There is tremendous satisfaction in living on the cusp of adventure in the Wisconsin outdoors.
We all relish praise from peers at being the first one to snake a mess of quality panfish through the ice. But take just one step too far and your reputation goes from “trailblazer” to “idiot” before you can dump chilly water out of your boots.
Drive less than three hours north of town this weekend and you can find five inches of good, clear ice and observe intrepid souls on ATV’s and snow machines just a few yards farther out on the Chetek chain of lakes, just a whisker away from a dubious status change this weekend.
Stealthy anglers have been placing fish cribs and other attractors just out from the 100 miles of shoreline here for over half a century. Mother Nature and the tornado that blew through the area a couple of years ago added innumerable fish attracting structures.
There is simply no better panfish water in the state of Wisconsin.
These fertile waters also produce fair numbers of bass, pike and walleyes. There’s no need to venture far offshore to find them now—all these predators are cruising a short stone’s throw from shore now because that’s where the food is.
Wisconsin law allows three lines per angler. Set out two tip-ups baited with red tail chubs while quivering a jig stick with a tiny ice fly on the third line in one of at least a dozen bays on any lake and you’ll likely hear the sweet symphony of fins slapping ice.
Most perch and crappies on this chain are “average” size, with probably three out of every five worthy of a fillet knife encounter. The “keeper” ratio on bluegills is similar, but you’ll likely catch at least a couple that will measure up at an honest 10 inches.
Although every lake here has the potential for a nice mess of fish, my personal favorite is Prairie Lake at the north end of the chain. Access is possible at several public and a couple of semi-private boat launches on this lake.
One of these is on a narrow bay just off the main lake where a pile of walleyes are cruising right now in just 4 feet of water. This situation will certainly change when snow cover and serious winter chill arrives—but get there and set boards by about 4 p.m. in the afternoon and flags may start popping before all the holes are drilled.
It doesn’t take long for the ice to resemble a well-cratered moonscape with little or no snow cover on the lakes. This is a good thing if you’re a travelling angler who doesn’t have GPS coordinates of fish cribs and other proven structure plugged in to portable electronics.
There is plenty of productive ice in the Chetek chain with far fewer anglers per surface acre than you’ll find on Delavan or the Madison lakes, once the masses determine there is “safe” ice in this neck of the woods.
Venture on the ice anywhere south of Madison this weekend and you’ll be shuffling along the fine line between trailblazer and idiot.
My old pal, Dan “Bimbo” Gifford, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see vehicles whizzing around on the Chetek ice this weekend, confirming a long-held belief that the trailblazer/idiot paradigm is a latitudinal thing.
Gifford’s Bimbo Skunk lure is a bluegill killer in open water all over the Midwest. He also sells more subdued bait he has dubbed the ‘Icy Bimbo,’ which is certainly effective for panfish on this chain and elsewhere when tipped with either soft plastic or a couple of writhing red spikes.
Gold is the underlying color scheme of the Icy Skunk—always a good choice under early ice conditions. But a little lure called the Demon with a hot pink head and chartreuse body works equally well.
One key to success in using either of these lures is to move the line’s knot around to allow a horizontal presentation. Be sure to check this after catching every fish. When fishing Prairie Lake over the next few days, the knot may have to be adjusted 25 times in just a couple of hours.