March 10, 2021
Sure, my casting accuracy is impeccable when standing over a 6-inch hole on February ice. Yes, the subtle twitch of a spring bobber delights my angling senses. And sprinting toward a tip-up sprung by a hefty northern pike always brings an adrenaline rush. But by late winter, the urge to fish open water usually gets the best of me.
Where can a Midwest angler travel for a taste of fast, early-season angling and perhaps even a shot at a true trophy? Check out these waters that are sure to cure both cabin fever and your angling itch.
PATOKA LAKE, IN
Crappies have been the big draw for anglers at Patoka Lake since the Patoka River's impoundment in the 1970s. Although some fish tend toward the smaller side, at 6 to 7 inches, big slabs up to 17 inches or more are certainly possible at this 8,800-acre lake, and anglers dialed in to the bite can pull some impressive stringers. According to Andrew Bueltmann, the District 6 biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the average length of crappies in the 2019 creel survey of Patoka was around 10 inches. Despite this, he encourages anglers to add additional small crappies to their 25-fish legal harvest.
In late winter, crappies suspend in deeper sections of the reservoir at varying depths. At this time, they're feasting primarily on shiners and small gizzard shad. They'll often be hovering in Patoka's ample standing timber at 10- to 20-foot depths.
Variable weather conditions tend to dictate fish patterns. Patoka's crappies respond to a wide variety of baits and techniques during this time of year, so be sure to dig into your arsenal to discover what works.
In early spring, 14- to 16-inch white crappies succumb to trolled crankbaits in deeper water and jig/plastic combinations in flooded vegetation. Dock-shooting is also popular in the marinas.
If crappies don't excite you, Patoka Lake offers many other sportfish to occupy your time. An abundance of gizzard shad prompted the Indiana DNR to add striped bass, hybrid stripers and walleyes to the existing largemouth bass, bluegill and channel and flathead catfish populations.
"Walleye is the sleeper trophy fishery in the lake," says Bueltmann, who is an avid angler. "We stock 6 million fry in the lake every spring. Being in southern Indiana, the fish have a longer growing season and a chance to grow big—and fast—on the gizzard shad, yellow bass and other available forage."
He adds that by their second year, these fish often reach the 14-inch legal size.
"It's not unusual to see walleyes over 8 pounds caught," he says. "Last year, we had a fish just shy of 10 pounds come in, too."
Walleyes begin staging for the spring spawn in February and March, positioning themselves along rocky causeways where they are caught by trolling and casting stick-style minnow lures or casting jigs.
Patoka Lake Marina and Lodging (812-685-2203; patokalakemarina.com) offers boat rentals and lodging on the lake.
OAK CREEK POWER PLANT, WI
Leave the wicker creels at home, trout anglers. The brown trout in Lake Michigan can grow to mammoth proportions, as evidenced by the 41.7-pound former world-record specimen taken by Roger Hellen of Yorkville, Wis., back in 2010.
What's more, they are a year-round resource, thanks in part to the Oak Creek Power Plant, an electrical power generating station between Racine and Milwaukee. Water used to cool the generators of the coal- and natural gas-burning plant is discharged into the big lake, drawing brown trout and keeping them warm and hungry throughout the winter and into the spring.
"The area stays open pretty much all year," says Jim LaFortune, veteran angler and tournament director. "Ice is rare and limited even in January and February. Water can get to the mid-30s in the lake proper, yet be 41 to 45 degrees at the power plant."
LaFortune keeps close tabs on these winter browns. On one mid-winter outing at Oak Creek, we broke through skim ice in the launch harbor near Grant Park Beach to reach open water near the power plant. We set out trolling lines with an assortment of stick-style minnow baits and soon had our hands full fighting fish and resetting lines. Fishing into the early afternoon, we never waited more than 10 minutes between bites. Most fish ran between four and eight pounds, but our catch included multiple double-digit browns, as well.
LaFortune has favored casting over trolling in recent winters to stay on top of schools of trout. "Last year, cold west winds congregated fish in a down-current area where it was easier to anchor and cast to the fish," he says.
