Jan 10, 2015

Hardwater Tactics: The Lake Winnebago System

By: Kyle Sorensen

As the New Year begins, Lake Winnebago System fishermen begin to feel onset of the hard water season.  Maybe it’s the creaking in our bones, the onset of cabin fever, or quite possibly the countless drives to the lake to check ice conditions? By now, most of us have hit the shallow, area bays for some early ice pan fish action and we have been rewarded with the results as we enjoy a freshly caught meal.  When the days begin to bleed into early January, I find myself beginning to utilize all ends of the Lake Winnebago System in order to hunt down walleyes.

Usually, my first area of interest is Lake Poygan.  Lake Poygan is certainly my “go-to” body of water for early season Walter action.  If you have fished the area, I am sure you have heard of “The Shoe,” referring to Horseshoe Hole which is practically in the center of Lake Poygan.  All known species of fish found in the Lake Winnebago System can be targeted in this area.  “The Shoe” is the focal point for early ice action because of Lake Poygan’s make-up. 

Lake Poygan is a basin type lake which has few structures such as islands and shallow bars. For arguments sake, Lake Poygan carries a max depth of around 10ft.  With the Wolf River feeding through Lake Poygan and its sister lake, Lake Winneconne, the Wolf allows for fresh water movement and serves as the highway for, the ever traveling, walleye.

Lake Poygan can be a tricky lake to fish, in regards to safety.  Besides being fed by the Wolf River, the lake also holds various springs throughout.  These springs can quickly hide themselves when the early ice conditions rapidly change.  Unless approaching the mid-season mark, I find myself traveling by foot and ultimately, snowmobile.

With some of the structures being unreachable for most, due to ice conditions, hopeful anglers find themselves fishing “the shoe.”  As with the rest of the Winnebago System, mobility is the key.  Sometimes, usually a rarity in my book, you will find yourself sitting in the same spot for most of the day with steady action.  Most of the time, constant moving and surveying of the area is needed to find active schools of fish.  Based upon my personal experiences, if you find a white bass school, the walleyes will usually be mixed in but lower in the water column (on Lake Poygan).  When I am out actively looking for fish, I am looking for white bass schools.

As the crowds begin to gather on Lake Poygan and the ice thickness begins to grow, I start to look towards the ever rewarding, yet challenging, Lake Winnebago.  Lake Winnebago is simply a beast of its own.  With its size and make-up, weather conditions play a large role in creating and then quickly changing the ice conditions.

The first key to a successful day on “ol’ lady bago” is getting onto the main body of water.  You see, there are cracks which surround the lake and many vary in distance from the shoreline.  Most of these range from 50-200 yards from shore.  Some can be further out or even tucked up close to shore.  

Early ice on Lake Winnebago can be costly and fatal.  With our ambitions burning to wet a line, sometimes our common sense rates low on the totem pole.  It seems like every year a few anglers are quick to find their ambitions of wetting a line quickly shattered when their vehicle of choice begins to slowly sink into the depths of the murky water.  Most of the time, this is the result of foolishly attempting to “jump” a crack.

One unique and great aspect of this lake is the local fishing clubs which surround the 130,000+ acre lake.  When conditions allow, they install and maintain vehicle and ATV bridges which allow for safer passage over ice cracks and shoves.  Donations are accepted at these entry points as the clubs place and maintain these bridges on a volunteer basis.

Once safe passage is gained to the lake, the second key to success is finding fish.  It’s easy to say, but there have been days in which I have put 18 miles on my snowmobile looking for active fish and have come up short handed.  It is work, but this work can surely pay off.  I remember a day a few years back when I was fishing a tournament, Battle on Bago.  I sat in the same spot for four hours and caught over 200 fish of a variety of species.  My hands were numb and looked like prunes.  Cuts on my fingers from the fins reminded me of that day for the following week.  It was incredible!  Leading up to this day, however, I was on the lake for five days in a row.  By the fourth day, I had been able to locate, track, and ultimately predict two separate school movements.  As I stated, it’s work but this is how it’s done.

