With warmer winters becoming the norm, more and more anglers in the Midwest are fishing earlier in the year and many are now fishing year-round on open water.
Most Midwestern rivers offer fishing that allows the hardy angler the opportunity to fish during the cold weather.
Personally, I now keep my Jon boat “ready” for those periods when the weather is above freezing to fish the waters of the Wisconsin River. Recently, there have been many days late in the winter when it’s possible and productive to get on a river and be fishing for walleyes and saugers or take to the harbors and tributaries of Lake Michigan for brown trout and steelhead.
Most boat landings are regularly sanded because more fishermen are fishing during the winter. The fish are waiting to be caught in most of the Midwest’s rivers. Lake Michigan has an active brown trout and steelhead bite near its power plants and warm water discharges. Where there’s clear water and current the tributaries of Lake Michigan can offer trout for wading anglers.
It’s a great time to get out of the house for a few days or even hours with a winter trip to one of these locations. There won’t be any crowds and you’ll have most of these waters to yourself, especially if you can fish during the week. The key is doing some homework on where you plan to fish and checking the weather to make sure that you have a few days of moderate temperatures. Today’s winter clothes make being outside much more comfortable and even enjoyable. It’s never a bad idea to bring a portable heater along for the boat and some hand warmers for your gloves and boots.
Here’s are my suggestions for winter’s open-water fishing:
Steelhead and brown trout: Wisconsin anglers are lucky to have an open season for trout fishing 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 both 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 and even heavier. The best fishing locations are in the slower and deeper water holes in the cold (30s) rivers and streams. The trout tend to congregate in these deeper holes.
Besides needing a good pair of waders at least 4ML thick, an angler should have a long “noodle” rod anywhere from 9 to 12 feet long (G.Loomis rods) and spooled with a monofilament like clear Berkley XT. Next, attach a fluorocarbon leader (Vanish Transition) about 6 feet long to your bait. A quality spinning reel (Daiwa or Shimano) with anti-reverse completes your rig. The best technique is to then to drift fish the deeper holes with a slip float. Drifting spawn sacs and tubes below the float can be deadly this time of year. But spinners, spoons, and hair jigs will all work. So, if one technique isn’t producing fish experiment with something else till you find a working technique and presentation.
Boaters have an excellent chance of catching brown trout and steelhead near the Oak Creek Power Plant. Launch at Bender Park and you’ll have a 15-minute ride. The best guide in the area, Eric Haataja (Big Fish Guide Service at 414-546-4627) suggests that you 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 locations. 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.
Remember that you need a valid fishing license, a Great Lakes Trout stamp, and to dress properly for this time of year.
Illinois River sauger: The Illinois River is one of the Midwest’s best waters for saugers, a cousin of the walleye. The action starts for pre-spawn saugers begins in January. The recent mild winters have allowed the Illinois River to become a year-round fishing destination for anglers. There are good boat landings and facilities that will allow an angler to get at least a month head start over other Midwestern anglers.
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 bottom, located directly below the Starved Rock Dam, can be a great winter 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 over 30 feet.
The techniques used are basically the same that one would use on any medium to large Midwestern River such as the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Illinois, Rock, Wolf, and Fox. Some anglers still anchor near the tailrace area and use large jigs (1/4 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 very far.
I prefer to slip the current (point your bow upstream and use your Minn Kota trolling motor to control your drift and speed) while using your electronics (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 when you’re fishing. Jigs (Bait Rigs Slo-Poke), plastic tails and ringworms, and minnows are all you need to catch winter saugers. Many days you can catch fish by using just plastics. If the fish are biting lightly and you’re using minnows, then you may have to use a stinger hook. But, always have a few minnows along in case that is what the saugers want!
Live bait-rigging with 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 for reaction strikes all will catch fish.
Experiment with jig colors until you find the color of the day. I’d start with hi-vis colors like 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), a quality spinning reel, like a Daiwa SS 700, and monofilament line like Berkley XT or XL in the green color. If you decide to troll, use a baitcasting reel like the Daiwa 27 line-counter, so you know how much line you have out and where your crankbait is running. I recommend using the Precision Trolling book for all anglers who troll because this book is the trolling angler’s “bible”.
The Illinois River is about 100 miles south of Chicago and a 2- to 2½-hour drive from Milwaukee or Madison.
Wisconsin River Dam walleyes and saugers: The Wisconsin River is another body of water where you can fish in winter.
The Wisconsin River has many dams and the tailrace areas below the dams are usually the best areas to fish. The Wisconsin River dam system is much like most dams in the Midwest. There is always a tailrace area below the dams that has open water for fishing like the dam on the Mississippi River at Genoa, Wisconsin or the dams on the Wisconsin River at either Sauk Prairie or Wisconsin Dells.
The water below the dams doesn’t freeze and 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 before spring’s spawning. Most dams have a scour hole close to the dam face that has been formed over the years during periods of the high water.
Many walleyes and saugers will winter within a mile or two of the dam and spend the entire winter 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’d start fishing shallow in 5 feet of water or less and work my way deeper until I contact fish.
Both the dams at Sauk Prairie and Wisconsin Dells are open and very fishable during late winter. The Wisconsin Dells Dam allows you to fish a larger area than the waters below the Sauk Dam. Techniques are basically the same for both locations.
Look for a warmer day when the sun can warm the shallow waters and attract walleyes looking to feed. Also, try to fish during warmest part of the day. A degree or two rise in the water temperature can turn fish on and make for a productive day.
Wisconsin Dells and Sauk Prairie both have all the facilities that an angler could want with reasonable motels, good restaurants, and anything else you could want. Check out the weather forecast, do some research on the web, and find a buddy to go on this winter road trip. It’s a great cure for cabin fever.