Brent Bulow caught this walleye on a 1/16 oz. gold Northland fireball jig with a minnow.

Our statewide tendency to listen to an irrational inner lemming voice whispering, “head north” on opening weekend of the general fishing season has always puzzled me.

Janesville is in the second of seven distinct climatic zones in Wisconsin heading north. When waters start to warm in the spring, they warm downstate first, stirring activity in cold-blooded critters like fish.

Autumnal seasonal transition is the doppelganger of this weather trend—lakes freeze in the north country first. Wisconsin’s lunatic fringe of ice fishers is at least on a more rational travel vector this time of year. But those looking for hardwater action don’t take it far enough.

We almost had “safe” ice at Whalen’s grade and the Stoughton ditches with a chilly blast of Inuit summer about a month ago. But a warming trend evaporated hardwater opportunity in the next climatic zone north between Stoughton and just north of Madison.

Folks living in zones 5-7, from essentially Chetek north to Ashland, cashed in on a hot early ice bite for a solid three weeks until a “warming trend” across the Midwest dumped a pile of snow up north, making ice travel difficult.

The wind has since resolved much of this ice access situation on smaller lakes around Hayward, Ashland and Washburn County, with a solid bite happening near remaining green weeds in shallow water for panfish and pike.

In climatic zone 5 around Chetek, the access picture is still a little dicey. Lakes of the Chetek chain are on the small side, more linear than round. Lightfooting out just about anywhere close to shore up there is probably “safe,” but ice travel by snowmobile or ATV travel is not a good idea.

Locally, in zones 1-4, ice fishing is essentially non-existent as of today. This should change over the next 10 days—certainly by Christmas.

Meanwhile, we are essentially ice fishing in open water on rivers and lakes. The Inuit summer weather just more than a month ago dropped water temperatures like a stone, bypassing the 50s and pegging out around 34 degrees.

It took a while for fish and fishers to adapt to this change. Most of the focus locally now is on walleyes and panfish.

Since we are essentially ice fishing in open water, you’ll likely find greater success with a tiny ice fishing lure instead of bigger bait, fished on 2-pound test mono either under a small neutrally bouy and float or simply tightlined near the bottom in green weeds for panfish.

Chasing walleyes in rivers is essentially a study in vertical jigging or pitching/dragging plastics like a Pulse-R on a jig no heavier than 1/8-ounce.

The key component in vertical jigging is VERTICAL. If your line is in the water at a 45-degree angle, anticipate a tough day on the water.

The jig stroke is another fishing component requiring close scrutiny. Walleyes typically respond to a frequent lift/drop snap of the rod tip with the jig, blade or spoon within inches of the bottom. Sauger prefer almost a dead-stick presentation, slowly and infrequently bouncing the bottom to ensure you’re in the “fish zone,” essentially hovering the hook as you ease downstream.

With water temperature just above freezing, this slow, small tactic also works better for walleyes, with a little “meat” in the form of a minnow or half-crawler sweetening your offering.

Bait usually works better than just hair or plastic when pitching/dragging as well. A 1/16- to 1/8-ounce GOLD Northland Fireball jig or 3/8-ounce Lindy rig with an 18-inch leader S-L-O-W-L-Y dragged with frequent pauses tipped with a minnow catches open-water walleyes in the Rock River all winter long.

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