Fishing through the Doldrums of Winter

By Steve Weisman

There comes a time every winter when catching fish through the ice gets really, really tough on most lakes. The ice and sometimes the snow is really deep. The days of winter seem to drag on, the fish seem to have gone into a totally neutral mode and spring seems to be light years away. Even during these mid to late winter doldrums, there are fish to be caught.

For Kevan Paul of Kevan Paul’s Guide Service out of Clear Lake, winter doldrums have no place. His job is to put clients on fish! “I guide all winter, and people go ice fishing when their schedules allow. While it is true that ice fishing can get tough late winter, there are still some go-to lakes that I know will push out some nice fish.”

So, what is his game plan? First off, Paul targets lakes in the northern part of the state that have good numbers of fish. “I always have to be careful though. The ice can have some sketchy spots during late season. I try to stay away from current areas, areas where water might be running in and shallow areas around rocky points. Still, I feel comfortable fishing up here. You get down to Fort Dodge, Sioux City and towns farther south, and they get warmer weather sooner. Ice conditions can deteriorate quickly.”

Paul’s two go-to bodies of water for mid to late-ice are Clear Lake and the Iowa Great Lakes. “Clear Lake is known for its incredible numbers of yellow bass, and it is also an excellent crappie fishery right now. During the latter half of the winter, huge schools of yellows will be milling around in the big lake basin feeding on blood worms.”

Paul finds the Iowa Great Lakes to be a great destination for a different reason. “With this chain of lakes, there are always fish biting somewhere. You have Big Spirit, East Okoboji, Minnewashta and West Okoboji. Right now West Okoboji has an incredible perch population. It seems that there are huge schools of perch throughout the lake. At the same time, East Okoboji also has an excellent perch population and is loaded with yellow bass.”

Targeting Clear Lake yellow bass 
For Paul, fishing yellow bass on Clear Lake means two things: be in search mode and be aggressive when you find them. “It’s all about getting on the school,” says Paul. “Obviously, it’s always easier if you have been on the fish before. If not, I start out in the search mode and drill a series of holes and then use my Vexilar to check for fish. These are huge roaming schools, so it’s check a hole and move. Check the next hole and move. When we get on top of a school, we’ve had times when we have popped dozens of yellows out of just one hole.”

Once a school of yellows is found, then Paul has his clients spread out. “It is important to observe how the bite is going. If there is more action to one side or even just a single hole, I will then punch several holes in that direction. That’s the best way to stay on top of a school.”

For lures and bait, Paul says that Clam’s chartreuse glow tungsten Drop jigs work great. “They are heavy enough to get down quickly and yet provide a good balance when you jig. For this type of fishing, I like to put five to six silver wigglers on the hook, as many as I can. When a school is there, the bite can be incredible, and you want to take advantage of the situation. The last thing you want to do is be re-baiting all of the time!”

This is where the term aggressive comes in. “These fish are aggressive feeders and react to movement. No more slip bobbers. I’ll only do that if I am using a rod as a dead stick and tipping it with a minnow for a chance at a walleye. This is not the time to do a subtle jiggle. I’ll pound the bottom, rip the jig up and shake, shake, shake the jig hard. It is chaos when a big school comes rolling through. It becomes hookset, get the yellow up and get back down.”

Paul also notes that the little lake can be good at this time, but more on shallow humps where water might be running in old holes.

Targeting the Iowa Great Lakes
Mid to late-ice can be dynamite fishing on these lakes. In years past, Big Spirit has been the perch lake to fish late. However, the perch cycle is down right now, so finding schools of big perch is tough to do. “The good news is this,” says Paul. “West Okoboji is loaded with perch right now. Most of the keepers are going to be in the 8-10 inch range, but you will catch some larger from time to time. When a school comes in, you might have several feet of perch below your hole. There are also a lot of smaller 5-6 inch perch in these schools, so I think we have two good year classes going right now.”

Paul uses the same search mode on West Okoboji as he does on Clear Lake. It’s a lot of drilling and searching until the school is located. “I think just about any of the bays or points will have schools of perch roaming around. It’s a matter of finding them and then getting them to stick around. These perch are also feeding on blood worms, but they are also feeding on tiny bluegills (flats). With that in mind, I like to find a good shelf in 12-14 feet of water with some sporadic vegetation and on up to 25 feet of water with a drop-off into deep water. “

These fish will be milling through targeting their food sources. “When I look for these perch, I will use my Vexilar, which is a combo flasher/camera. That came in really handy for me last year during a trip to West Okoboji. First, the FL-20 lit up with fish, but they would not bite. I couldn’t figure it out. So, I powered up my camera and lowered it down. I couldn’t believe it. The marks turned out to be swarms of baitfish.” So, Paul went on the search mode again, and he found a huge school of perch about 50 yards away. “It was like they were following the baitfish but not really in a feeding mood. Once I found them, they just kind of milled around there, and I was able to pick off the larger, aggressive perch.”

Late season is also big gill time on West Okoboji with lots of anglers coming from all over the Midwest to experience sight fishing these fish. Each year is a little different, but anglers should check Emerson Bay, Millers Bay and the north end. “The water clarity is so good that it is easy to see down up to 20 feet,” notes Paul. “However that makes them sight feeders and very, very finicky.” Paul will target good standing weeds with a sandy bottom, and once again move, move, move. “These fish can sometimes be so neutral that they have been known to make a grown fisherman cry,” he says with a laugh. “But then that’s what keeps people coming back.”

Again, the Drop jig works well tipped with a silver wiggler or a wax worm. “On Okoboji, though, I really like to use plastics like the Maki or Jamei. For those finicky gills, I will also go to the smallest Drop jig that I can and pairing that up with one pound test is the ticket for getting those tough biters to commit.”

Paul reminds anglers to be careful of the ice. “Not all ice is created equal, and this year at Okoboji we had good early ice, up to 8 inches. Then it warmed up, and we had a couple of rains followed by wind. All of a sudden the ice depth was down to 3 inches or so. Then when the cold Arctic air came, the Lakes region also got six inches of snow that acted as insulation. So, it’s important to know the area that you want to fish. Stop in at the bait shops and see what they say before just wandering out on the ice.”

Not sure where to go? Again the bait shops are great places to stop. “I also put on weekly updates on the Ice Team website where I talk specifically about where to and how to, along with my website and on my Facebook page.”