Nov 10, 2014

Beneficial Fall Rains Bring Great Ice Fishing Expectations

By: Larry Smith

Heavy rains in the fall that bring water levels up in the river systems have the same affect on water current they do in the spring. More current in the rivers increase the number of fish that are being pulled up from the lakes they run into. An example of this would be the Wisconsin River flowing down into the Petenwell Flowage.

The Petenwell Flowage is the second largest inland lake in the state. There is a strong population of walleyes and crappies and a moderate population of perch and bluegills. With the heavy rains we have had this fall, the water levels are extremely high. This will have a great affect in pulling these species up into this part of the system. There are also a fair amount of backwater areas here. When the river starts to freeze, these areas are very accessible for early ice. The last three or four years we have not had heavy rains in the fall. As a result, these areas have not been as productive. The other nice part about the backwaters is that they are protected from heavy winds, allowing them to freeze up earlier than the main lake. Having these heavy rains in the fall means you can start to fish productively generally two weeks earlier.

When the water is high and the current is strong, much of the forage base will pull out of the main current and migrate back into the backwaters of the sloughs and inlets. This leads to the game fish following the schools of bait fish, resulting in some awesome early ice fishing. The main things to look for are the deeper holes and channels in these areas. Key in on depths anywhere from 5 to 12 ft. Other than depth, another area to try and locate fish is sunken timber which will hold good numbers of crappies and bluegills. Walleyes normally will hold in the channels of these backwater bays.

The most effective way to productively fish these large areas is by using a Beaver Dam tip-up. I prefer to fish tight to the bottom, using emerald shiners and fathead minnows. Emerald shiners tend to work better on cloudy days. The Wisconsin River system is a stained water system and the emerald shiners have more flash to them due to their silver color. I use a gold #8 treble hook with a 10 lb. fluorocarbon leader which is about 2-1/2 ft. long. I like to space the tip-ups out to cover a large area. Normally, sunny days are the most productive days on this body of water, with the best time of the day being between the hours of 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. I call this the “bankers bite.”  

As for crappies and bluegills, I’ll use my flasher to locate sunken timber and then start jigging them with plastics or, at times, live bait. Glow jigs also can be a key factor with plastics or live bait. The key is, when fishing this timber, work the top of the water column and make your way down. If you drop to the bottom and start pulling bottom crappies and/or bluegills out that are layered through these trees, you tend to spook the fish that are suspended and you will not be as productive.

This part of the Wisconsin River system also has a slot limit. The walleyes must be 15 to 20 inches or one over 28 inches. Fishermen are allowed a total of five walleyes. The slot limit has taken a fair amount of time to be effective but, finally, we are consistently starting to see numbers of large walleyes again. I have been fishing this system for over 30 years. For the first 10 years, there was not a lot of pressure on the system and the walleyes averaged 18 to 24 inches. It wasn’t unusual to see consistent numbers of walleyes that ran from 24 to 32 inches. However, while there was not a slot limit, many of these fish were kept which led to a decrease in the walleye population.

I am a firm believer in slot limits. I have been lucky enough, in my career, to be able to fish walleyes in several states that have slot limits and I have seen how even bodies of water that have a lot of pressure on them remain very healthy by using this method to keep a good balance. The instituted slot limit and higher water levels this year, should provide a lot of action. This will make for a great opportunity to take young fishermen out and get them hooked on the sport of ice fishing.