The trend of warmer winters — this one excepted — has meant more and more anglers in the Midwest are fishing earlier in the year.
And why not? Most boat landings are regularly sanded and there isn’t a crowd on the waters — especially during the week.
I keep my Jon boat ready for those periods when the temperatures are above freezing to fish the Wisconsin River.
For anyone looking to brave the weather for a good day of fishing, I’ve got a few suggestions for you.
1) Fishing for steelhead and brown trout
Wisconsin anglers are lucky to have an open season for trout in the tributaries and power plant discharges of Lake Michigan. An angler can wade the streams of the “big lake” or try trolling and casting near the Oak Creek Power Plant, south of Milwaukee, for steelhead and brown trout.
Local rivers such as the Root, Sheboygan, Milwaukee and Sauk are also open for winter wading. This time of year, the rivers are full of fresh-run winter/spring steelhead and brown trout that will range from 5 to 15 pounds. The best fishing locations are in the slower and deeper water holes in the cold-water (temperatures in the 30s) rivers and streams. The trout tend to congregate in these deeper holes.
Besides needing a good pair of thick waders, an angler should have a long “noodle” rod anywhere from 9 to 12 feet in length (G.Loomis rods, for instance) and spooled with a monofilament such as clear Berkley XT. Next, attach to your bait a fluorocarbon leader (Vanish Transition is one) about 6 feet long. A quality spinning reel (Daiwa or Shimano work well) with anti-reverse completes the setup.
The best technique is to then “drift fish” the deeper holes with a slip float. Drifting spawn sacs and tubes below the float is a dead end this time of year. But spinners, spoons, and hair jigs will all work in winter.
Boaters have an excellent chance of catching brown trout and steelhead near the Oak Creek Power Plant. Launch your boat at Bender Park and you’ll have a 15-minute ride. Guide Eric Haataja at Big Fish Guide Service suggests anglers troll stick baits (Rapala Husky Jerks, Dave’s Ka-Booms and Mann’s Stretch Baits) with Off Shore planer boards in water 12 to 20 feet deep near the discharges. Or, you can anchor and cast out shiners on a circle hook and split shot near the warmer water. Fishing with live bait seems to catch more fish, but they are usually smaller. Spoons also work well with the best colors being black/silver, blue/silver and green/silver.
Try trolling the breaks and the areas around Milwaukee Harbor and McKinley Park for both species of fish.
Don’t forget, anglers need a fishing license, a Great Lakes Trout stamp and proper winter attire.
Need a contact? Try Lake Michigan Fishing and Wading with captain Eric Haataja at 414-546-4627 or go to www.wibigfish.com or www.baitnet.com and click on Lake Michigan and Bender Park. For bait shops, try Bob’s Bait Shop at 414-453-2460 and The Fishing Hole at 414-481-9090.
Illinois River sauger
The Illinois River — it’s about 100 miles south of Chicago and a 2- to 3-hour drive from Milwaukee or Madison — is one of the Midwest’s best waters for saugers.
By the end of January and the beginning of February, the action starts for pre-spawn saugers. There are good boat landings and facilities that will allow an angler to get at least a month head start over other fishermen.
The best early fishing, as with most rivers, is within a few miles of the dam — which starts at Starved Rock State Park. The first few miles below the dam, the river flows over limestone bedrock containing rock from baseball size to boulders. This rock, especially directly below the dam, can be a great February location for pre-spawn saugers.
Saugers usually make up most of the fish caught in the Illinois River, although walleye numbers are increasing. The rest of the fishing action happens downriver, near the mouths of the Little Vermilion and Vermilion rivers, at the numerous creeks and streams that drain into the river on the clam beds (Peru Flats) and near the deep holes and humps where the bottom drops to more than 30 feet in depth.
Techniques? Basically the same that one would use on any medium to large Midwestern river such as the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Illinois, Rock, Wolf or Fox. Some anglers still anchor near the tailrace area and use large jigs (.25-ounce and more) dressed with plastic and minnows for vertical jigging and casting. Vary your jigging cadence from a slow presentation to an even slower one.
These fish must eat, but their metabolism is slow and they won’t chase your bait. I prefer to slip the current — point your bow upstream and use your Minn Kota trolling motor, for instance, to control your drift and speed while using your electronics (such as Lowrance) to stay on the current breaks and slowly drift with the current. You’ll want to keep your line as vertical as possible.
When slipping, you may use a lighter jig depending on what the river current is doing when you’re fishing. Jigs (Bait Rigs Slo-Poke is good), plastic tails and ringworms (Walleye Assassin’s work well) and minnows are all you need to catch saugers.
Many days you can get by using just plastics and no live bait. If the fish are biting lightly and you’re using minnows, then you may have to use a stinger hook for success. But always have a few minnows along just in case.
Live bait-rigging? Use a plain hook, split shot and a bead, a Lindy Rig presentation with a slip sinker, three-way rigs with floating jigs and heavy jigs on the dropper line, and trolling upriver with small crankbaits (Mann’s Stretch 5′s, Shad Raps, Baby Thundersticks) on bottom bouncers and three-ways — all should get reaction strikes.
Experiment with jig colors until you find the color of the day. I would start with high visibility colors such as chartreuse, glow, white, orange and yellow. These colors show up well in the stained water of the Illinois River.
The rest of the equipment that I’d use includes a medium spinning rod with a fast tip to detect that subtle walleye tick (G. Loomis SJR 720 or 721, for instance), a quality spinning reel, such as a Daiwa SS 700, and monofilament line such as Berkley XT or XL in green. If you decide to troll, use a baitcasting reel such as the Daiwa 27 line-counter, so you know how much line you have out and where your crankbait is running. I recommend the Precision Trolling book for all anglers who troll.
Need a contact? Try Illinois River sauger fishing guides and bait shop owners, Dominic Culjan (815-667-4074) or Darrell Culjan (815-667-4222).
Wisconsin River dam walleyes and saugers
The Wisconsin River has many dams and the tailrace areas that are usually the best to fish — locations at either Sauk City/Prairie du Sac or the Wisconsin Dells, for instance, which share similarities to fishing at Genoa on the Mississippi River. The water below the dams doesn’t freeze. Many walleyes and saugers have already migrated to the dam and tailrace areas during the fall and winter and are holding and staging in the deeper water below the dams.
Most dams have a scour hole close to the dam face that has been formed over the years during periods of high water.
Walleyes and saugers will winter within a mile or two of the dam and spend the entire season there before the spring spawn. Smaller male walleyes will make up a majority of your catch, but there are some larger females that have bulked up on the river’s protein-rich shad population.
It’s important to remember that river walleyes and saugers have to eat every day just to maintain their body weight. The fish will bite — if you can find them. I would start fishing shallow in 5 feet of water or less and work my way deeper until I contact fish.
The dam at Wisconsin Dells affords a larger area than the waters below the dam in Sauk. Techniques are basically the same for both locations. Look for a warmer day when the sun can heat the shallow waters and attract walleyes looking to feed. Also, try to fish during the warmest part of the day. A degree or two rise in the water temperature can turn fish on and make for a productive outing.
The proximity of the two locations to motels and restaurants also means creature comforts are plentiful following a long day on the water.
Need a contact? Try Rivers Edge Resort and Bait at 608-254-7707 and ask for Botch or call Wilderness Fish and Game in Sauk Prairie at 608-643-2433. Ask for guides Wayne Whitemarsh or Wally Banfi (608-644-9823). Or you can contact me at 608-795-4208 or go to www.garyengbergoutdoors.com.