes Winnebago, Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan.
Collectively known as the Winnebago Chain, this cluster of large, shallow lakes offers some of the best year-round fishing for walleyes and panfish.
Because they are so shallow, freeze-up comes early to Poygan and Butte des Morts, and those two lakes offer some great ice-fishing early in the season. Later in winter, the action shifts to Lake Winnebago.
The first lake on the chain, Poygan covers some 14,000 acres, with a maximum depth of 11 feet. The east end is shallower, with fair vegetation. The western section is one large bowl, with some structure off Indian Point. There are access points at landings around the lake kept open for winter anglers.
"Because of the shallow water and abundance of weeds, feeder creeks, and the Wolf River, there are a lot of baitfish for walleyes to feed on," says Troy Peterson, of Mr. Bluegill Guide Service. "Walleyes swim upriver from Winnebago in the fall and hold off these river and creek mouths. As winter progresses, they head to the deeper "Horseshoe" section of Poygan or swim back downstream to Winnebago."
The best way to fish Poygan, Peterson says, is to drill a bunch of holes early in the morning, and then move quietly from hole to hole as the fish move. Stealth is important, as fish spook easily in this shallow water. Poygan offers a good mix of walleyes, white bass, perch and crappies that tend to swim around in tight schools. Target one and you'll catch them all, Peterson says.
For walleyes, white bass and panfish, Peterson likes to use tip-ups set with rosy reds, which show up better in this stained water than darker fatheads. This is a finesse bite, so he likes to fish with 4-pound-test fluorocarbon and No. 20 treble hooks.
To target pike, Peterson fishes the shallows along weed edges around the perimeter of the lake, using tip-ups with golden shiners or dead smelt fished on No. 4 or 6 treble hooks on bottom. Instead of a wire bite guard, he uses 30-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon.
"We had a severe winter several years ago and a lot of pike died off," Peterson said. "They are coming back now and we're starting to see more mature fish."
When the walleyes migrate to the Horseshoe in midwinter, anglers tend to crowd each other, Peterson warns. Don't be surprised if you catch a fish and suddenly find yourself surrounded by a circle of claim jumpers who stay right with you until someone catches a fish in another area.
"It's not like Winnebago, where people give you a little room," Peterson says. "On Poygan, be prepared to have guys set up 5 or 10 feet from you. You'd be better off fishing inside a portable shelter, where people can't see what you're using or catching."
Just downstream on the Wolf River, Lake Winneconne actually is a 4,500-acre bay on the east shore of Lake Poygan.
"Winneconne is one of those lakes where, if you don't know where to go, you should stay off it," Peterson warns.
River currents keep the lake from freezing as solid as Poygan and Butte des Morts, so only a few locals venture out in winter. A spring near the one winter landing on the southeast shore is a deterrent to vehicle traffic, but some anglers get on the lake with snowmobiles and ATVs.
The next lake on the chain is Butte des Morts, an 8,500-acre widespread on the Wolf River just upstream from Lake Winnebago. Its greatest depth is 9 feet. There is not a lot of structure there, so anglers concentrate on the mudflats and weedbeds. The Fox and Wolf rivers enter Butte des Morts on the west shore. The same tactics that work on Poygan will do the trick here.
"Sunset Bay, on the east shore just north of the Highway 41 bridge, is a popular winter spot," Peterson says. "It's pretty shallow and there is a lot of vegetation, and anglers fish here for bluegills, crappies, perch and northerns."
At 130,000 acres, Lake Winnebago is Wisconsin's largest inland lake. Because it is so large, it usually does not have fishable ice until several weeks after Poygan and Butte des Morts. The lake has a maximum depth of 21 feet and extensive areas with only 6 or 8 feet of water. There are numerous access points around the lake, most of them at public parks or private taverns. Local clubs plow and mark ice roads to facilitate vehicular travel, and anglers use these jumping-off points to get out to popular fishing spots.
The ice on Winnebago can never be considered safe, as wind and currents cause occasional heaves and cracks to develop. The same clubs that plow the roads maintain steel bridges to allow trucks to cross the cracks that develop at some of the busier landings. Many anglers drive trucks out onto the ice, but the more prudent approach is to trailer a snowmobile or four-wheeler and use that to get to your fishing spots.
One of the most popular access points is Menominee Park in Oshkosh. From there, you can reach the deep mud flats where walleyes, perch and white bass roam, and the weedbeds that hold crappies and bluegills. There are rock reefs along the west shore and many artificial reefs along the east shore that were created to provide spawning structure for sauger. For some reason, very few fish hang out near rock structure in winter.
"Thanks to recent good year-classes, perch and crappie numbers have rebounded from a decline over the past few years," says Wisconsin DNR senior fisheries biologist Ryan Koenigs. "There were tremendous hatches of crappies and perch in 2016. Those fish are 6 or 7 inches long now, but come next year, they will be the size anglers want to catch."
