Guide Ron Barefield with a couple of nice perch. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
An average Mendota bluegill. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
By the time you read this article, the ice fishing season will be in 'high gear' on the Madison Chain of Lakes.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Chain, they consist of five lakes which surround the state capital of Madison. The lakes include Mendota, Monona, Wabesa, Kegonsa and Wingra lakes. Each one of these waters is unique in their size, depth, and their respective fisheries.
No matter what species of fish that you want to target, one or more of the 'Chain' lakes has the fish that you’re after. I’m going to concentrate on Lake Mendota because it has a very good fishery with quality walleye, Northern pike, perch and panfish that can provide consistent action throughout the winter.
During most years, Lake Mendota is the last lake in the Chain to freeze which usually is around the first of the year. But, this year with the early cold temperatures and the frigid Arctic weather, there has been no problem with good ice and accessibility. The winter of 2013 and 2014 is one of the coldest winters that I can remember in the last two decades. One still has to be careful and watch for pressure cracks and remember that safety is always a major concern when on any ice.
Lake Mendota is the largest lake of the 'Chain' (at almost 90 feet deep) and like I said, the lake usually is the last to freeze because of its depth and size (9,842 acres).
Mendota has always been known for its perch fishing with many fish in the 7- to 10-inch size and some jumbo’s that will measure 12 inches and larger. During the hard water season, perch will scatter and suspend throughout the water column from near the bottom to just under the ice. The perch schools vary in size and travel at different depths, so a quality and color electronic unit (like Lowrance, Aqua-Vu, Marcum, or Vexilar ) is a must to mark and locate fish. Often, the perch schools are in water anywhere from 50- to 70-feet deep in the main basin of Lake Mendota.
Some of the better locations to perch fish this year include the Governors Island area, the 'Four Doors' near Nelson State Park on the lake’s north shore, out from Mendota County Park on the north-west side, Second Point on the south shore and Picnic Point again on the southern end of the lake. All of these 'hot-spots' are anywhere from a quarter of a mile to a mile out from shore. They all are within walking distance if you’re in decent shape, but many anglers now use snowmobiles and four-wheelers for lake access.
Good access to Lake Mendota is available at many of the boat landings scattered around the lake. If fishing these lakes in Dane County, you’re required to have a floatation device on your vehicle, so check this regulation before fishing. You should also check out a new product, the Nebulus Floatation Device which is a small cushion like device that inflates and can save you and your machine if trouble should arise. Nebulus Pro, Duffy Kopf, has shown me the device which I would recommend to any ice fisherman. The Nebulus is easy to inflate and will save your life if the worst should happen!
To fish the deep water for perch, it is necessary to get down to those depths. Locals use pencil weights, in-line sinkers, and copper tubes which all allow the angler to get back to the deep water quickly when a school of fish passes through your fishing area. Being mobile is also very important because the perch schools are constantly moving and if you plan to stay with the roving perch schools, you need to have numerous holes drilled in advance and keep 'popping’ from hole to hole while searching for active fish.
Wax worms and spikes are the best baits for the Lake Mendota perch. Waxies seem to stay on the hook better, last longer, and are my bait of choice for yellow perch. Also, try using plastics (noodles or wedges) and the Berkley Gulp and Power Bait products as bait because some days artificial baits will out fish live bait. If the fish want something different, the Gulp and plastic tails usually fill the bill. Most ice jigs will work, but the ones that I suggest include Rat Finkies, Rockers, Fatso’s, Shrimpos, Dots, Teardrops, Maramushkas, Slo-Pokes and the small Bait Rigs Cobra jig. Experiment with different colors, but orange, pink, green, glow, and chartreuse seem to be the mainstays on Lake Mendota.
The daily limit is 25 perch and on a good day you should be able to catch this many fish depending on the size of fish that you plan to keep. When fishing deep water, the perch you catch will have their air bladder pulled out their mouths and will not survive if they are too small to keep. So, if you are catching all small fish move to another hole and try and find the larger size perch that you want to keep. There’s no sense keeping and killing small fish! The perch are in schools and most of the fish will be the same size, so try and find schools of keeper fish.
Ice fishermen also regularly catch walleyes on Lake Mendota. The minimum size limit is 18 inches, which is a nice-sized walleye, and the daily bag is three fish. Early in the season many walleyes will still be in water that is less than 15 feet deep.
