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Paul A. Smith: Lake Poygan ice provides a warm greeting to anglers [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel :: BC-OTD-SMITH-COLUMN:MW]

WINNECONNE, Wis. - At dawn, a bright gibbous moon hung over the western end of Lake Poygan while the eastern horizon glowed orange.

Although colorful, the sky was empty except for the lunar body.

"I think the moon is just far enough away so it doesn't crack," said Steve Greene of Slinger.

The mercury read 6 degrees below zero and a 15 mph northwest wind added a sting to the air.

Was it too cold for clouds? It seemed to be. Or maybe they just had better things to do.

The bitter conditions did not keep our small band of anglers away, however. And we - Brain Settele of Menomonee Falls, Greene and me - were right where we wanted to be.

The weeks-long Arctic blast had developed ice on most Wisconsin waters to thicknesses that allow at least ATV and snowmobile traffic.

And here on Poygan, the crystal cover was 18 inches thick. We drove our trucks to the middle of the lake, where Settele had parked a hard-sided, skid-mounted ice fishing shanty.

"You brought your Hawaiian shirt, right?" Settele said as we moved gear into the shack.

A propane burner was lit, three holes were drilled, flashers were powered up and within minutes we were jigging in Poygan's fish-rich waters.

Across the state, ice fishing season is in full swing. Depending on gear choices and methods, fishing in Ice Bowl conditions doesn't have to be punishment.

We made a conscious decision to fish in a heated shanty.

"Gettin' kinda warm, isn't it?" Greene said about 7:30 a.m. as the temperature hit 70 in the structure.

We peeled off jackets and bibs and fished the rest of the day in comfort.

A few minutes later, Settele had a fish streak under his hole and hit his bait. He set the hook and, after some to-and-fro, lifted a 15-inch walleye above the ice.

The fish hit a small gold jigging spoon tipped with two wax worms.

"Well, not bad for starters," Settele said. "Let's see what else we can come up with."

Our choice of water also was deliberate: Poygan is one of the state's most productive lakes, and perhaps especially so in winter.

Settele, who owns and operates Fish Chasers Guide Service, keeps three heated shanties on Poygan for ice fishing with his clients. He can accommodate about 10 anglers.

The 14,024-acre lake is part of the Lake Winnebago System, which also includes the Wolf and Fox rivers and lakes Butte des Morts and Winneconne.

Like Winnebago, Poygan is shallow, with a maximum depth of 11 feet. The bottom is 60 percent muck, 30 percent sand and 10 percent gravel.

And it shares a large and diverse fish community with its big neighbor, Winnebago.

Walleye is the marquee species, but Poygan also has yellow perch, white bass, black crappie, lake sturgeon and freshwater drum.

In winter, the sturgeon and walleye populations in Poygan build as fish begin to migrate out of Winnebago for spawning runs up the Wolf River.

About 8 a.m. I had a strong strike on a jig and wax worms. The fish yielded reluctantly to pressure and circled beneath the hole, I saw it clearly - a nice walleye.

But as I attempted to guide its head up the 18-inch cylinder in the ice, the fish unbuttoned from my lure.

"It's always fun until someone loses an 'eye," Greene said.

A school of walleyes beneath the shack is the answer to many ice anglers' dreams. But on Poygan, a multi-species day is more typical.

We kept working the fish that we marked almost constantly on our flasher units.

We used jigging spoons, glide baits and simple jigs tipped with minnow parts or wax worms.

With the high-pressure system hanging over Wisconsin, we had the best action when we downsized our offerings.

I fished at times with as small as a 1/16-ounce jig and wax worm. A 14-inch walleye hit the tiny bait, as did yellow perch.

At 1 p.m. Settele lit a gas grill and we cooked cheese-filled brats. A hot lunch on the ice is one of the high pleasures of a Wisconsin winter.

The Winnebago system is one of the best studied fisheries in the state, thanks to its world-class lake sturgeon population, which brings revenue to the local Department of Natural Resources staff through sturgeon spearing licenses, and a long-running bottom trawl survey.

The results of the study shed light on the health of Poygan, too.

Conducted each year in late summer and fall, the trawls provide critical information on year-class strength of game and nongame fish species and monitors trends in critical forage species as well as larger fish.

The same 46 GPS waypoints on Lake Winnebago have been sampled annually since 1986 for the trawling study.

The standardized methods involve dragging a 27-foot-wide bottom trawl on the lake bed for 5 minutes at 4 mph, which equates to about a 1-acre sample area.

The 2017 data have not been published, but the 2016 results showed the system's fish community to be in good shape.

Of primary interest to many anglers, 2016 produced the seventh-largest year class of walleye on record. The Winnebago system is now fueled by four strong walleye year classes, including 2008, 2011 and 2013.

The 2013 walleyes are now from 16 to 19 inches in length and supplying very good fishing in the system, according to the DNR.

The 2016 trawl also showed a record high black crappie hatch, above average yellow perch hatch and strong production of trout-perch and gizzard shad, key forage species.

Recent catches by Settele on Poygan have been dominated by walleye, crappie and perch. The white bass fishing is expected to pick up in the coming weeks.

Settele, a U.S. Coast Guard licensed charter captain, likes to keep moving if the action slows. We used his pickup to drag the shanty to four locations over eight hours of fishing.

As we changed spots at 2 p.m., we spotted a large lump on the flat, brilliant white Poygan landscape. The mass lifted its head briefly, then went back to work. It was a snowy owl chewing on a frozen fish.

Each spot we tried had fish on it, but we returned toward the end of the day to a slight bottom transition in about 7 feet of water on the northwest portion of the lake.

The fish kept us busy until we decided to call it a day at 4 p.m. We released all but one walleye.

As we drove off the lake, the sky was still cloudless, the wind was still stiff out of the northwest and the mercury read 6.

It was time to put a jacket on for the ride home.

The Poygan ice had treated us well. And with a solid base, the lake is likely to do the same for thousands more anglers this year.

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