The lesson? Follow warm water to reach the biggest concentrations of trout.
"Setting up in front of the power plant isn't always the idea," he says. "Browns want the warmest water they can find. Pay attention to the winds a day or two before you fish. And always check the NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] website for surface temperatures."
Lake Michigan browns feast on bottom-hugging gobies. It's no coincidence, then, that LaFortune's top bait choice is the Savage Gear 3D Goby.
"It looks like a real goby, with a goby color and flakes in it," he says. "Just cast it in the current and let it go to the bottom. It has nice action. It climbs over rocks like a real goby. On one outing, we had fish on 35 casts in a row."
Other favorites include minnow-style plastics in the 4-inch range on a darter jighead. LaFortune counts the Berkley Flicker Shad among his most productive hardbaits, though he likes the Rapala Husky Jerk and Tail Dancer, Savage Gear 3D Minnow Diver, Brad's Thinfish and spoons like the Michigan Stinger, too. Baits in the Smithwick Rogue and Bomber Long A lines are also productive. Browns respond to a range of colors. Orange, red, white and "earthy" greens are good choices.
"And always have a bait with purple in it at the ready," says LaFortune.
Although most trout tend to run between 3 and 5 pounds, Oak Creek yields a generous share of giant Seeforellen browns. LaFortune’s largest brown last winter tipped the scales at 27 pounds.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS, MO
Winter forces most Midwest bass anglers into a three-month retreat, but it doesn't have to be that way. Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri offers outstanding angling for largemouth and Kentucky bass through the entire winter for anglers willing to wake from hibernation.
"Winter bass fishing is generally for the hardcore angler," says James Dill who, with his wife Denise, owns and operates James Dill Guide Service (573-204-9005; jamesdillguideservice.com). "We do a lot of on-the-water angler education on how to work jigs and stick baits during the winter. Fishermen come here to learn. And it’s a great time to catch a trophy."
Each winter, the Ameren Missouri power company, formerly Union Electric, draws down the 54,000-acre impoundment on the Osage River six feet on average. This drawdown concentrates bass populations.
"Bass relate to the steeper bluff ends and channel banks in winter," says Dill. "I use my Garmin electronics for mapping and follow where the river and creek channels brush against the bank to locate these fish. This vertical structure positions bass to move up and down in the water column without having to travel far when the water is in the 30s and low 40s."
Rock is key to finding productive areas. Bass gravitate toward larger and darker rock and may move shallow to soak up sun on warm winter days. Dill explains that bass need this warmth to incubate their eggs, and the darker rock absorbs heat better.
He limits his winter arsenal to three lure categories: jerkbaits (aka "stick baits"), creature baits and small jig-and-trailer combinations. Suspending jerkbaits are a mainstay on the lower third of the reservoir. Bass see the baits better in the clearer, more stable water.
"Bass suspend in the water column," Dill says. "You want that bait to get down and sit over them."
He recommends long pauses between twitches to keep the jerkbait in the strike zone for a longer period. "They won't chase much when it's cold," he says.
Favorite jerkbaits include the Lucky Craft Pointer 78, Smithwick Rogue series and Megabass Vision 110 in shad-imitating colors. Fishing 6- or 8-pound-test fluorocarbon, the baits will get down 6 to 12 feet.
Jigs usually remain consistent producers in late winter. However, Dill dials down to 3/8-ounce and lighter jigs with 2 3/4-inch craw-type trailers to present a slower drop rate andsmaller mouthful.
"Small creature baits and small spider jigs can be productive, too," he says. "Work the baits slowly and add scent. Nothing moves very fast when the water is this cold. Bass may look at the bait a long time and follow before they hit. It’s a subtle bite."
He advises anglers to launch boats only at the state ramps during the drawdown. For more information on the Lake of the Ozarks bite, visit Fitz Fishing Tackle and Supplies (fitzfishing.net; 573-693-9299) in Osage Beach, or check out Bob Bueltmann’s website, bassingbob.com, which offers interactive fishing maps, daily fishing reports and expert how-to articles on Lake of the Ozarks bass fishing.