Fishing nightcrawlers on jig heads in Wisconsin is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you might catch.
Lake Winnebago, near Fond Du Lac, Wis., is loaded with big yellow perch, bluegill, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye, muskie and other species, including sheephead, a so-called lowlife fish that would not stay off my hook.
Sheephead fight great, however, and yet are not sought after by most anglers, or so I was told because the darn things kept eating my nightcrawler, no doubt in front of numerous trophy walleye.
John McArdle, my guide for the day, spent most of his life fishing this unique lake. He is noted for catching giant walleye and other desirable fish, not sheephead.
“Just cast your jig head with nightcrawler beside those weeds,” McArdle said. “This is where I catch a lot of walleye and yellow perch. You might even catch a big bluegill.”
But I caught another sheephead and had a good time fighting the stubborn fish that pulled like a runaway freight train! After releasing the trashy fighter, we moved to find the quality fish Lake Winnebago is noted for besides its size, history and shallow topography.
The bite was not at its best but we did manage to catch a couple of fine bluegill, rock bass, several largemouth bass and a beautiful war-mouth sunfish. Yet just boating on the historic Lake Winnebago for the first time was quite a treat.
According to Wikipedia, Lake Winnebago is a 137,700-acre freshwater lake in eastern Wisconsin and the state's largest lake. In fact, Winnebago is one of the largest inland lakes in the United States at 30 by 10 miles with 88 miles of shoreline, an average depth of 15.5 feet and a maximum depth of 21 feet. The shoreline is out of sight like the ocean if you look in the right directions.
The lake is a remnant of Glacial Lake Oshkosh that was formed approximately 12,000 years ago. In 1634, the French discovered the Winnebago Indian tribe on the shores of Green Bay, Wis., inhabiting the area stretching to Lake Winnebago.
Although "Ho-Chunk" is the people's own name for themselves, their Algonquian neighbors called them "Winnebago," which means "people of the filthy water". This term was used by the Algonquians because Lake Winnebago had a strong fish odor in the summer.
Lake Winnebago is known for having occasional ice shoves on very windy days in March as the winter ice breaks up. Residents say that it "sounds like a freight train." Buildings on the shore have been wrecked by the shoves, which are up to 25 feet high.
But Wisconsin is noted for another treat, fish fries. Every mom and pop restaurant has some form of fried fish on the menu, generally walleye or yellow perch. I ate my share of both and enjoyed every bite.
“Growing up in a smaller-sized town in Wisconsin, I became accustomed to Friday night battered delicacies, which were served in small wicker baskets,” McArdle said. “Perch, cod or whitefish, beer battered with a side order of American fries and cole slaw and homemade tartar sauce was the main draw on Friday nights. Taverns and (American) Legion halls alike served the traditional Friday night fish fry.”
Wisconsin has a strong representation of German Catholics who observe Lent and abstained from dining on meat on Fridays during a 40-day period preceding Easter. This practice turned into a social event during prohibition years. Taverns needed a way to attract people to their businesses and often gave free fish dinners or lunches on Friday.
“During this time, fish was easily obtained and was very inexpensive for taverns,” McArdle said. “The Germans came to this country with fried food techniques and technology and this became the preferred, easy way to rapidly prepare a lot of fish, thus the social fish fry was born.”
McArdle has a stainless steel table and a Stainless Steel Profry by Presto to create his own fish fries. He has become proficient at re-creating Wisconsin's historical fish fries.
“Good oil is the start to a great fish fry,” McArdle said. “Fish is one of those foods that you can prepare many ways, but frying works best for serving a group. Oil is one of the most important elements of the fish fry because there is nothing worse than a soggy piece of walleye or perch. My favorite oil for cooking is a blend of vegetable oil, peanut oil and sunflower oil, all natural. I like the oil because it withstands multiple fish fries. Cheaper oils seem to break down after one use and never give you that golden brown fillet color.”
Wisconsin fish batter is an interesting part of this great tradition. Everyone brings their own batter recipe. Many people use closely guarded batter recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.
“I hold close the adage, “less is more” when I fry fish,” McArdle said. “My preference is a lightly battered filet in an egg wash with Shore Lunch batter mix because they have an array of choices. The Internet is a great source for recipes.”
Fishing in Wisconsin is a treat. But the fish dinners are just as exciting and are one more reason why I plan to go back to Fond Du Lac soon!
For more information about fishing Lake Winnebago for trophy fish (and not sheephead), contact the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Ryan Koenigs 920-303-5450 or Kendall Kamke 920-424-7880. Check out Fond Du Lac for a great fish dinner and friendly people at 920-923-3010.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com