OPEN WATER TACTICS: THE WINNEBAGO SYSTEM
By: Kyle Sorensen
If you fish the Lake Winnebago System, you need to know and understand three tactics. Once you master these three tactics, you will be hard pressed not to put fish in your boat during the months of May and June. Even though I have 20+ years of experience fishing this system, I learn something new each year, and each year, more and more fish tend to show themselves. It is important to remember that during these months, on a normal year, fish have reached the post-spawn period and are returning to their main roaming areas for a long summer. While a book could be written on these three tactics, we are just going to cover some basics on each one.
During the months of May and June, you will find me mostly one-line trolling. For this article, we are not going to get into anything else besides one-lining, as there are many other trolling principles which would be very lengthy and information packed; enough to make your head spin. I love fishing with planer boards and have tremendous success with them, but if you have fished the system (especially on the weekend) it can certainly be a rat race to troll effectively AND respectfully. The trolling areas can sure be busy, especially due to the Winnebago System fish finder – the binoculars.
One-line trolling is simple and strategic at the same time. Simple in the fact you only have one line to worry about, but also strategic because you are able to work that one line through structure and in a very precise manner.
Last May (2014), I made a video of myself one-lining close to the mouth of the Fox River on Lake Winnebago. If you are reading this, I highly suggest you jump onto the YouTube Channel (youtube.com/oboutdoor) and view this. This video will show you first hand the success I had by one-lining and the points I speak of. You will see me putting a limit of walleyes in the live well while fishing between many other fishermen in a respectful manner.
The trick to one-lining is the secret that many do not give out or know about: POUND THE BOTTOM. Yes, you do lose baits. Yes, you damage baits. Yes, it sounds especially weird considering eyes normally feed “up”… but do it!
I have run #7 Flicker Shads practically under my outboard and have hooked up… in 4.5 feet of water. With smaller sizes and baits, run them back farther so you are able to pound the bottom. The clack of the bait hitting a rock and that “shimmy” the bait gives off after a collision is what you want. It attracts these fish and plays havoc on their lateral line. I have fished baits as far back as 100 ft. and as little as 12 ft., as long as it is popping the bottom once or twice a minute (at least).
You must experiment with the size of bait. I have made numerous passes over a structure area I believe to hold fish, only to come up empty handed. Changing the size of bait has given my empty hands a reward in situations like this.
As I stated on one of my latest videos (during hardwater), I feel the type of bait and size of bait supersedes the color of the bait. Don’t get me wrong, color does play a factor, but in the totality of circumstances, color rates as one of the lowest factors on the totem pole, in my opinion.
If I had to choose my favorite way to catch a walleye, catching one on the retrieve of a crankbait would sure be close, if not the top of my list. The whiz of the cast, the cranking of the reel, the pulsating of the lure, and ultimately, the smash and pounding of an aggressive eye. What’s more to want?
In a casting element, as like others, wind plays a huge role here on the Lake Winnebago System. It is so important to pay attention to that sometimes pesky wind and the direction it blows. This is because it will tell you which way the fish are being pushed. If a southwest wind is blowing, hopefully you are starting your drift in the far southwest corner (and even farther off) of the structure you are fishing.
When I decide to fish a wind-blown structure, I am definitely looking at my maps. I like to stop well outside the area I am about to drift to give me time to get the bow mount going (sometimes needed to control the drift a bit) along with the other equipment. In my case, this also includes all of my recording (audio and visual) equipment.
With the starting point selected, and by the time I’m ready to start casting, I am just beginning to approach the point, reef, or shoreline I am working. As you read, I named many different areas to utilize this technique. Why? Because it’s just that versatile. Experimenting with what area is working for the day is just simply done through trial and error but it will quickly show where the place to be is or isn’t.
When casting, as with trolling, I love to pound the bottom. See the similarity? Like I said, it plays with the lateral line of the fish and that clack does wonders to entice their curiosity. I have always been a firm believer of walleyes only feeding on prey higher in the water column (due to their vision). Because of my constant success of fishing the last foot of the water column, it’s important to note that walleyes use many senses besides their sight to hone in on their prey. This holds true in the last tactic, jigging.
