Toughing Out the Cold Winter Blues

January is the coldest month of the year on the lakes in the Ice Belt. The ice conditions are usually pretty good in January, but the fish can become much less active when temperatures plummet and the daily high temperatures struggle to get above zero.

I like to use a two-prong approach guiding during January—trying to be in the right place at the right time—to maximize the amount of action I can provide for my clients.

I guide for three species of fish during the winter. They are walleyes, crappies and perch. I use a stationary fish house for walleyes and portable fish houses for crappies and perch. I spend a great deal of time and thought on deciding where I put my stationary fish houses for walleyes. I want a spot that has access to good numbers of walleyes, including big fish, that has a consistent bite for walleyes during the prime time in the mornings and evenings and a night bite during the full-moon period.

I know the bite is going to be tough for walleyes during January, so I want to be set up and ready to fish during primetime, to take advantage of the flurry of activity during low light for however long it lasts.


Putting every bite in the bucket

I don’t want to miss any action making noise or running around looking for fish. I know missed bites are costly, so I want to use presentations that are effective and give my clients the best chance to catch most of their bites. When the fish have the midwinter blues, any false move can spook the fish and they won’t bite. I am sold on using my AquaVu HD7i camera when I fish in a stationary fish house. That way, I can see the fish bite and know when to set the hook.

Many times, anglers will set the hook too soon or wait too long to set the hook. Both usually result in a missed bite. When the bite is tough, you can’t afford to miss bites. Miss too many, and you won’t go home with many fish.

I like to put the stationary house on larger structures on a spot that I know the walleyes are using every day. I put the house on some unique feature like a pile of rocks, a super-steep break or a funnel area where the fish consistently pass through when the walleyes get active and make their low-light feeding movements.


Go where the fish are and where they’ll come back

Replenishment is another issue in deciding where to put my house. Isolated spots usually don’t replenish very quickly, so they can be good for a short period of time and then taper off fast when some fish get caught and there are no new fish to replace them. Structures close to the shoreline or structures that are a part of a cluster of structures have more potential to replenish faster than isolated spots that aren’t close other structures.

Anglers often need to downsize their presentations in January to catch fish. I like to go old school and use rattle reels in the fish houses for at least one line for each angler. Walleyes often want “plain” or “extra plain” during January. So, I will use a plain hook and a sinker on the rattle reels. If I want to get fancy, I will add a single bead or use a colored hook.

I want a heavy main line on the rattle reels, so I will often use fly line or a braided line with a light egg sinker and a swivel, with a 3 to 5-foot leader of 6 or 8-pound-test fluorocarbon line.


Jigging gear

If my customers want to use a jigging rod for their second rod, I will usually give them a smaller spoon with a minnow head. I have had great luck with the Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon or the Glo-Shot Spoon with the glowing insert, tipped with a minnow head or half a minnow if the minnows are small.

The most active walleyes are brought in by the more aggressive jigging spoons. Any fish that doesn’t want the spoon will often grab one of the minnows on the plain hooks instead.


Power-fishing for panfish

The second half of my approach during January is my usual run-and-gun approach for panfish. I can usually find perch and walleyes on the same lake. Crappies may be located in another area on large lakes. Or, I will go to a different lake to fish for crappies.

I will move my clients after the walleye bite slows down and begin searching for perch or crappies. I will set up my clients in Frabill Bro-Hub houses and then I will let them fish while I leave and go look for the next spot to fish.

Staying on fish during January is hard work. It takes a lot of time on the lakes to be able to stay on the fish and be able to locate them when they move.

Midwinter perch are either in the basin feeding on insects or in the shallows feeding on minnows and crayfish. Sometimes there are perch in both shallow and deep water at the same time, but the percentages are usually with the deep perch in January

Many perch are eating blood worms out of the mud. They are even smaller than a eurolarvae. Wax worms about the size of a mayfly larvae are also a good bait.


Perch pullers

I like to use scented Northland Impulse plastics on small tungsten jigs like the new Banana Bug for perch. I tip the jigs with eurolarvae or wax worms on 3 or 4-pound-test Sunline Fluorocarbon line. I also like to use what I call a Bro-Dropper for perch. It’s simply a jigging spoon with a short leader and a tiny jig or a plain hook.

Most of the crappies are also in the basin feeding on zooplankton and minnows. When I fish crappies, I like to use the Northland Forage Dart with a skeleton minnow Impulse plastic or a crappie minnow on the back hook. I also use the smallest two sizes of Puppet Minnows with no bait for crappies.

Anglers need to slow down, use smaller baits and try to be in the right place at the right time during January to continue to catch fish when the midwinter blues set in on the lakes.