Stoddard – Panfish Magnet

By Judy Nugent - November 1, 2006
One drive through the Mississippi River town of Stoddard, and you'll know if fish are biting. In the spring, trucks parked up and down the road mean walleye. But in late December the traffic means hot bluegill action. Squeeze into the first parking spot you find and get ready to fish. Stoddard's habitat work has become a magnet for fish and fishermen alike.

Most Mississippi backwaters are well known for good ice action, but the area around Stoddard has experienced a transformation thanks to new habitat work. Eight years ago Stoddard Bay was a vast body of deep water. There was little to no structure and very few weeds. High water levels from the dam had eroded away rock bars and filled in back bays. Fishing was tough at best. Thanks to the Army Corp of Engineers, new islands were constructed in 1999 backwaters were dredged to create new habitat for fish and wildlife. Now there are schools of panfish enjoying new weed beds, shallow bays, and a refuge from the strong currents of the main river. And one of the best times to go after these bluegills is the first two weeks of safe ice.

At first ice the fish are in the shallows and ripe for the taking. Try and find an area that is between 5 to 7 feet deep. I find the best tactic is too start 20 yards away from one of the new islands. Drill a hole and take a depth measurement. Then go 20 yards and try again. Once you find the right depth, make a few holes and start fishing. If after a half an hour you haven't caught anything, switch to another hole or another color of jig.

At time there can be around 100 shanties on the ice. Luckily there are enough fish to go around and they don't seem to be spooked by the commotion on top. I think that is because the murky river water makes visibility hard. They might hear the noise, but they don't see the shadows.

Fine, but with murky water, how can they see your jig? Somehow they do it. Ironically, I've found that the best approach is a black ice jig tipped with a wax worm. This simple, natural color best imitates a food source they are used to, and the wax worm adds that hint of scent that brings in the bluegills. When natural colors aren't working, I have had luck with the new glow jigs. White, chartreuse, and pink can cut through the turbid water and help fish locate you offering. Bait can be bought at the gas station in town, but when the action is hot they can sell out in a hurry. You might want to bring your own bait just in case.

I use 4lb line and slowly move the jig up and down the water column stopping about a foot off the bottom. Almost all of the fish hit the jig on the slow drop. Last year it was rare that I caught a fish while it sat still underneath the bobber. When you feel a hit, set the hook. The water is too dark to see if the fish has the hook in its mouth, so you have to trust your "feel." While I fish primarily for bluegills, there are perch and crappie in the area, so you never know what you might find on the other end of the line.

Another suggestion is a portable ice hut. I find these to be a quick and easy way to get your gear onto the ice and to protect you from the north wind. Because of the parking headache, you'll have to carry your gear further than normal and there is a steep drop off from the parking lot to the launch. A shanty that doubles as a sled can be your best friend.

As always, make sure the ice is safe. Stoddard Bay is still part of the Mississippi River and subject to currents. Use a spud or other fishermen as a guide and make wise choices.

If a wilderness fishing experience is what you're looking for, Stoddard isn't it. Stoddard is a place of shanty towns, crowded parking lots, and the occasional snowmobile. Luckily, the fish don't seem to mind. If you can handle the crowds, the pay off is a bucket of slab bluegills. Your best bet it to get there the first two weeks of safe ice. After you have a few meals of bluegills in the freezer, you can spend the rest of the winter looking for that wilderness experience.

Author Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent has been writing for several years. Her work can be found in Wisconsin Outdoor News, Wisconsin Outdoor Journal, Wisconsin Sportsman, Midwest Outdoors, Fly Fisherman Magazine and Snowshoe Magazine among others. She is also on the TV show OUTDOOR WISCONSIN. Judy has experience in radio with the show Great American Outdoor Trails where she does a weekly segment called Women on the Trail.