I will be the first to admit, I am not sure what the fish see in this technique but when I speak of jigging, I do not speak of jigging a deep hole or trench in a river. I speak of pitching or casting a jig into topographic structure. While vertical jigging is certainly another great aspect of this system, we are not going to talk about that in this article. We are going to focus on the casting and retrieving method of the jigging presentation.
I find myself focusing in on shorelines, reefs, break points, etc. I focus in on these areas because these are known areas of interest here in the ‘bago system. When I believe fish are holding but not showing themselves with other techniques, a slow approach is warranted and that is found in this technique.
I have used various different jigs and meat/trailer setups. To me, there is nothing that beats a live crawler piece. I have tried plastics, pork imitations, and even other live bait, but nothing beats the true crawler. I love a ¼ oz. jig head (even less) when not in a current type of situation (whether natural or artificial). I thread about a ½ crawler onto a normal jig, leaving at the most a 2 in. tail.
I will pitch the jigs into rocky structures, sometimes surrounding weed/grass beds. Again, another noteworthy point in the Winnebago System is weed growth, but we only have time for the basic ideas.
As I pitch the jig, I will allow it to sink to the bottom before starting the retrieve. As the jig sinks to the bottom, I keep slight tension on the line. This is because the jig is sometimes picked up on the fall. If no action is noticed, a drag, popping, or twitching of the jig is used during the slow retrieve. It is very, very important to switch the presentation methods up to find what turns the fish on for that specific day/time.
As with the fall of the jig, slight, constant tension of the line is needed throughout the jig’s path. In this technique, bites will not necessarily be felt during the retrieve. Sometimes, the visible movement of the line can be the sign of a fish on the other end of your line. If noticed, reel down and set that hook!
If you want to see a video on this presentation, I recommend you log onto the YouTube Channel (youtube.com/oboutdoor) and check out the “How to Jig Lake Winnebago” Info Segment. This will show you everything I have talked about in this section and give you the visual needed to be successful. One point I want to note is that you need to keep your jig moving, even when boat-side. Sometimes it takes these fish time to zero in on your jig, and complete follow-through should be conducted on each cast to find the followers of your jig.
One-line trolling is simple. I like a rod that is along the lines of 6’6” with a fast tip and sturdy backbone. The reel I use needs to have a line counter so I am able to take notes of different baits and their depths/line out when hitting bottom. For line, I have sometimes used 20 lb. XL Trilene. This is because the reels and line are from my Lake Michigan trolling gear. I have personally found the pound test doesn’t really have too much to do with my numbers while one-lining, as I have hooked into various eyes with this line. I know it sounds very heavy, but that is what I use, and it can be seen in videos. The kicker is, I use at least a four foot, six pound test fluorocarbon leader attached to this heavy line. If you are not multi-purposing your fishing gear, a straight 8-10 lb. test will be optimal. Whatever you use, make sure to use the same on each rod/reel combo so you are able to repeat your same depths and targeted areas with the same lures in the future.
Gear wise, casting and jigging go hand in hand. I love at least a 7 ft. fast-tipped rod with a very good backbone. This size allows me to reach the water’s edge while casting from the platform of my boat, even when battling the sometimes surprising Lake Winnebago waves. My reels must have a smooth drag and also transition easily to its back reeling capabilities. For line, I am spooled with 8 lb. braid and again, a 4 foot fluorocarbon leader is utilized.
I hope me touching on these techniques helps you to put more fish in your boat this year! These are the three main principals I utilize all the way through the late summer periods. There are many, many other factors put into these areas but I wanted to touch on the basics in case you are not using one. They all work great but as with fishing, trial and error will tell you what is working for each given day. If one idea doesn’t work for you one day, don’t throw it away! It could just be the ticket for the next outing!
Hope you all have had a great start to the open water season. Be sure to check out the YouTube Channel so you are able to pick up even more information surrounding these areas and the many others I focus on in this system. Until next time, “Tight Lines. Stay Dry.”