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Stories from the River

Author Archive: gary.engberg

Dog Day Catfish

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It’s that time of the year (late summer) when fish are getting hard to find and even tougher to catch. During August and into September, daytime temperatures are regularly in the 80’s and sometimes even higher making comfort on the water a difficult to find. The warm water of late summer has increased weed growth, encouraged algae blooms, and even prompted fish kills on some lakes. The fish kills are mainly due mainly to oxygen depletion from the hot weather and the stress that it causes on some fish species. These “dog days” of summer don’t help fishing, since most fish have moved to deeper water in areas of mid-lake structure earlier in the summer. Now, fish have a tendency to move around more, chasing schools of suspended baitfish out in most lake’s deeper water. The fish that were in shallow water early in the season, have moved to their summer haunts and only make forays into shallow water to feed. Most of the movement into the shallows occurs during low light periods (before sunrise and after sunset) and at night.

We’re lucky enough in Wisconsin to have numerous lakes and rivers that have an abundance of catfish. Maybe, the reason that catfish (channels, flatheads and blues) are so plentiful is that most anglers are fishing for walleyes, bass, muskies, and panfish. Catfish don’t get the respect that other fish species receive and many anglers have never experienced their great fighting ability and good taste. A few anglers do well during the hot months by adapting to the ever changing summer patterns of fish, but many anglers have their fishing productivity decline as the warmer summer progresses. But, catfish fishing gets better as things heat up! Summertime catfishing is a way to improve and prolong your summer fishing while also getting some excellent eating. Most Wisconsin rivers like the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Fox, Wolf, Crawfish, Rock, Pecatonica, Kickapoo, Baraboo, and Yahara Rivers all have good catfish numbers and can provide constant warm-weather action. Many of the states inland lakes also have good catfish numbers, especially if they have a river running into the lake and thru it. All of the lakes in the Madison Chain and the Winnebago system are great waters for summer catfish. If you travel up and down Wisconsin’s rivers, you’ll find that people who live in close proximity to rivers are usually catfish anglers. These “river rats” have learned to appreciate catfish for their fighting ability, ease in catching, and again their great taste. Many of the catfish that I catch on the Wisconsin River are caught accidentally when fishing for other species. These cats are usually caught on live bait when anchored below a river snag-hole, when live bait-rigging, or trolling and drifting with crawlers and spinners. If going catfishing, I’d suggest that you go out toward sunset and plan to stay out till well after dark. Catfish move up on the feeding shelves, rock bars, and into shallow water (5 feet or less) after dark and throughout the night-time hours. Catfish also bite on different kinds of roughfish like the skipjack or mooneye. Local catfish expert, Mike Booth of Mazomanie, swears by cutting up skipjacks and using them for catfish at night when many catfish go shallow to feed.

There are numerous local concoctions of catfish stink bait that are used by “river rats” to catch catfish. Most river towns have their own local “recipes” of stink bait for Mr. Whiskers. These mixtures often contain cheese, chicken livers, blood, fish, and shrimp that are “cured” for a few days to gain their distinct odor and consistdancy. A couple of the better, commercial stink baits are; Sonny’s and Uncle Charlie’s Catfish Bait. The problem is that as the water warms its harder to get the stink baits to stay on your hook. Different devices like sponges and tubes are used to hold the bait on the hook longer and keep you from constantly re-baiting your hook.

I’ve talked to numerous “old-timers” who swear the best bait for catfish are small bluegills, sunfish, chubs, and even night crawlers. Before going catfishing, these locals say you must go out and catch your bait for the night. They use a light wire hook, 4 # pound test mono, and a piece of worm to catch their bait. Cut bait from ciscos, suckers, mooneyes, and chubs also work well for both channel, blue, and flathead catfish. The cut bait should be cut into V-shaped pieces about an inch and a half long and hooked onto a No. 2/0 red catfish hook. The rest of the equipment one needs includes a good stout 7 foot rod with a quality bait casting reel (Garcia Ambassador 6500) spooled with 15 to 25 # Stren Original monofilament or braided line like Power Pro. On the end of the mono, put on a slip sinker (1/2 to 1 ounce), tie on a barrel swivel, and then a three foot lead of fluorocarbon line to the hook. This rig should work for most catfish that you’ll run into in Wisconsin rivers.

There are many locations to fish for catfish in Wisconsin and many are close to your home. Anchoring near wood, deep holes, river bends, and mouths of bays off the main channel of a river are all good spots to start your catfishing adventure. I suggest fishing at night because cats are much more active after dark and they’re also in shallower water making them easier to catch. I suggest fishing an area for 30 minutes before moving on to a new location. If there are catfish around, you’ll soon know. Bring along some good lighting, plenty of bait, and a chest cooler of ice to put your catch in if you don’t have a live well or are fishing from shore. Shore fishing for catfish is easy to do, productive, and gives many anglers without a boat the opportunity to catch some tasty fish on most rivers in the Midwest.