From past years’ notes, reports, and guesses, I am able to pick a starting place.  I will rip the first hole and give it five to ten minutes before packing up and moving on to the next spot which will be approximately 200 yards away.  Before leaving, I will mark my location in the GPS as a waypoint.  When I reach the new spot, I will again give it five to ten minutes until moving on and creating another waypoint.  Now, this is where the trick comes in.  You want to do this until you make a complete square on your GPS.  If you do not hit any action, to speak of, while creating the square, it’s time to make a larger move. This time, doubling your previous moves and continuing on to make another square.  Like I said, it’s work, sometimes a lot.

Now the kicker to this system comes into play when you find active fish.  If you are on the third corner of the “square,” and find an active school, it’s time to delete the previous waypoints while keeping your current position.  Continue to fish this spot until the action begins to slowly taper off, but not totally.  It’s hard to leave when you are still catching a few fish but when you are not catching them repeatedly and do not know the current movement of the schools, there is much to gain. 

Now that you have found an active area, it’s time to utilize the square pattern again.  Continue this process again and again.  After some time, you will begin to see a line of waypoints (which held fish) on your GPS screen.  Yup, you guessed it.  The line of waypoints formed is the fish movements.  Using this line, you will be able to pattern the schools and predict their movement.  The more days in a row on the lake, the better, as you will have more data and fish movements.  It should be noted that, while this patterning system surely works, there are many factors which can influence these movements, such as a wonderful weather front.

The last key to success on the Winnebago System is the lure and bait.  Now, I am a firm believer if the fish are hungry, they are going to eat anything in their face.  However, I have found two baits to be my “go-to’s” while fishing this system.  First is the Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon.

This spoon is fabulous.  It has rattles in the body, which help to attract fish, which is a must while fishing the vast expanse of Lake Winnebago.  For me, this spoon shows its brawn when fished aggressively.  Constant jerks of the rod, with just brief pauses, can surely bring them in to investigate.  When a mark rises to the lure, I will briefly pause and slightly raise the rod tip, usually turning that mark into an iced fish.  I tend to use this bait as my searching bait, due to its ability to “call” fish in.

The second bait I steer towards is Rapala’s Jigging Rap.  This lure has been successful in all ends of the Lake Winnebago System and, more often than not, is the only way to convince hesitant fish to be takers.  The key to success in this lure is how it’s worked.  The presentation that I utilize is an aggressive snap jig to call fish in.  When I am marking fish, I begin to slowly buzz the Rap up and slowly let it fall back down.  I repeat this over and over, sometimes going further up in the water column.  I mainly utilize the Rap when I am on fish or not in the “searching mode.”

I have found that the Rattle Spoon works best when tipped with a minnow head but have caught fish while fishing it bare.  I have also tipped it with spikes/waxies, pieces of minnow, etc.  The Jigging Rap, I tend to fish bare, but sometimes adding meat can be the trick.

Lake Winnebago is certainly deeper than Lake Poygan.  Because of this, I always tell people that while fishing these baits, do not just concentrate on the bottom.  Many fish in this system show themselves all throughout the water column and, sometimes, only the active eyes are found in the top six feet.

The Lake Winnebago System holds great action all throughout the hard water season.  Being able to properly identify which area of the system will produce at each time of the season is important to success.  For me, being able to safely access, locate and ultimately catch the day’s targeted species, all depends and revolves around the above listed principles. 

A follower of the OB Outdoors Facebook Page has been in contact with me and has expressed his difficulties with not even being able to put one walleye in the frying pan.  I keep telling him the same thing I will say here (including the previously described system and tactics).  Sometimes it gets difficult to learn and absorb new techniques and tactics.  If you are willing to put in the effort, the Lake Winnebago System will reward you dearly… Just don’t give up…ask all the questions you need!  This is going to be a great year for putting fish on the ice.  Be careful and aware of ever changing ice conditions and weather fronts…have a great hard water season!

Until next time, Tight Lines. Stay Dry.