JVG_201009_PECK

Edgerton’s Darrell Nelson with a collection of panfish caught in the backwaters of Mississippi River pool 9 earlier this week.

Those who love the Wisconsin outdoors can empathize with a blind dog left alone in a meat market: Which way do you follow that nose?

Duck season closes for a week after this weekend. Pheasant season opens a week from tomorrow. Bowhunting conditions are terrific now. Fishing is good all across southern Wisconsin as lakes are on the cusp of fall turnover.

Even those who joke that “vegetarian” is just another word for bad hunter/fisher can tell you the best place to munch a gluten-free tofu sandwich is in the peak fall color of our northwoods this weekend.

Faced with the dilemma of so many options, so little time, my vote for the best venue for optimum satisfaction over the next seven days is chasing panfish in the backwaters along our western border. A harmonic convergence of multiple factors has resulted in this conclusion.

Last year, the entire Mississippi River flood plain was somewhere between “action” and “flood” stage for essentially the entire open-water period. Panfishing is generally best in quiet waters with little current.

There was plenty of that in 2019. But with a million flooded trees providing optimum habitat, where do you start fishing?

This habitat was the ideal nursery to grow little panfish. With virtually no fishing pressure on quality panfish for all of 2019, bluegills, crappies, perch and the rest of the panfish were able to grow to even larger dimensions while forgetting about the perils of chomping down on something that hides a hook.

In 2020, fishing conditions on backwaters and running sloughs of the Mississippi River are at the opposite end of the spectrum. River levels are the lowest they have been in October since 2006.

The flow level, calibrated in CFM (cubic feet/minute), is still greater than 2006. But profound siltation during the past 14 years has greatly reduced fish habitat. A slough that was five feet deep in 2006 is now only five inches.

There is inadequate “escape cover” for prey species in just a few inches of water. This has pushed the pannies into areas where there is at least 4- to 6-feet of water. With suitable habitat decreased by more than 90% since 2019, panfish of multiple year classes are now concentrated by the gazillions in profoundly decreased suitable habitat acreage.

With water temperatures now in the mid-50s across southern Wisconsin, aquatic weeds are dying off. Remaining green weeds are a panfish magnet, providing both escape cover and benthic macroinvertebrates—essentially bugs and tiny critters--that panfish feed on.

Continuing up the food chain pike, bass, walleyes and other predators are cruising nearby cowing down on readily available food. Ironically, trying to catch gamefish species is tougher because the predators have such a profound abundance of easy prey.

Perch and bluegills are generally hovering close to the weeds near the bottom. Eye placement of crappies makes it easier for these species to feed from below. A minnow suspended under a bobber about halfway down in the water column is a profoundly effective presentation in Mississippi river backwaters right now.

New bag limits went into effect for pike, walleyes, panfish and other species on the Mississippi this year. Daily bag is now 15 each of crappies, bluegills and perch. The limit on white bass is 10 daily.

I applaud bag limit changes that Minnesota and Wisconsin have agreed to—with one exception: northern pike. In 2019, a five-pike daily bag with no size limit was in effect. Beginning this year, the limit is three pike with only one fish allowed more than 30 inches.

My prediction is this reduced bag will result in an overpopulation of small pike within a year or two. A 30-inch northern pike is a worthy combatant. There is a reason fishers use desultory descriptions like “hammer handle” or “snot rocket” when describing smaller pike.

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

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