Taking on the Midwinter Fishing Doldrums

By Steve Weisman

Midwinter ice fishing is often completely different than early and late ice. Instead of the aggressive fish that come with both early and late ice, midwinter fish are often more neutral and have seen several months of lures. That’s why here on the Iowa Great Lakes the most successful anglers make the needed adjustments to trigger these neutral midwinter fish. Whether it’s chasing the schools of perch on Big Spirit Lake or the bluegills on West Okoboji, it’s important to make these subtle adjustments that will increase your success.

Let’s start with the perch on Big Spirit. If there is a go-to destination for perch in Iowa, it has to be Big Spirit with its massive schools of perch. You can look from the shoreline and see huge towns of ice anglers fishing perch. These perch are roaming the basin of the lake, feeding on bloodworms, larvae of what will become adult midges.

Fishing towns pop up seemingly overnight as a bite is discovered. It often starts with a single shelter. If that shelter is there for a day and especially if it’s there multiple days, it becomes like a magnet and other anglers show up. It usually means something good is going on. However, the longer the town remains, the more difficult the bite becomes. If you think about it, this makes sense with the more aggressive perch caught early on and as the days progress, the more neutral perch remain.

Midwinter game plan
First off, I will use my network of fishing buddies to learn at least what time or times the best bite has been and areas where they have been fishing. Another good choice is to check with the local bait shops. They can give you the general information that will help you eliminate lots of water. This is so important because we often have only a day or even just a few hours to fish.

I normally consider the basin to be depths of 16 to around 22 feet of water, but with the drought of 2021, the lake is down over two feet, so now the basin is shallower.

Fishing this deep definitely means we need to have “underwater eyes.” Lots of different electronics to choose ranging from flashers to underwater cameras. My choice for years has been using a Vexilar flasher, currently an FL-22. If you don’t, it’s like fishing blind, hoping something might be down there.

By midwinter, those huge towns are often fishing yesterday’s or last week’s memories. So, if I am looking for perch and don’t have a school of my own nearby, I may start with the “fishing town.” However, I won’t sit long, and I will often start off to the side or on the edge of the town. Often, fishing pressure will move those schools away from the center of the activity. Since the schools of perch always seem to be on the move, I’ll try a spot for 10-15 minutes to see if any fish show up. If I’m getting bites every few minutes, I will probably stick around. If not, it’s time to move. I’ll give it maybe an hour or so, and if there’s no action, it’s time for Plan B. It’s maybe time to move to another side of the lake.

Lots of choices here. One trick is to go with a slip bobber rig with a plain hook tipped with a minnow. I use a split shot about 10-12 inches above the hook to keep the minnow down. The goal is to put this within six inches of the bottom. Unless I know what size minnow has been working, I will bring along small, medium, and large. I will often use this as a dead stick option and then fish a second rod.

A second choice is to use a jigging presentation such as the Shuck’s Jigger Minnow (like the old Pilki) tipped with a small minnow, silver wigglers or wax worms. Another choice would be to use a small tungsten jig, like the Clam 1/32-ounce Dingle Drop tipped with wigglers or wax worms. It’s crazy, but sometimes the number of wigglers or wax worms you have on your hook will make a difference. With either of these jigging presentations, you will want to let the jig down to the bottom, then reel up the slack and work the bottom six inches of the bottom. Since you are working areas where the perch are taking the bloodworms off the bottom, every once in a while try pounding the jig on the bottom. If perch are in the vicinity, this “poofing” the bottom can attract the perch.

You must make the most of your opportunities. When your flasher lights up, see how the perch react. Do they immediately strike your bait, or do they just follow the bait up and down the water column? Let them tell you what presentation they prefer. When a perch does hit, get back down as quickly as possible to be part of the fishing frenzy. Those schools often won’t stick around very long.

Finicky midwinter bluegills
Most winters on West Okoboji, the clear waters will bring anglers from across the Midwest to do battle with the Okoboji bluegills. A lot of the action takes place in the bays: Smith’s, Emerson, Little Emerson, Millers and North Bay, and it becomes a sight fishing opportunity. Early and late in the day are often the better times. The lighter it gets toward midday can move the bluegills even more neutral. The trouble is by midwinter, the bluegills have become lethargic and finicky! Every part of the presentation must be perfect or the bluegills will simply swim away.

It’s time for two-pound test or even one-pound test and tiny tungsten jigs like Clam’s 1/64-ounce Drop Jig. I love the glow red and tip it with a piece of Maki plastic, a Silkie trailer, a single silver wiggler or a wax worm. Since you will be sight fishing, you can see exactly what the bluegills want for a presentation. If it’s wrong, they will stop, stare, and slowly move on. When they do bite, don’t wait for the jig to be in the mouth, because by the time you set the hook, the bluegill will have spit the jig out. Set the hook as it enters the bluegill’s mouth.

One huge key here…you can’t let the jig spin. It must sit perfectly still in the water. For that reason, I have gone away from using a spinning reel and now use a Clam Gravity Elite Reel (either right/left hand) that eliminates line coils and spinning jigs. The Gravity has a good drag system and is light weight to use.
As for the presentation, the bluegills will let you know. I always start out with a really tight jiggle, jiggle, jiggle and go from there. It depends on the time of day and even changes by the hour of the day.

The challenge
That’s what I call it: the midwinter ice fishing challenge. Everything becomes a little tougher, but then that’s the fun of it. The first key, obviously, is mobility and finding the fish. After that, it becomes finding what bait and presentation will trigger the fish. It just doesn’t get any better than that!