Evan Gregor: Less daylight, colder weather means open-water fishing season near end
If the shrinking daylight and hard frosts have not already made it clear, the 2020 open-water fishing season is nearing it's weather-imposed expiration date.
Angling opportunities are rapidly diminishing as ice begins to cover area lakes and ponds. Pretty soon, most local spots will be better fit for ice augers and tip-ups than long rods and lures. A striking blow indeed for those that don't ice fish.
As always around this time of year, most would be on board with finding a spot to store the fishing gear for the winter and hunkering down until the spring thaw. But you don't have to give in to normalcy -- it might not be a bad idea to keep that gear available.
While not always pleasant, open-water fishing in upper Midwest winters is possible. For those willing to bear tough conditions, there are rewards to be had. Unknown to many, species like walleye, musky and northern pike remain active in cold waters and are always a blast to catch. Even panfish and bass will make appearances during the freeze.
In order to increase your chances of finding open water, seek out dams and warm-water discharges.
Popular area dams include the McHenry Dam on the Fox River in McHenry and Dam No. 1 on the Des Plaines River in Wheeling. The most notable local warm-water discharge is on the southern end of Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village, downstream of the Main Dam where the South Pool dumps into Salt Creek.
Once you've located a suitable spot, consider the best times to get on the water. Winter fishing patterns are notoriously fickle, defined by long periods of inactivity and short bursts of defined, fervent feeding behavior. While it's a bit more challenging to pinpoint fish feeding windows at this time of year, the traditional sunrise and sunset windows are still good bets.
Just as an angler's approach changes from summer to fall, the adjustments that need to be made from fall to winter are substantial. Fishing with large-profile and aggressive baits might be the move during the autumn, but not the winter. In fact, it is almost the opposite.
These days, you want to focus on fishing smaller baits like grubs, plastic minnows and jigs in natural finishes, which are more effective in clearer and colder water. This is particularly effective when fishing for panfish, bass and walleye. Live minnows fished under a bobber or on a jig will also draw attention.
Many ardent pike and musky anglers view winter as one of the more productive times on the fishing calendar. If you're targeting these species, strongly consider throwing smaller than normal baits.
On the Des Plaines and Fox systems, stickbaits, jointed crankbaits, inline spinnerbaits and spoons are classic presentations. With lower water levels, focus on keeping your bait in the upper portions of the water column. A live shiner or sucker presented in slack water adjacent to current seams can also be effective. Be sure to be paying attention as bites and strikes may not be as vigorous or visually apparent.