The great challenges of Ice fishing on Lake Winnebago
By: Larry Smith
Growing up on Lake Winnebago, I have watched the ecosystem change over the years. When I was younger and used to fish on the lake with my dad, we didn’t even have an ice auger rather we used an ice spud, better known as the ice chisel that my Dad had fabricated at work. I remember that we were always out on Lake Winnebago by early December. We always went out to my Dad’s favorite spot that he lined up by using landmarks, there was no such thing as GPS. Back then, the water was very stained. There were no gizzard shad in the system, and the main forage was trout perch, shiners, and yellow perch.
I would say 70-80 percent of the fish we caught were sauger and not walleye. The fish were always a foot to a foot and a half off of the bottom. We didn’t move much during the course of the winter for two main reasons: it took a lot of time to chisel holes and most of the time we always caught fish in the same spot. Nobody would dare get within 100-200 yards of you out of respect. Boy has time changed!
The water has gone from stained to crystal clear at times largely due to the presence of the infamous zebra mussels. The sauger population has been drastically reduced. Our forage base has changed with the introduction of the gizzard shad. This is relative because gizzard shad swim at varying depths unlike the trout perch, yellow perch, and shiners. Fishing clear water is always more challenging than fishing in a stained system. The reason is that weather conditions impact clear water more so fish spook more easily in clear water, and forage is more easily located. I have ice fished all over the country, and in my opinion Lake Winnebago is one of the most challenging lakes there is to ice fish.
Years ago when the water was stained, a majority of the fish were caught off of tip-ups. I still have my wind jammer tip-ups and my umbrella stein tip-ups. You could always tell if someone was not familiar with Lake Winnebago as they were the ones using the under-water tip-ups. Now days you don’t see too many people fishing tip-ups on Lake Winnebago, it is not nearly as productive as jigging. The jigging technique can be very difficult to teach because it has to be presented just right in order to be effective. It is critical to get this technique down and many times when we move clients on to an active school what happens is because the fish are not structure oriented and we are fishing expansive mud flats, the active schools will swing underneath the shantees.
If the clients do not have the technique perfected by the second time they swing through, the school will move on and we will be back out on the hunt again. The key to successfully jigging these schools with the right technique is having the right baits like Kastmaster and jigging Rapalas. When using thevJigging Rapala, make sure the nose is always pointed down and there is no reason to tip these with any live bait. Always try to stay above the schools; the key is to try to get the schools to build up underneath you. What can help you achieve this is to have a good flasher so you know what is going on underneath you. We use a lot of the Hummingbird 55’s which are very easy to read. As you can get the schools to lay underneath you, the more aggressive they will become.
I feel that the Kastmaster’s are easier to teach people with than a Jigging Rapala. However, they can both be deadly in the right hands. It is a very violent shake that you are using to work the bait. When the aggressive fish come up to hit the bait, one of the most important things then is to have 12 lb. test line and a very stiff rod to be able to yank the fish out of the school as quickly as possible so as not to alarm the rest of the school. If you have a light rod and line, what will happen is you will be fighting the fish with the rest of the school as witnesses to this struggle which panics them and they will scatter.
Again, this is one of the challenges to fishing clear water. In summary, what I would like you to do when fishing in clear water is: don’t over-drill a spot, learn how to jig effectively, and remember that equipment choice is very important, Hummingbird for the locator, a stiff rod, and a10 lb. test minimum line. As I stated, Lake Winnebago is one of the most challenging bodies of water to ice fish, but because of this it can also be one of the most rewarding when you are able to overcome its obstacles.