I reach my hand up and slide the ice down my braided line into the smooth open water for the first time today. The temperature hit 30 degrees, the sun was out and the dam blocked the 15 mph northwest wind, making for surprisingly comfortable fishing conditions all afternoon. The sun is setting and the temperature is dropping fast, I didn’t even notice the ice building up on the line until it wouldn't fit through my rod tip as I slid a couple of feet shallower. The nose of my boat pointed into the current in an eddie off the main channel. Staring at my electronics, a fresh and even more intense focus comes over me when a yellowish orange gamefish mark suddenly pops up right on the screen.
A slight separation between the fish on screen, and the uneven, rocky bottom indicates conducive conditions. The line slightly jumps and I instantly set the hook. Bright braided line is well worth the money in situations like this. About four seconds pass between the slight hit that my high vis line readily perceived, and an astonishing female sauger slowly thrashing her head at the surface of the water. I knew she was hooked well when I felt her sharp teeth on my line during a classic head shake. Luckily, I left the net in the ready position right next to me and easily scooped it in. The big dark spots on the icy fish glow and I have a few extra seconds to admire the stellar fish before I watch it slowly swim away. During situations like this my hands shake and adrenaline pumps through my whole body, making it hard to remove the hook from the fish’s mouth. I love fishing below tailraces in the winter and have learned many things that make my experience more enjoyable. Sauger, walleye and the bait fish they eat congregate in areas where they do not have to expend much energy. The more times current is deflected the slower the water moves. An eddie behind a current break is always worth checking out. Steep drop offs perpendicular to the direction of the current create calm water as well. Pay attention to your boat and how much power it takes to keep your line vertical to find the sweet spots. I rely on my electronics and pay attention to what is on the screen when I am catching fish. It gives me confidence in the future that I can efficiently find and catch fish when I find a similar scenario. When I am jigging in tailraces I use a 6’6 medium action spinning rod. 8 to 12 pound brightly colored braided line that helps me feel and see bites. I use a 14 lb fluorocarbon leader and can often pull my jig out when I get snagged. I use mainly jigs and plastics this time of year. The size of jig depends on how deep you’re fishing, and how strong the current is. The deeper the water and stronger the current, the heavier jig you need. Stinger hooks are prone to snags but definitely catch short biting fish. I use a stinger hook if I start missing a lot of bites. The more I use artificial bait the more confidence I have in it. I prefer smooth minnow profile baits or ribbed soft plastic paddle tails. In the winter I hold the plastics as still as possible and generate more bites than when I jig the lure. Just like any vertical jigging situation it is imperative to maintain contact with the bottom. This time of year it is important that when I load and unload my boat, I stop with my trailer tires just out of the water allowing the water to drain at the bottom of the ramp. If you pull out without waiting, the water will freeze and make the ramp extremely slick and dangerous. Always drain the water out of your lower unit so it doesn't freeze, expand, and damage your motor. Always remember to pull the drain plug and let any other excess water out of your boat. The winter months provide some stellar angling opportunities and I encourage everyone to get outside and have fun.