Now, as the winter has progressed, the walleyes move to the abundant mid-lake structure which on Lake Mendota is mainly the rock bars. Early on, walleyes will relate to the shallow water flats, the weed lines, and the first break-line. Local Guides, Wally Banfi, Ron Barefield and Gene Dellinger, who are all on the ice regularly, recommended fishing; the western lake shoreline from Spring Harbor to the Pheasant Branch Creek to the north, University Bay from the UW campus to Tenney Park on the south and south-west shores, and all along Warner Bay on Mendota’s north-east corner for walleyes during the early part of the ice fishing season. Dellinger, who owns and operates D and S Bait and Tackle on the lake’s north shore said, “Mendota is as good a walleye fishery as there is in the southern part of the state. It’s a super fishery.”
Now, the walleyes have moved to the deeper water rock bars and steep breaks to chase the lake’s many perch schools. Many of the good walleye spots are also the good perch areas. These hot spots include the Commodore Bar, the Brearly Street Bar, Governors Island, Second Point, and again, Picnic Point. These locations have the components that winter walleyes want; steep break lines, bars (rock) with access to deep water, points, and most importantly a large forage base of baitfish and perch.
During the first few weeks of ice, it’s possible to catch fish any time of the day. But, as the season progresses, the early and later part of the day are best and don’t forget the good night bite on Lake Mendota. Techniques can vary, but since Wisconsin allows anglers to use three rods; try jigging a Rapala Jigging Spoon, a Swedish Pimple, or a 1/4 or 3/8th ounce jig and a good-sized minnow with one rod. Then, use tip-ups (Beaver Dams or Frabill) for your other two legal lines baited with big chubs or shiners. The walleyes will usually be near the bottom, but use your electronics to mark the baitfish schools and the walleyes. Sometimes in winter, walleyes will suspend below the baitfish or forage, but not as much as they do in the warmer water of spring and summer.
Use a good ice line (Berkley and Stren) on your tip-ups and a fluorocarbon leader about 4- to 6-feet long from a barrel swivel to a good quality treble hook (VMC or Gamagatsu). Hook your shiners and big chubs behind the dorsal fin for the best action. Keep your tip-ups lubricated with powdered graphite for cold weather fishing. Some of the tip-ups now being made are round and cover your hole preventing light from shining into the water or try using a piece of old carpet to cover the area around your normal tip-up. Light shining into a hole in the ice can sometimes spook wary fish like the walleye.
Lake Mendota is also very good lake for northern pike fishing. The size minimum is 40 inches with a daily bag of one fish, so this is definitely trophy waters. Every year, many pike are caught in open water and through the ice that measure in the mid to high 40s. That’s a good pike anywhere and your chances are also good for action with many smaller pike in the 30- to 36-inch range.
The best locations to fish your tip-ups for northerns are outside any of the weed beds where they actively feed on the abundant panfish populations. The larger size limits make it possible for northern pike to grow to the size that you’ll find in this lake. Though, Lake Mendota does have some marshy areas which are good for spawning northern pike, the lake still gets regular stocking to maintain this lake as a high quality fishery. The DNR estimates that there are 0.5 fish (pike) per acre in the lake with both fry and fingerlings being regularly stocked. If it’s big northern pike that you’re after then Lake Mendota is the lake for you! You do not have to go to Canada to find big pike. They’re here in southern Wisconsin for the hardy and adventurous angler. Anglers should take a tip from muskie fishermen and practice catch and release on these big fish. You can get a graphite reproduction just like any other trophy fish and save some of the 'big girls' for brood stock.
Some of the better fishing locations for big pike include; the inlet from the Yahara River at Mendota’s north end is always a good and proven producer, University Bay on the lake’s south-west corner is excellent with shallow water and lots of weeds (look for green weeds if possible) throughout, the waters off Mendota County Park in the north-west corner is a good spot, the whole west shore from the inlet at Pheasant Branch Creek all the way to Spring Harbor in the south-west corner is another location for big fish with its ever-present weeds, and finally my last recommendation is Warner Bay on the east side of the big lake.
All of the before mentioned locations are worth fishing with tip-ups baited with big shiners, smelt, and suckers. Some days, golden shiners can be worth the added price when you’re fishing for big northern pike.
Since you will be fishing relatively shallow water less than 20 feet deep, you must keep noise to a minimum and be as stealth as possible. Drill your holes when you first get on the ice and stagger the tip-ups at different depths along the weedlines and breaks as soon as your holes are drilled. Spool your tip-ups with 65 to 80 # Tuf-Line which works well in the winter and then get a quick-set rig (like the Bait Rigs one) and tie it directly to your line.
