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Back on the Ice
The "Loose" Fish are Harder to Find

Harbor Angler Report, February 27th Photo

I had a mentor and great fishing buddy, Willie (known locally as Walleye Willie), who over the course of twenty years taught me everything I know about fishing walleyes in Lake Winnebago. And I had a lot to learn. Willie could find schools of walleyes many times when others could not. I swear he could smell locations on the lake that held fish. Actually, I pretty sure he was using the Glatfeltter Paper Mill smokestack, the Neenah water tower or the Kimberly Point lighthouse to triangulate our position. No "fancy smancy" GPS for Willie. Often once we found walleyes, we would catch a few fish right away. Willie would call these the "loose fish". These are the members of the school particularly hungry or genetically predisposed to be aggressive and attack just about any bait presented to them. On a good day, we would get several of these "loose fish", more often only one or two. However, their aggressiveness belied the presence of other, more cautious fish. Walleyes, particularly eater-sized ones, seldom travel alone. So there were more fish to be caught but these were not loose fish. These fish needed to be persuaded, cajoled to take the bait. They required a different lure or presentation and above all, persistence.

As I pursued another schooling species this winter, (one rather unfamiliar to Willie) the lake whitefish, I have encountered the same phenomena of the "loose fish". Early in the season once I located a school of whitefish the action was pretty fast and furious. It did not require much skill or patience on an angler's part to put some fish, sometimes lots of fish, on the ice. As the season wore on into January and February, I would typically hook a couple of fish soon after drilling the holes and allowing my jig to hit the mussel-covered lake bottom. Then the action just stopped. I had an outing on the Bay this week that was a classic example of the "loose fish" effect. I headed out on the ice Monday morning. It was a bright, sunny winter's day. The surface of the late season ice was smooth but still as treacherous as the jagged early ice that has forced me to still be wearing a splint on my injured pinky. (See my earlier blog for that sordid tale.) The melting and refreezing had left an icy surface that requires the prudent ice angler to don ice-gripper footwear or end up on their butt. As a dragged my sled out on the ice, I noticed three other guys already had lines in the water trying to catch a meal of whitties. Giving my fellow anglers a nod I trudged out to a position a respectful distance away and drilled my holes. I could detect the marks on my sonar screen indicating the presence of whitefish or some other bottom hugging species. Setting up over the cleaned out openings, I dropped my bait of choice to the bottom. Earlier in the season, I would have presented a flashy Swedish Pimple or rattle jig tipped with a couple of Gulp waxies to these fish and would quickly be coaxing the battling fish to the surface. However, by this time of the year, most of the surviving fish of the school have learned to be a bit more cautious and selective. Now they require a more subtle approach, they need to be seduced to bite. Perhaps a Rapala jig slowly and tantalizingly feathered on the bottom would win them over. This would be my approach. As I worked the jig invitingly above the bed of mussels, the sensitive tip of my spinning rod bounced ever so slightly. Pulling up I saw the rod bow and the battle was on. Soon I had a nice 18-inch whittie on the ice. This dance was repeated in short order until I had two more fish including one about 20". Then the action stopped dead. I could still see fish on the bottom but they no longer showed much interest. So much for the loose fish. Any remaining fish were going to take more patience and persistence. I guess I would have plenty of time for another cup of coffee.

About this time I noticed that the group of nearby anglers were packing up, being apparently done for the morning. I had been keeping my three whitefish in a new gadget I have been trying this winter; a live well for ice fishing. It is a round mesh bag about 3-feet long with a diameter that allows it to fit into an eight-inch hole. It has a zippered opening running the length of the bag to remove the fish. I have found this device very useful if I am not sure if I want to keep fish on a particular day. If I catch a fish or two, I can place them in the bag and keep them fresh and lively. Then if I don't catch enough for a meal or if I'm too lazy to clean the slimy buggers, I can release them unharmed down the hole. Try that after they have been lying frozen on the ice for an hour. Well, I decided I was not going to keep these fish so I walked over to my fellow anglers and offered the fish to them. Since they had only put one fish in their bucket, they happily accepted my offer. I zipped open my fish bag and the flailing fish tumbled into their bucket. It was a win-win for all, well except for the whitefish. I went back to my hole and did coax a couple more fish to take my lure over the next hour or so. These were promptly returned to the water. The action was pretty slow, no "loose fish" left I guess.

So if you get a chance to get out for whitefish this season, there is still plenty of good ice remaining (see the recent satellite image of Green Bay) and fish to be caught. But plan on being persistent and enjoying the day. Many of the loose fish have been caught.

I have seen some guys targeting browns and northerns through the ice in the shallower areas of the Bay but have not heard of any catches yet. I tried jigging for browns a couple of times with no success. I noticed the marina in Baileys Harbor is almost ice free and depending on the wind direction there is open water out into the lake. It won’t be too long before I will be preparing the Pamela Ann to search for brown trout off the waters of Door County. The last two seasons we have had some nice catches in late March even though we did have to dodge floating ice.

In non-Door County fishing activities, I had a chance last weekend to fish with a group of fishing buddies on a central Wisconsin lake. This is a "male-bonding" weekend that I have been attending off and on since 1977. Some of the original guys are no longer with us, including Willie. However, many of the guys are now bringing their sons along. It was a great time. Oh, and I did catch some non-whitefish, crappies and 'gills.

Soon I will be perusing saltwater species off the waters of northern Florida. I hope to put a few 'Reds and Specks into the kayak. I am even going to fish for some bucket-mouths in the St Johns River system. Hopefully I will find plenty of loose fish. One this for sure is that I won't be drilling any holes.

Tight Lines, Bruce

Questions or comments to bharborangler@gmail.com