The Wisconsin River is full of catfish of all sizes. The area directly below the Prairie du Sac Dam is a good location to start fishing. The scour hole (over 40 feet deep) directly below the dam always has catfish in the summer because the waters have an abundant oxygen supply which can be hard to find during the warm summer months. The few miles from the dam to the Highway 12 Bridge contain many great catfish locations and are well worth fishing. Another quality spot to fish is on the north side of Madison’s Lake Mendota, where the Yahara River enters the lake. There’s 20 to 25 feet of water here and cats like this area year-round.

The smaller cats or “fiddlers” (channel catfish) are great eating, if you cut out the mud-vein on the fillet. Soaking the bigger fish in milk overnight also is another good way to prepare catfish for the table and can take away any fishy taste. Let the big fish go and keep the eaters from 15 to 20”. This is a great way to spend a summer evening and another way to catch fish during summer’s hotter months when fishing can be difficult.

 

   www.garyengbergoutdoors.com

Shore Fishing Opportunities

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This coming Saturday, July 29th, is the 20th Annual Take an Adult Fishing Tournament at the Wilderness Fish and Game store in Sauk City, Wisconsin.Read more

Take an Adult Fishing Tournament with New Wisconsin Hockey Coach Mark Strobel

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One of the summer highlights in this part of Wisconsin is coming soon on Saturday, July 29th. Read more

It’s Time for Walleyes on the Wisconsin River

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Finally, I’ve had a good bite and very good fishing for walleyes on the Wisconsin River from the Highway 12 Bridge at Sauk City and downriver to the old “Nude” Beach area past Ferry Bluff. Read more

Catching Panfish in Warm Weather

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This time of the summer when the thermometer and water temperatures are 80 degrees or more and most lakes are covered with weeds and algae.Read more

Kayak Fishing, a New and Exciting Way to Enjoy Angling

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The last decade has seen a dramatic growth in fishing from a kayak. Read more

Cool Tactics for Hot Weather Panfish

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This time of the summer when the thermometer and water temperatures are 80 degrees or more and many lakes are covered with weeds and algae. Where does an angler go to catch some fish? Here is a good way to beat the summer slow-down and catch some tasty panfish in southern Wisconsin and most Midwestern lakes.

Early in the fishing season it’s relatively easy to catch fish and particularly panfish in shallow water (less than 10 feet). After ice-out, panfish and other fish are attracted to the warmth of the shallows after a cold winter. The shallow water is where the food chain gets in motion with the first hatche of insects and zooplankton. This, coupled with the warmer water temperature brings in the fish. Many of the lake’s fish also will lay their eggs and spawn in the shallow water of most Midwest lakes. The first weeds of the year are also growing giving cover and food to the young fry that have recently hatched. During the first two months of the fishing season, it’s possible to find most panfish fish shallow and often you’ll have numerous fish species in the same shallow locations. But, now things have changed with the advent of summer and warm weather. Fish have spawned and now have moved to their summer haunts. As we get into the warmer months of July, August, and early September fishing can be difficult and sometimes it seems as if every fish has what my grandfather called “lock-jaw.”

What really has happened is that most panfish (crappies, perch, white bass, bluegills) and most gamefish (walleyes, northern pike, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and muskies) have moved away from the warmer and shallow water to scattered mid-lake locations and deeper weed lines. There, the water is cooler and more in their specific “comfort zone.” There needs to be zooplankton close by and often suspended throughout in the water column for the fish to eat. These locations can be about anywhere in the lake, but mid-lake structures like rock piles, humps, cribs, underwater islands, and deep-water weeds are always worth checking out besides the lake’s open basin. Fish and schools of panfish constantly roam around a lake, especially a mesotrophic lake, chasing and feeding upon the tiny zooplankton that is moved by the wind currents. Zooplankton can move vertically in the water column, but they need wind to move them horizontally around the lake. Often, you’ll see clouds of zooplankton rising off the bottom of a lake and scattered up and down from the bottom to the lake’s top on your Lowrance electronics. These “clouds or balls” of baitfish and zooplankton are what you’re looking for and ideally is where you should be fishing. This is why one needs quality electronics like those from Lowrance or Hummingbird to see the forage (zooplankton) that’s suspended. I suggest that you slowly motor over the areas that you intend to fish with your eyes “glued” to your electronic unit while looking for schools of baitfish. The key is to find the food and then you’ll find fish close to the forage. Besides the need for good electronics, also pick up a map of the waters that you plan to fish and go over it before you hit the water. Good maps like those made by Navionics and Fishing Hot Spots are well worth buying and studying before fishing any lake. Navionics makes “chips” for the better GPS units that show you everything that you need to know about most lakes. Everyone can’t afford nor needs a high-end GPS unit with countless lakes you’ll never fish, but a good unit is still a must for a successful angler.

There are good two tactics for fishing for panfish during the heat of summer and early fall. One way is to drift fish across the main basin of a lake and its structure or fish the lake’s deep weedlines. Depth is a relative thing depending on the waters that you’re fishing. The types of lakes that I’m fishing are mainly mesotrophic lakes which are found in much of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. Mesotrophic lakes are commonly relatively clear with submerged aquatic plants and vegetation or weeds and a medium level of nutrients.

