Lake Mendota usually freezes over sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Not so in 2020, with hardwater on Kegonsa and Waubesa dangerous even off Barber’s Bay and Goodland Park.

Rock River is running wide open and belly full, providing an opportunity to break out the long rods here a solid two months earlier than is possible in most years.

Jerry Huffar and I talked about cold water action on our hometown river on yesterday’s “The Fishin’ Hole With Hurricane Jerry” show on Iron Country radio. Some of the best-kept secrets for pulling walleyes out of the mighty Rock in January were discussed off-air.

With water temperatures a chilly 34-35 degrees, fish metabolism has slowed almost to a state of suspended animation. Lure presentation needs to match this activity level—a fact which is easily ignored by humans soaking in the January sun on a day where gloves are an option.

Unusual winter warmth may feel good on human bones, but walleyes are crepusculent feeders, even when metabolism is in overdrive in ideal 50-70 degree water. “Crepusculent” is a 10-cent word meaning most active during low light.

Being on the water from 4-6 p.m. is the biggest concession most humans are willing to make in the name of “fun” on a January day in Wisconsin.

Precise presentation is another major key in catching January walleyes. Fish will locate where they can expend the least amount of effort to eat. Bubble lines on the surface often indicate current seams and back eddies likely to hold fish.

The real high percentage spots are REVERSE bubble lines—hard to explain, but you know it when you see it. A reverse bubble line moves upstream, where most bubbles are moving downstream with the obvious current.

Put a hair jig, plastic or suspending stickbait right on the money and you might get bit—if you can keep the hook in this tiny strike zone.

Improvements in soft plastics and invasive species laws have caused minnows to fall out of favor in recent years. But a “natural” presentation of a lively minnow placed at the leading edge of a reverse bubble line—at low light—greatly enhances chances for hooking up.

Cold water walleyes in Rock River want a “meat and potatoes” presentation. This means a basic Lindy rig on a 3/8 oz. sinker or basic GOLD jighead weighing no more than 1/8 oz. Drag the minnow s-l-o-w-l-y through the strike zone. Two minutes is not too long for a single cast.

The last little secret I shared with Huffar off-air from yesterday’s radio show was the use of “cultured” minnows. Minnows that have been swimming in Rock River water for a few days “taste” more natural than minnows transported from a bait shop.

An old river rat named Budd Andrews schooled me on the advantage of using “cultured” minnows when fishing cold water in the Rock some 45 years ago.

Conjure up the image of kissing a smoker. Knowledge of this vice is clear when moving close to seal the deal. A walleye easing in to feed experiences the same revelation. When a walleye isn’t eager to “kiss” lunch in the first place, it can make a difference.

Passing this pearl on to the fishing public seemed unwise until I contacted the DNR for clarification of rule NR 40 dealing with invasive species. DNR fisheries biologist Dan Oele said it is “technically legal but discouraged” for a person to take a five-gallon bucket of Rock River water home for a “personal aquarium.” Oele cited the possibility of transmitting invasives like VHS and spiny water fleas.

The potential for transmitting invasives is absolutely true. Protecting our natural resources should be paramount to all of us without caveat.

But, culturing minnows in Rock River water for a few days before using them as bait in Rock River is responsible stewardship of Rock River.

Huffar is too good of a “stick” to have a corner on this old river rat secret. In a watery world where fish metabolism puts walleyes in a neutral mood at best, any little edge can mean a difference.

Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at