It’s no secret that Lake Mendota also has a very good panfish population of crappies and bluegills. There’s always a hot bite on early ice for panfish and the fish are in the same locations as they were before the lake’s freeze-up. Fish the weed edges in water from 6- to 12-feet deep for both crappies and bluegills. Crappies will suspend in open water at times, but the bluegills rarely go deeper than 12 feet. Lake Mendota has some of the nicest bluegills that you can find with many fish over 9 inches and often larger. These ‘gills are truly “slabs” and if you like big bluegills then this is the lake for you.
The proper gear and equipment to use is the same as one would use for any panfishing. Most of the good ice fishing companies like Berkley, H.T., and Frabill make good and sensitive rods for light-biting and finicky panfish. Spool an ultra-light reel (Daiwa, Okuma, or Shimano) with one of the new ice lines from Berkley or Stren. I suggest using 2 to 4 pound test line with Berkley’s Vanish (a fluorocarbon) being particularly good for spooky shallow water fish.
Next, have a good assortment of ice jigs (Dots, Teardrops, Rockers, Rat Finkies, Shrimpos, and Maramushka’s) in different colors and designs. Make sure to have a spring bobber on your rod to detect light bites from the most finicky bluegill or crappie. Lastly, have plenty of wax worms, spikes, or even goldenrods to tip your jigs with and have some plastics in different colors for experimenting or when fishing is slow. Power Bait and Gulp also work well at times on panfish. Once you find the fish and get them biting, it’s often possible to use just pieces of plastic without any live bait.
As I mentioned before, you’re going to be fishing relatively shallow water, so drill your holes as soon as you get on the ice. This way you won’t scare away or spook the fish and have to wait till things calm down before resuming your fishing. It’s always advantageous to have plenty of drilled holes and keep your movement and noise on the ice to a minimum because bluegills and crappies can be driven away if you’re not careful when fishing shallow water.
Here are some of my favorite and most productive locations for panfishing on Lake Mendota. The daily bag limit is 25 fish of any combination, but don’t always keep everything you catch. Save some for the next guy. My suggestions are;
• Mendota County Park, located on the northwest corner of the lake, has a shallow lagoon near the boat landing which holds numbers of bluegills and crappies the first month of the ice season. Later, panfish seem to move in and out of these lagoons throughout the winter.
• If you head west from the County Park about a mile, you’ll come to the Pheasant Branch Creek which empties into Lake Mendota. The mouth of the creek is a good panfish location. Keep moving around this area till you contact active fish. While jigging for panfish, put out a couple of tip-ups because this is also a good spot for walleye and pike.
• If you continue going around the lake on Highway Q, west and south of Pheasant Branch Creek is Marshall Park. The park has good lake access and another lagoon next to the landing that offers good panfishing for both bluegills and crappies. This can really be a “hot spot” and is always worth checking out.
• Spring Harbor is the next panfish location as we head south around Lake Mendota. There’s a one hole boat landing and fishing pier and this is always a good fishing spot whether its ice fishing or ice-out fishing in the early spring.
• Now, you’re going south and west around the lake and heading toward downtown Madison on University Avenue. You’re near the University of Wisconsin campus and University Bay. The whole shoreline from campus and downtown Madison to Tenney Park is all good territory for ice fishing. The water in the Bay is shallow and weedy and is good for bluegills and crappies. Some of the lake’s biggest bluegills are caught in University Bay and along the city and campus shoreline. Try fishing a hundred yards or less from the UW Memorial Union for big bluegills throughout the winter.
• The last location that I’m going to recommend on Lake Mendota is Warner Bay on the lake’s east side. Warner Bay is good for pike, but the shallow water in the bay also yields plenty of panfish. There’s a big boat landing that gives you good access to all of Warner Bay, Maple Bluff, and Governors Island.
Now, you have a good primer for fishing Madison’s Lake Mendota. This lake has something for everyone who likes to ice fish, no matter what species they want to target and catch. This is a metropolitan lake with much of its shoreline in the city of Madison and well developed, but the fishing is as top-notch as you can find anywhere in the Midwest. Give it a try because its central location makes it a relatively easy drive from most areas. Anything that an ice angler wants is at your fingertips including the fish! Be safe and have fun.
Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990’s and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com for more from Gary Engberg.