Feb 10, 2018

A Winnebago Comeback 

By: Larry Smith  

What a crazy warm fall again!  Just when I thought we were in for a cold snap and fishable ice by December, Mother Nature throws a curve ball with above average temps through late November.  Well, we’re now heading into January and ice is taking hold across Wisconsin; welcome news for ice fishing fanatics like myself.  I’ll tell you what, Lake Winnebago is set for a great ice fishing season.  

The walleye fishing was great on Winnebago late into the open water season for fish in the 14-18 inch range.  Lance Sweeting (Great Day Guiding 920-410-9920) and I were on great bites on the main lake that, in my opinion, set the stage for what should be terrific ice fishing.  This fall I noticed there was not a huge run of fish upriver like in years past with a lot of fish hanging out in the lower stretches of the Wolf River.  This should mean many fish should stay in the main lake during the winter, which is great news for Winnebago ice anglers.  

Along with a great class of walleye from the 2013 hatch that are reaching prime size, Winnebago is also on a comeback with perch and crappie populations.  I had the privilege to spend a day with the DNR on their trawl survey this fall and was impressed not only by the forage numbers (particularly trout perch) but also the numbers of young perch and crappies that came up in the survey net.  As many anglers know, there was concern about the perch population the past few years.  It looks as though the perch have a great year class coming into the fishery and hopefully with a little luck, that class will have a chance to have a good spawn this year and buffer the population for the future.  Lots of crappies are also reaching fishable size and the future looks bright for them as well. 

Winnebago is a unique fishery and also probably my favorite lake for ice fishing.  This time of year, huge schools of walleye, perch, crappies, and white bass roam the expansive mud flats and all species can be caught from the same area.  Finding them means you have to be mobile and stay mobile because the fish are constantly on the move.  Move and drill until you find them, and when you do make sure you keep your baits in the water to keep the school interested or they’ll keep moving on.  This means you must have the proper cadence with your jigging technique.  

Winnebago is NOT a tip-up lake.  Jigging is THE way to put fish on the ice.  Spoons, jigging raps, etc. are the primary lures, and I typically do not tip them with bait unless the fish are extremely negative which is easily determined by watching the schools on your Vexilar.  Jigging Winnebago is kind of a “way too much sugar and caffeine” type of cadence.  The key is to aggressively jig the bait above the school and make the fish come up to chase.  Always keep it just out of reach while jigging with a crazy nervous twitch, and the fish will come up and slam it.  I think most people are too conservative with their jigging technique; thinking a crazy shake will intimidate the fish or something.  You can almost not shake the bait enough.  If the fish race up only to not commit to your presentation, change lures or this might be the time for minnow heads, spikes, etc.  

Because Winnebago is not a tip-up bite, this is a good time to bring up a revolutionary new product that can make an angler more efficient:  The Gill-O-Tine jigging device by Rut-Fin (rut-fin.com).  This device has numerous jigging cadences from the aggressive to subtle, has a built-in LED light for location in low light conditions, a pump that will keep the hole open in extreme cold, an alarm that sounds when the device is triggered, and is also remote controllable.  I thought there was no way any machine could duplicate an angler’s hand (especially my own), but I was wrong.  I’ve fished side by side with this device only to be out fished by it 10 to 1 on many occasions.  The absolute jigging precision The Gill-O-Tine brings to the fishing world is amazing.  It never tires, never gets too cold, maintains lure position at a set depth, maintains a cadence at set intervals, and when the bait comes to rest after the jig, it is ABSOLUTELY still; without the variance of the human wrist.   I’m looking forward to using this device on Winnebago.  I’m confident it will help anglers that can’t quite get the technique down to consistently catch fish, plus it will take an already good angler and multiply their efficiency; being able to vertically jig in a wide area to further help locate and catch fish in vast areas.  I believe The Gill-O-Tine will be especially appealing to kids who don’t always have the stamina or attention span to constantly jig by hand.  They can be running around on the ice, playing with the family dog, getting warm, or just be doing what kids do and The Gill-O-Tine will jig for them, let them know when a fish is hooked, and allow them the fun of still being able to catch fish on rod and reel.  Plus, this device can accommodate every ice rod size and can be used in open water as well.  This is truly the most innovative product to hit the fishing world in many, many years and Winnebago is the perfect body of water to employ its unique services. 

Winnebago ice fishing is something many people from our great state of Wisconsin look forward to every year.  It’s a tremendous fishery with plenty of room to roam; an icy-white desert with the possibility of landing on the mother lode with any given move, and I believe the fishery is heading in a positive direction.  It’s great to see families and friends out enjoying time together catching fish, all the unique fish houses, and the serenity a body of water this pressured can still offer anglers due to its size.  Remember to always be safe out there, practice selective harvest, and thank the many clubs that volunteer their time to give us all access to this wonderful fishery by donating a few dollars, for safe access to a tremendous fishery surely makes it a great day to be alive! 

Larry Smith is a full-time fishing guide with over 30 years of experience.  He is also host of Larry Smith Outdoors; current weekly outdoor programming broadcasting on Fox Sports North, Fox Sports Wisconsin, CW18 Milwaukee, Spectrum, and all programs are also available on his YouTube channel.  Check out all sorts of extras, tips, techniques, videos, and photos on his new website at larrysmithoutdoors.com.