200112_PECK

Dave Koonce ices a bluegill. A single red spike or waxworm should be enticing to bluegills as the area gets closer to hard-water fishing bliss.

Lakes across southern Wisconsin are making precious little ice as our “green” Christmas continues to bring us a green new deal in 2020.

There are limited “safe” ice fishing options south of Wausau, with plenty of fishable ice in northern counties as we stumble toward mid-January, with foot traffic only for those who dare to take a chance on Lake Koshkonong or the Madison chain—even for those who would head out on a brother-in-law’s float-compliant ATV.

Our local lakes are the doppelganger of a pot almost ready to boil. Three consecutive days with high temps in the single digits will lock up just about everything from shore to shore. Two more days and you might ask the brother-in-law permission to use his machine.

Fortunately, there is plenty of good bluegill fishing among weeds in shallow water, with pike cruising nearby looking for an easy meal.

Serious winter is still on the horizon. It will surely be here in a week or two. Normally, the last two weeks in January and February ahead of Valentine’s Day offer some of the toughest fishing of the entire year due to low oxygen levels in the water column.

Ice—especially snow-covered ice—blocks sunlight from entering the water column. This blocks aquatic plants from oxygen-producing photosynthesis. These conditions are a double whammy, because dead and decaying plants consume, rather than produce, oxygen.

The green new deal of plenty of remaining healthy plant life and wind-driven waves across open water add both oxygen to the water column and push cold-blooded fish from a negative into at least a neutral-feeding mood.

Water temperatures just above freezing keep fish metabolism slow, requiring a slow, small-lure presentation. But at least the fish are awake.

When eventual winter brings a sheet of ice with a heavy bedspread of snow, oxygen levels in the water will remain adequate for at least a couple weeks. Meanwhile, daylight minutes continue to grow. Melted snow enters the water column, stimulating oxygen levels that increase fish activity.

Two or three weeks after that, ice starts to leave the lakes, bringing conditions that we are experiencing right now.

Honestly, perspective is about the only thing a fisher can control.

If we were experiencing typical January weather, the bite would be tough right now. This year, the only thing that is tough so far is access. When we can finally get out there “safely” again, action should be a crossbreed between “hot” first ice and, even better, late ice.

Lord willin’, we could be hard-water happy by this time next week. When ice happens, all rods are rigged and ready for bluegills, which are still cruising the green weeds where we found them in December’s mini-winter.

Red, black and gold were hot colors back in mini-winter. There is every reason to believe this trend will continue when it’s time to walk on water again.

Experience teaches the wisdom of heading out with rods rigged for both horizontal and vertical presentations. A gold Lil Cecil is my vertical go-to bait, with that new Northland Punch Jig a horizontal killer, especially in red.

Under truly tough conditions, adding a little “meat” in the form of a single red spike, hooked right between the little brown “eyes” on the fat end of this grub, can up your odds. The old reliable waxworm, hooked either straight or “wacky” style is even more appealing to bluegills.

Although there is a small tin of red spikes hiding somewhere in my float coat, soft plastics—especially a red or black “nail tail”—consistently produce bigger panfish.

Waxworms will always be a melancholy favorite among the ice fishing fraternity. One way to shed the live-bait monkey and become a more productive bucketeer is to buy a final Copenhagen tin of waxies and head for the lake on a breezy January day.

Walk cautiously out on the ice, face into the wind and remove two waxworms with some sawdust from the tin.

Raise your arm in a tribute to the bluegill muse and open your closed fist. You’ll be a plastics guy forevermore.

Trust me on this.

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

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