(MCT) — LA VALLE, Wis. — A sandstone bluff rose 50 feet from the ice and dominated Lake Redstone’s southern rim. Red oak and red pine trees jutted out at odd angles from rocky ledges.
At the base of the hulking formation, the world was locked in winter stillness.
No wind, no sun. Just frozen water, deep shadow and seven anglers watching their rod tips.
Tad Volkey of Wisconsin Dells broke the spell with a firm lift of the forearm and a hardy hookset.
Seconds later an 11-inch crappie was on the ice.
“The most active ones are right at the top of the brush,” Volkey said as he dropped a tiny jig and 2-inch plastic tail back into the water.
“Active” takes on new meaning in winter. There’s the kind of activity humans perform for exercise and warmth. Splitting wood, for example, or cross-country skiing.
Then there’s the version of the word that describes animal activity.
For cold-blooded animals in winter, “active” can be just a notch above comatose.
“Here’s another one,” said Joe Durkee of Reedsburg, lifting up and reeling his heavily bent rod.
Soon another similarly sized crappie was on display on the frozen surface of Lake Redstone.
The proper key can unlock any fish’s mouth, even in the most difficult conditions.
On a day dominated by high pressure, clear skies, high winds and sun, our group had found the formula for “fish on.”
It was centered on light line, a 1/32-ounce jig and a quivering sliver of plastic.
Over the next half-hour, every member of our fishing party was icing panfish.
“It’s all about the action,” said Nick Olson of Reedsburg.
Rounding out the group were Tyler Volkey of Wisconsin Dells and Dave Carlson and Dave Roll.
Olson runs Reel Good Guide Service in Reedsburg; Durkee and Tad Volkey work with him as fishing guides.
Carlson and Roll were along to fish and film a segment for their “Northland Adventures” television show.
As many ice anglers have discovered, soft plastics can be as effective — if not more than — live bait. In addition to drawing strikes, the artificials don’t have to be replaced as often.
The growing awareness has given rise to bait manufacturers with products aimed at the hard-water market.
In Wisconsin, Durkee started a company called Freedom Baitz. Another local company, called J and S Custom Baits, also makes soft plastic lures geared toward ice fishermen.
Among the lures’ features: soft but durable plastic and an anise scent.
We gathered on the first Monday of the New Year as decent ice had set up on many waters.
Lake Redstone is located near the Village of LaValle in northern Sauk County. The lake was created in 1965 with the construction of a dam on Big Creek, a tributary of the Baraboo River.
The project resulted in a 612-acre impoundment with a maximum depth of 36 feet and a mean depth of 14 feet. The lake is 4.5 miles long and has a 10,000-plus acre watershed draining from the north in Juneau County.
The dam is located at the south end of the lake and has a top draw spillway. The southern section has beautiful red sandstone cliffs that give the lake its name.
The 16.4 miles of shoreline is largely developed with homes and cottages.
But the lake is notable for existing pieces of native glacial relict vegetation and habitat, including mature white pine and hemlock communities, at some locations.
The bluffs that shoulder the lake are indicative of its bottom contours.
Because of the steep slopes under water, aquatic vegetation is sparse in the lake except in the shallower inlet bays. The 1.5- to 5-foot depth zone supports the most plant growth.
The lake has a population of muskies, walleyes, smallmouth and largemouth bass, bluegills and crappies.
In recent years, gizzard shad have become a prominent forage fish in the lake.
Even in the first week of January, some anglers had positioned ice houses over fish cribs and brush piles.
“Much of the best fishing is over the brush,” Durkee said.
We concentrated on areas in the middle to southern end of the lake in 20 to 30 feet of water. After several stops, we found the best action in the shadow of the bluffs.
“As far as the fish know, it’s early evening,” Volkey said.
Although we had caught fish at each spot, the number and size of fish increased in this cove. Bluegills were mixed in with the crappies. Most of the fish were between 6 and 12 inches in length.
The water was 30 feet deep, but the brush rose at least 10 feet from the bottom. The majority of the hits came when baits were dangled in the tops of the submerged tangles.
You can find action from Las Vegas to Wall Street. Here on Lake Redstone, it came from a simple, inexpensive piece of plastic and a very subtle presentation.
Out of the wind and into the fish, we enjoyed winter comfort that only residents of the Ice Belt fully appreciate.