Peck: Open-water fishing part of New Year's plan
Special to The Gazette
If your New Year’s resolution is spending more time in the boat this year, you can start today.
Meteorologists say the deep freeze will return by midweek. It looks like today and tomorrow will provide a rare opportunity for January open-water fishing—at least below dams over on the Mississippi River.
Walleyes and saugers are stacked in wintering holes below dams at Genoa, Lynxville, Guttenburg and Dubuque right now, with at least limited access below each of these dams.
Access is a little tougher here on the mighty Rock and on the Wisconsin River just up the road. Even though you can find snow-free ramps over on the Miss, taking a shovel and bucket of sand is a good idea.
Since forecast high temperatures for the next couple of days are only tickling 32 degrees, try not to use your bilge pump or livewell—modern boats are supposed to be self-draining. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
The Mississippi, a two-hour drive west of Janesville, is running a little faster than the norm for January due to precipitation upstream. You’ll need jigs and blade baits weighing at least ½-ounce to keep your presentation vertical and in the walleye’s strike zone.
Make no mistake; this is a “striking” rather than a “feeding” bite. With water temperature hovering around 34 degrees, walleyes and saugers have no need to feed aggressively. But these fish are opportunists, and a lure fished with short rips right in front of their noses is tough to resist.
Since fish are responding to a reflex rather than feeding, adding a minnow to your presentation offers no real advantage.
Hair jigs like the Taylor Tackle ‘Killer’, jigs with soft plastic tails—most notably a four-inch purple ringworm—and blade baits like the venerable Heddon Sonar are most effective right now.
Lures like the No. 7 jigging Rapala and One-Eye will also catch fish, but they are more liable to find bottom structure than either the single hook of a jig or two treble hooks of the typical blade bait.
My favorite blade bait is the Echotail because it allows quick attachment of a plastic tail, essentially doubling the striking appeal.
Water depth is key to fish location during the cold-water period in the Mississippi River. The “magic” depth may be 18 or 24 feet. Note the depth which produced your first strike and try to hold the boat at that contour while drifting and jigging downstream.
Saugers tend to hold in both twice the current and twice the depth of quality walleyes in a winter river.
Right now on the Mississippi, don’t be surprised if you find saugers holding in 50 feet of water or more.
Cranking a fish up quickly from 50 feet of water will often cause the fish’s air bladder to rupture. This will kill the fish, even if you release it quickly. There is no size limit on saugers on the Mississippi. An aggregate bag limit of six walleye and/or sauger is in place, with a 15-inch minimum keeper size for walleyes.
Keeping any legal fish taken from deep water which has a ruptured air bladder is sound stewardship for this important resource. There may be more exquisite culinary delights than fresh walleye from cold water—but the list is certainly a short one.
Don’t forget to wear a PFD. The Mississippi does not forgive mistakes.
Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.