Dec 10, 2018

A Bluegill Start to Winter

By Kyle Sorensen

I know many of you are excited for the hard water to hit ... and I’m right there with you. It’s hard to pass up warm summer nights sitting around a fire, especially in the Northwoods, but there is just something about walking on water, ripping a hole, popping up the shack, and hopefully getting hooked up right away. It helps make our winters complete.

After this past summer, I’m sure we were all sad to see those swarms of mosquitoes leave. They were absolutely nasty. At times, I even caught myself inhaling a few, ultimately adding a couple calories to my diet. The amount of rain we endured late into the season made for an optimal breeding environment. It’s all over now and we are on the fast track to the hard water.

After experiencing some fantastic bluegill fishing this past summer into fall, it certainly reminded me of some years back, getting on slab gills on just a couple inches of carefully traveled ice. The size of the gills I held this summer brought me back to the days when flip-over shelters just came out. The rough, uninsulated canvas, flopping in the wind, as I stared down the hole, sight fishing the slabs.

I’m not going to lie. I’ve slowly faded away from targeting gills through the ice over the years. I thought they just weren’t worth the chase. It seemed the size went down, and the bigger ones were harder to find.

In reality, I was just growing up and wanting something new as I hit the teenage years. The walleyes the Lake Winnebago system holds made for an amazing new fix, and year after year I gained more experience targeting them. No matter how many years of experience one has, the Lake Winnebago system can humble the most confident of fishermen.  That is why I always approach this system with an open mind. So this year, as this season’s first ice hits, I will be switching gears and the gills will be on the radar.

Technology lends a hand

I remember many times hiking out to the bays and channels of Lake Winnebago and its upper lakes. Fish were there, but sometimes it took multiple moves to find a school worth fishing. After all, we don’t like the little ones, right? As underwater cameras emerged, it brought a whole new meaning to perfecting a presentation, as well as locating fish. Couple that in with the advance of flasher units, and we had a whole new game plan on the ice.

I remember holding my first underwater camera, an Aqua-Vu, before they even came out into mass production. I was part of a fishing camp, and one of the counselor’s family members had a big part in developing Aqua-Vu. Looking down into the big black tube and seeing the world under the Lund made for an eye-opening experience I knew I had to have back home.

Fast forward several years, and there I was, sitting on the hard water, staring at a screen and completely enjoying every minute of it. It wasn’t just entertaining. As I stated, I was able to perfect my presentation and bait selection to what the fish on the screen wanted. As I became more confident, I switched to the mobile flasher unit. This made for quick hole hopping and cut my search time down drastically. When needed, the camera was there to help with species identification or add even more excitement when the full plethora of gear was setup on a nice school.

In the weeds

As the ice hits, you will find me in the shallow water weed lines of the Lake Winnebago system. While I’ve had fantastic luck popping in and out of deep pockets within weed beds, as history goes, the main edge of these weeds have been the best area for bigger gills. I firmly believe bigger gills are more comfortable leaving their thick area of cover to snap a bait compared to their smaller counterparts. This isn’t always true, but thanks to my electronics, I have seen the larger silhouettes emerge from the edge while numerous dinks stayed behind hidden within the thick cover.

The best aspect of early ice is the ability to easily find active weeds. In general, active weed beds hold better fish. The thin ice and snow cover mean less time the plants have gone without sunlight and less exposure to an optimal growing environment. I love seeing green leaves on the camera as I drop it down to take a quick peak … or even on the end of the rod when quickly jumping a bait around to snag a leaf for inspection. When a certain plant is lively, it’s putting off the oxygen needed to keep the little ecosystem around it active. Like us, we need oxygen, otherwise we’re not too lively.

While I always love the ease of waxies and spikes, I found great success on leaf worms and small chunks of night crawlers brandished on the many types of jigs my little box holds. We use crawlers throughout the open water time period and they work fantastic. I am always surprised why more fish aren’t hunted with a tip of a worm during the winter. 

Yes, I understand how durable a waxie, spike or a little plastic presentation can be, but I know a handful of people that still put a little chunk of crawler on a bare hook through the ice. This really isn’t spoken about as much as it should. It works, so keep that in mind to coax the most finicky of bites.

White-tip dandies

The walleye bite will soon follow my first endeavors pursuing the gill bite, and you can bet I’ll be out on the up river lakes prior to a firm freeze up of Lake Winnebago on the hunt for a white-tip dandy. As always, safety and mobility are an absolute must while trying to track down the schools on these lakes.  

Working a spud properly while on the way to the next spot can be a grind, especially if you’re having to zig-zag through areas not worthy of walking. Throw in some hand rips with the auger, the conditions, and the adrenaline first ice can offer and you can get beat up pretty darn quick. It’s nice to cover larger areas with more people, ultimately to help everyone get on those fish as quick as possible.  

To find the walleye, start in four feet of water for the normal access points on these lakes and zig-zag into deeper water. If nothing is found, pick a different route back to the area where you started and zig-zag back. If you have more anglers with you, the grid pattern routine is optimal. I have a video on the OB Outdoors’ YouTube Channel on how I move with multiple people on the Winnebago System.

I am very curious to see what the walleye and bluegill bite will be like this year on the Lake Winnebago system. Signs have indicated decent hatches in both the fish and forage areas, so I wonder if it will be hard to trick the fish into biting? Or will it be like a few years ago when it was lights out action?

Either way, it will be amazing to be back out on the hard water. My cameras will be out, and I will certainly have some updates coming. This is going to be a fun ice season, and I cannot wait to get rolling now that my one-year-long house building project is coming to an end! Less projects means more fishing, right?

Please be very safe out on the ice this year. Go slow, check the ice for yourself, and as always, “Tight Lines. Stay Dry.”