All the bays along the west shore from Fond du Lac to Oshkosh have good vegetation, and the weeds are moving deeper because the water is clearer now than it used to be. Early in winter, you'll find crappies on the outskirts of these bays where weeds taper off to deeper water. Look for them there and off points, not in deep water. Small tungsten jigs tipped with plastics and tip-ups set with shiners and fatheads will take them. For bluegills, Peterson likes small tungsten jigs tipped with waxes, spikes or plastics.
"It seems bluegills get harder to catch here ever year," says Peterson. "Anglers are hitting them hard, but at first ice you can find them deep in the shallow weeds in as little as 4 feet of water. Later in the season, anglers do better fishing the deeper weeds from Van Dyne south to Fond du Lac."
In midwinter, Winnebago's deep-water fishery really shines. Walleyes, perch and white bass roam the deep water over mud bottom. Smart anglers drill a lot of holes until they find active schools, then settle in to fish. Most anglers set out two tip-ups and jig with a short jigging rod in a third hole.
"Use your electronics to mark fish on bottom," Peterson says. "But keep your baits 3 or 4 feet off bottom because that's where the active fish will be."
A tip-up rigged for walleyes will work fine for perch and white bass. Start with Dacron line, add 6 feet of mono or fluorocarbon leader, and tie on a No. 6 single hook or a No. 10 treble. Some anglers favor red hooks, which simulate a bleeding baitfish and may trigger more pickups. Pinch a single split shot a foot above the bait, hook a minnow below the dorsal fin, and drop it down to a foot or so off bottom. If several friends set up in the same area, they can put out two tip-ups each and cover a couple of acres.
For walleyes, jumbo perch and white bass, Peterson baits tip-ups with fatheads or shiners and sets them higher in the water column, sometimes just 3 feet under the ice. He also jigs with spoons and a variety of jigging lures, fished "naked" — not tipped with a minnow.
Many local anglers tow permanent ice shelters onto Winnebago once they are able to drive on the ice. Others fish right out the door of a vehicle. Some even customize fishing cars by cutting a hole in the floorboard and fitting a section of 10-inch PVC pipe in the hole. With the pipe pushed down to the ice, they can jig without the wind blowing their line around.
Wind is a big factor on this large lake. Strong winds can cause whiteout conditions that can disorient you, so always carry a compass. There are several tip-ups on the market that use the wind to move a bait up and down, effectively giving anglers multiple jig rods.
Always carry some basic safety gear. If you don't need it yourself, you might be called upon to rescue someone else. Here's the minimum: ice creepers to keep boots from slipping, a 50-foot rope to throw to a rescuer or an angler who has fallen through the ice, a pair of ice picks on a cord worn around your neck where you can reach them, a cell phone or two-way radio. You could also carry flares, a signal flag, a strobe light for night signaling and a compact Mylar blanket to wrap a victim pulled from icy water.
And if you drive a snowmobile or ATV on the ice, attach a Nebulus Flotation Device to the frame. You hope you'll never have to use it, but it can save your life by keeping you and your machine from sinking to bottom if you happen to break though the ice. For more information, visit nebulusflotation.com.
For tackle and a fishing report, stop at Critter's Sports in Winneconne, critterssports.com/. For guide service, try Troy Peterson at mrbluegill.com.
The Winnebago Chain holds a lot of water, and this time of year ice covers most or all of it. Take advantage of this seasonal opportunity to taste an ice-fishing smorgasbord. I guarantee you'll come back for seconds.
SPEAR A STURGEON
Another February fishing opportunity that is unique to the Winnebago Chain is sturgeon spearing. The season begins on the second Saturday of the month and runs for two weeks or until any of the pre-set harvest caps are reached, whichever comes first. To participate, you must apply for a sturgeon spearing permit by Oct. 31 of the previous year, so unless you have done that, you won't be spearing this year.
Spearers cut a refrigerator-sized hole in the ice and tow a "dark-house" ice shanty over the hole. Then they wait in the shanty and watch for a sturgeon to swim past. A heavy spear with a detachable head tied to a stout rope hangs on a hook over the hole. When a legal sturgeon (minimum of 36 inches) swims past, the spearer drops the spear on the fish and the battle begins.
Spearing hours are 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sturgeon must be registered by 1 p.m. on the day they are taken at one of several registration stations around the lake. Onlookers gather at these stations to see the sturgeon, which may weigh 150 pounds or more.
Successful spearers enjoy smoked or baked sturgeon, and if they spear a female, the special treat of homemade caviar. Some spearers are consistently successful, but others go years without seeing a legal fish swim past their hole.