Brandon Young of Muscoda drills a hole into the ice of the Petenwell Flowage. / Patrick Durkin/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
Brandon Young of Muscoda pulls a crappie onto the ice of the Petenwell Flowage. / Patrick Durkin/ Press-Gazette Media correspondent
Brandon Young pauses to accept a deer antler from his friend's Labrador, Zoey, who would rather play fetch than fish. / Patrick Durkin/Press-Gazette Media correspondent
NEW MINER — As I pulled hair-thin line from my reel and fed it into Petenwell Flowage through a 6-inch hole in the ice, I could tell Brandon Young had seen my doubting look before.
The tiny tungsten-steel jig at my line’s end held no live bait; only a tiny plastic grub Young had made. That surprised me. I had expected we’d dress up the fake bait with a pinched waxworm or goldenrod grub, just to add a trace of authentic scent.
“We do pretty well with just plastics,” Young said. “When guys ask what we’re using and I show them, they look at me like I have a third eye in my forehead. I haven’t put live bait on an ice jig in two years. I’m not saying live bait never works, but some of the best ice fishermen don’t use it anymore.”
I was fishing with Young, a machinist from Muscoda, and three of his friends: Jared Basing of Sparta; Adam Kirschbaum, Montford; and Darrin Anderson, Mauston. For them, Wisconsin’s best fishing season runs December through March. Why? Young compares it to deer hunting.
“I think of ice fishing as bowhunting and summer fishing as gun-hunting,” he said. “During gun season, there’s more people, more expenses and more of a rat-race atmosphere. Ice fishing is slower-paced and requires more finesse, just like bowhunting. Plus, it’s easier to fish in bad weather during winter. With the right gear, you can stay out here in winds that would chase you off the lake in summer.”
Young usually works a full-time four-day schedule, so he takes maximum advantage of three-day weekends to fish. Fishing trips take him west to the Mississippi River’s backwaters near La Crosse, north to lakes from Cumberland to Rice Lake and east to Wisconsin River flowages like Petenwell and Castle Rock.
“I do 65 to 70 percent of my fishing in winter,” Young said. “I like fishing a variety of places, and Wisconsin has a lot of great water. That’s the fun of it.”
Ice fishing also taught Young to travel light and buy good gear. For instance, he and his friends use battery-powered ice augers they jury-rigged from power-packs built for handheld power tools like drills and sanders. Why? They don’t like hauling gasoline or heavy 12-volt, deep-cycle batteries.
Young also swears by tungsten steel jigs even though they often cost $5 apiece. Tungsten costs far more than lead-based jigs, but they’re environmentally friendly and weigh more than lead. Therefore, they get deep faster than similar-size leadhead jigs, which is important in depths of 15 or more feet.
A heavier jig also straightens the “memory” from coiled line faster than standard jigs, and delivers more responsive jigging. “Tungsten jigs can make all the difference when fish don’t want to bite,” Young said.
He also selects jigs with the toughest, longest-lasting paint jobs.
“A jig is only as good as its paint,” Young said. “With cheap jigs, you can pretty much forget about their paint after five fish. A good jig with quality paint can catch 100 fish while other guys go through everything they’ve bought.”
Young’s attention to detail is most intense, however, when it comes to bait. He still uses minnows when fishing tip-ups and rigs like the Automatic Fisherman or Jaw Jacker for walleyes and northern pike. But when jigging for panfish, Young and his friends seldom stray from his micro-size plastic baits.
He started making them two years ago after growing frustrated with most commercially made micro-plastics. “There wasn’t much variety and it was tough to consistently find the ones I liked,” he said.
Therefore, Young used his machining skills to build plastic-bait molds from blocks of aluminum. He also learned the secrets of creating liquid plastic, pouring or “shooting” anise-scented brews into his molds, and producing finished products that not only smell good to fish, but squirm with more allure than real food.
Few things are more satisfying to fishermen than catching fish with homemade baits. And our group enjoyed plenty of satisfaction Feb. 16 during our day on the Petenwell Flowage. The action was never fast, and it mostly shut down by noon, but while it lasted, our group steadily pulled 9- to 11-inch black crappies from the 20-foot depths near the Wisconsin River’s former channel.
We didn’t catch them off the bottom, however. Although Young’s electronic flashers regularly detected fish cruising the flowage’s floor, they wouldn’t hit anything we jigged in front of them. But when Young raised his bait to about 16 feet, he quickly landed our first crappie.
When nothing hit my bait right away, he tied one of his white, thin-tailed baits to my line. Then he showed me how to hold the fishing rod like a handgun, and rotate my wrist to make the jig and plastic bait dance and flutter like a moth above a lantern.
Bam! A crappie struck and I reeled it into the hole and onto the ice inside Young’s portable shelter. We took turns catching crappies the next three hours, sometimes waiting 20 minutes or more between fish.
When the action ceased during lunch, Basing, Kirschbaum and Anderson cruised the area to drill holes, talk to other anglers, and scout sites they knew from previous trips. But by 3 p.m. or so, they were back “in camp.” Nothing. Petenwell’s crappies seemed to have retired for the day.
Still, we hung around till 5 p.m. before taking the hint and packing up. Not even Young’s innovative baits could pry open the crappies’ mouths for one last bite.
Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for Press-Gazette Media. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.