Heart of Winter Open Water Fishing

New Horizons: Finding new favorites

Well, as we leave another year and holiday season in the rearview mirror, I look forward to what the coming months have in store for me. Equipped with the mindset to visit some new horizons, or long-forgotten places this year to fish. As a young man, I was quite adventurous when it came to fishing trips. But, desire has waned as I approach my 62nd birthday. The comfort of my home river, The Wolf, and the general ease in which I have been able to find fish here over the years have kept me from getting too venturesome. That is about to change, and, if you are like me and have been stuck in a fishing rut, I hope you will join me in finding some new horizons. Here are a few things in my plans for 2018.

Head north for iced-in adventure

Ice-fishing for whitefish and walleye on the Bay of Green Bay is prime on my January to-do list. I have a number of friends there who guide who I have not had the pleasure to be with for almost 10 years. It is a great fishery and there are plenty of fish around to catch. Add a growing pike population and a rebounding perch population, and it is an easy choice of destinations. If you are planning on spending a couple of days there, both the Sand Bay Beach Resort and Countryside Motel in Little Sturgeon Bay offer excellent access to the prime areas where anglers can fish for all the aforementioned species.

These lodgings also are connected with local guides, if you choose to hire one. Heated fishing shacks, set on whitefish-producing areas, and transportation on and off the ice are available from a number of sources. I also plan on revisiting in the spring to fish for smallmouth bass, hoping to land a 7-pound fish and eclipse the 6-pound, 14-ounce Bay of Green Bay “football” I caught a bunch of years ago.

Delving into the Dells

Spending a weekend at the Dells in January is another thing I have not done in a long time. The “January thaw” of lore has always drawn me to the Dells. The river usually remains fishable, in some manner, by boat unless it’s ultra-cold. Walleyes and saugers are the targets and, due to the slot limit put on the fishery a number of years ago, catching a bunch of keepers can be pretty easy. A simple call to Rivers Edge will answer questions about access and how well the fish are biting. That’s where I stay for the weekend, because everything I need is on site: cabin, bait shop, maintained boat ramp, food and beverages. One hundred fish days are not uncommon, this time of year, as the fish stack up in small areas in hopes of a meal.

A jig and minnow is my go-to presentation in any river I visit. I have also done well pulling three-ways or bottom bouncers with tiny, floating crankbaits in tow. This is a great way to fish if the wind makes drifting and jigging tough. Note that anchoring this time of year can be quite dangerous, due to potential ice flows. All I know is, at some point this winter, I will be fishing the Dells. An open river, temperatures above freezing and some sunshine make for a pleasant day on the water.

A trip on the mighty Mississip’

The mighty Mississippi is another place I have visited a number of times in January and February, in the past. It’s another fishery that provides open water fishing during this time of year, unless ultra-cold or lots of snow makes the boat ramps inaccessible. I have fished the Mississippi near Red Wing, Genoa and Falling Rock during the winter months with good results. Like the Dells, fishing within the first mile downstream of the dam in or near deep holes, wing dams and current breaks are where you will get bites.

Be prepared to bulk up on jig weight if you fish near the dam. Don’t be surprised if you are fishing around a few boats. Our western Wisconsin brothers work hard to keep access open and the “Big Miss” usually responds with plenty of fish. Like on the Wisconsin River, you should see a good number of eagles. If you get lucky, you’ll be able to watch one swoop down and catch a fish. It’s an awesome sight. One I look forward to each time I visit.

Safe trips and ice-beating tips

Here are some things you need to do, if you plan on exploring new horizons this time of year. First, change the lower unit lube in your outboard, even if you did it at some point this summer or fall. Winter is no time for surprises. Water in your lower unit can give you the type of surprise you don’t need. Second, plug all openings in the boat.  Put some RV antifreeze in the bilge of your boat to keep pumps and water lines from freezing. A cracked pump or water line can cause your boat to fill with water. You might not know about until you try to move. Once the boat angles up from the force of the main motor, any water in the bilge goes to the back. Enough water can swamp the back end.

Don’t use your livewell. Drain and plug livewells. Use a bucket, cooler or stringer for fish, but do not do anything that brings water into your boat. When exploring new horizons this winter, the one you absolutely don’t want to explore is the bottom of the river.

Hit Lake Erie, this spring, to explore new horizons and nail more walleyes!

Get the local low-down

Always call ahead for boat ramp conditions and remember to buy something from the bait shop other than just the launch ticket. You should also remember to carry a tow strap, sand (not salt), and make sure your four-wheel drive works.

Also, please remember to drain your trailer over the water upon launching and retrieving your boat. Simply pull forward until your trailer wheels allow the entire frame of the trailer to be above the water and let it drip until done. It’s not impolite to remind other anglers of this at the ramp, either. Keeping most the water off the inclined surface makes it easier to use for everyone. At Chico’s Landing, here on the Wolf, bait shop personnel remind fishermen of this as they use the launch, which helps all of us who use it to be safe and access the river late into the season. Ice from trailers draining on the ramp can make it unusable.

Also, remember to be careful on the ramp when unhooking or re-hooking your boat. A slip and fall can end your day, or worse.

Stay warm, stay hydrated, stay alive

Dress warm and remember to bring plenty of water. Your body working to stay warm uses fluids. Bring snacks like beef jerky, chocolate and trail mix to keep the inner furnace burning. For staying warm, I suggest one of the new heated hooded sweatshirts used in the construction field. A friend let me use one and we were able to brave 20-mph winds to be where the fish were—and the large group of boats was not. That’s not a plug, it’s something you should know about.

So if you get the chance, get out and explore new horizons with some winter river fishing. If you are planning on going somewhere, feel free to reach out for suggestions.

Joel “Doc” Kunz is a field editor and two-time Readers Choice Award winner for MidWest Outdoors magazine. Listen to his new podcast, “Talking Wisconsin Outdoors” at talkwisoutdoors.com. There is a Wolf River Focus Report, plus firsthand and up-to-date information about fishing all over the state. You can be in touch via Facebook at facebook.com/TalkWisOutdoors or you can visit his personal website at docswaters.com.