Prep Now for Ice-out, Coldwater Fishing Action

Catching anything but panfish on that first warm, late-winter/early spring day is all but impossible here in the Upper Midwest. Baits should be try one, try another. Usually though, that first cold-water bite will come on the same baits that were used through the ice.

Waxworms are excellent bait whenever the water is below the mid-40s, and along with red worms and Berkley’s Gulp Alive Fish Fry or their Floating Salmon Eggs, you should catch any panfish in the area. In early cold water, waxworms, or the Gulp Alive Fish Fry do best below a small bobber. The Floating Salmon Eggs work best on a three-way worked just off the bottom. Once the water gets into the mid- to high 40s, waxworms are less effective. Small minnows or a red worm below a very small bobber will be effective in still waters, like at the harbor at Sunset Marina and Rock Island’s West end or the Hennepin Canal, especially in the first stretch just west of Milan on Big Island.

This pool, with the old bridge pillars and its grassy banks, will yield largemouth bass probably earlier than any other water in the Quad City area.

Panfish at Sunset Marina will be found around the fishing piers, and even before the docks are in at the boat launches, fish will hold in those areas. Probably the best place to take early panfish at Sunset is off the riprap along the north shore of the lagoon. For anyone unfamiliar with the area, be aware this stretch of the Mississippi runs east to west and the length of the lagoon is also east to west. The boat launches are at the eastern end of what was once called Potter’s Lake (an old gravel pit). However, if you have a flat-bottom boat you can launch directly into the Mississippi River. At one time the Park Board put docks on the river, but they haven’t for several years. There is a very wide, multiple-lane cement launch on the river. The docks in the lagoon are usually set in place in late May, unless the Mississippi is at flood stage.

For boaters, the early bite will be walleyes just below the rollers toward the Iowa side of the river or on up through Sylvan Slough to the Arsenal Power Dam. Early, cold water off the Moline Dam does not seem to hold walleyes until spawn time later in the year. Below the rollers in this cold water the trolling is more productive than an anchor and jig. Usually, when the water is below the mid-40s the walleyes will mover slower and the smaller-jointed baits combined with a slower troll work best. As the water warms and moves into the higher 40s—especially if the water level is high and moving fast—a larger trolling bait or a larger jig tipped with a minnow or plastic tail will take more walleyes. The Mississippi is always murky water, so color, blades, flash or the addition of scent could give you an edge over the other fishermen.

At Lake George in Loud Thunder Park near Andalusia, the early cold-water fish will come wherever there is moving water, overhanging roots, points or natural structure along the shoreline. I don’t like walking with carrying equipment, so I tend to look for promising fishing spots off the Hidden Hollow picnic area, which also has a boat launch site. I walk the bank 50 feet or so from the launch and start looking for evidence of eddies, structure or other fishy places. With the exception of the main launch ramp, the other picnic areas and campgrounds all are a short hike from the lakefront. If you don’t mind walking in, there are a lot of fingers and lots of great structure and shoreline all around this 160-plus-acre manmade lake. It is stocked regularly with bluegills, largemouth bass, crappies, channel catfish and bullhead. At one time, muskies were stocked; I am not sure whether they still are. However, for this water the early catch will be bluegills and crappies. Use waxworms, red worms or Gulp baits below a bobber along the shores. If you trailer your boat, (no gas motors are allowed), it is electric trolling motors only. The deepest part of the lake is 55 feet, but in cold water, trolling along the shorelines with a small Shad Rap or smaller Twister Tail with beads and spinners should take fish. It can be effective to anchor off a shallow sunny point and cast to shore using a slow retrieve. Early fishermen will find little in the way of facilities. The park opens mid-May and is fully functioning by Memorial Day.

This park has a double fishery. It is located on the bank of the Mississippi with Lake George and its campgrounds are on the hills above. There is also a campground on the river. I have had little luck fishing the riverbank when the water is still cold. The fishing here can be very good once the water warms into the 50s.

The steel dam, a low-head dam just east of Milan, Ill., is always a catching spot. This is a year-round place to go. When the fishing at the steel dam is deemed good, it is “excellent,” when it is called “so-so,” it is better than most other places. It is not easy to fish, and it eats terminal tackle. And, unless the water is warm enough to wade, it has very limited “good” spots. In early spring there will be a real variety of fish. You can catch anything from walleyes and stripies to catfish and carp. There are few panfish in this water. The prime spot is the 50 feet of shoreline where you can cast into the wild water below the dam and let your bait float down, or, using a three-way, bottom-fish just below the roils. There will be a few brave waders who get into the water in cold weather and they will take some nice walleyes. The bottom is very rocky, slick and difficult to walk. When the water is cold and if you fall and get wet, you could be in serious trouble. The water below the dam will range from calf- to hip- deep and it is not really practical to wade until the water temperature are up in late May.

These are only a few of the better spots where fish can be caught just after the ice has moved out. I have found that the Hennepin through Milan and across Big Island early in the season yields the best fish and most action on sunny days casting across with a slow retrieve. Most people fish it with a bobber. I have never done very well at Lake George—many Quad City fishermen think this lake and the steel dam are the only places to fish from ice-out to mid-May. One fisherman’s great fishing hole is another angler’s wasted day.

Early fishing in cold water takes a different touch and a willingness to play with techniques and change baits, and maybe even seek another location, but somehow those first early spring days in the sun are the most satisfying. I think it is because most early fishing is bank fishing, and even though lots of hours are spent in the boat, I still like to sit on the bank in the sun, a rod in my hand with nothing to do but enjoy the day.

Have a fishing question for Bess Pierce? Email to: [email protected]