When drifting for panfish during summer, remember that the wind is your friend. As I earlier mentioned, the wind is what moves the zooplankton or small organisms around the lake. Before fishing and after looking at a map, see which direction the wind blew from the day before. This can greatly help your fishing success by telling you the locations where you want to drift. Panfish drifting can be much like trolling for open-water trolling for walleyes, where it’s important to cover as much water as possible till you find the bugs and the fish. If you had a south wind the day before, then you want to be fishing and drifting the northern areas of the lake because that’s where the feed will have been blown.

A good lake to drift is Madison’s Lake Monona which is a highly productive lake for most fish with a maximum depth of over 60 feet. It has good structure, weeds, and a river flowing in and out. Its main basin is perfect for summer drifting for perch, crappies, white bass, and even bluegills. Though bluegills are a weed orientated fish and near-sighted, they too can be caught while drifting a lake’s main basin. What happens to Lake Monona and many lakes in the North Country is that during the warm and hot weather the water where fish will be actually compresses or gets smaller. Most lakes with the exception of shallow lakes, like huge Lake Winnebago, experience stratification where you have different temperatures and oxygen levels at different depths during the summer. Lake Monona’s fish will usually suspend anywhere from 5 to 20 feet down in water 40 feet deep and even deeper. Again, good electronics can show you a lake’s stratification. You should always be fishing above this level. Once you find the zooplankton and see the stratification, you should be in for some quality fishing. Fishing can actually get better in the heat of the summer and early fall.

The equipment and gear that you need for panfish drifting is relatively simple and inexpensive. The first thing that you need is a long rod between 7 and 7 ½ feet long (G. Loomis, Fenwick,) make good ones with an extra fast or fast tip. Combine this with a quality ultra-light reel (Shimano or Daiwa) spooled with 4 pound Trilene monofilament. I then tie a barrel swivel to the main line and to the swivel I add 2 to 3 feet of fluorocarbon line and then tie on a 1/32 ounce jig like the Bait Rigs Slo-Poke which I’ve found to work extremely well. The Slo-Poke jig falls better horizontally than most other jigs that I’ve tried. Have an assortment of colors with glow and chartreuse working well in most lakes. But, keep experimenting till you find what works the day you’re fishing. The jig is then loaded with 3 or 4 spikes, wax worms, or leaf worms and weighted with mini split shots. I use the smaller split shots (1/32 ounce) to weight the line spacing them 2 to 3 feet above the jig. This is not a precise method, but it works well. Since Wisconsin allows you to use 3 rods, I’ll weight my lines with a different number of split shots (2, 3, or 4) and count out the amount of line let out by the number of line pulls. Experiment with adding and deleting split shots till you find active fish. Be sure to keep your eye on your rod tips for bites. Often when drifting, the fish will hook themselves. You want to scatter you baits up and down in the water column above the thermocline and stratification. It’s much easier to fish and drift, if you have rod holders (Scotty or Tempress) on one side of the boat. What you’re really trying to do is to “rake” the water column for your fish.

While fishing this “system,” I’ve found that the bluegills are always the highest up in the water, the crappies are normally below the bluegills, and the perch are almost always the deepest fish that you’ll find. White bass can be scattered anywhere from top to bottom too.

Panfish are sight feeders and the best action is from 10 am to 2 pm when the sun is at its highest point in the sky giving the greatest light penetration. One other tip, if it’s too windy for drifting try using a drift sock to slow you down.

The other tactic that catches summer panfish is to fish deep weeds lines.. You won’t always see the fish since they often are buried in the weeds waiting to ambush whatever comes by. This method requires a good anchor and plenty of rope. Anchor up in a good spot and fish the weeds that the wind is blowing into with a small jig (the Bait Rigs Cobra works great) in the # 12 size and a slip float. The wind will give your bait movement, action, and blow it toward the weeds. It’s very important to position your boat in a location where you’re not on top of the fish. You’ll have to make a cast to reach them. The panfish can be anywhere in the weeds or close to them. The weeds that you’re looking for are; coontail, cabbage, and sand grass in most northern lakes. Some days, a plain Aberdeen hook (# 8) and a split shot or two is all you need with live bait. Since you can use three rods try to rig each one with different kind of bait, a different color, and fish at different depths to cover the water column. Fish an area for a half an hour before moving and when you move make small moves looking for open areas in the weeds and near any inside turns. You want to move small distances, so often all you have to do is let out a little more rope.

These are tried and true methods for catching panfish in summer and fall. If you have a good size lake which warms in the summer and fishing is tough give one of these techniques a try. www.garyengbergoutdoors.com

When Fishing Gets Tough

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It’s soon becoming that time of the year when fishing can get tough! Read more

Lake Mendota Bronzebacks

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The Madison Chain of Lakes all have good fishing for all fish species. Read more

Try Drifting for Suspended Summer Panfish

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Recently, I ran into Joe Puccio, one of the owners of Bait Rigs Tackle and the designer of the Cobra Panfish jig. Read more