MADISON – Ice auger? Check. Tip ups? Check. Ice? There’s the rub.
The calendar says “December,” the snow is starting to fall, but ice is still in short supply in Wisconsin.
The 2009-2010 winter seems to be following the trends that UW-Madison researchers have identified in Wisconsin’s climate over the past five decades, among them, lakes freezing later. That’s because over the past half-century, scientist says, Wisconsin is a warmer place, with the exception of northeastern Wisconsin, with the greatest warming during winter/spring and nighttime temperatures increasing more than daytime temperatures. That’s led to later and shorter ice cover, lengthening growing seasons, and an earlier arrival of spring, according to a presentation (exit DNR; pdf) given to the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (exit DNR).
Before heading out on any ice, it is always best to contact local sport shops to ask about ice conditions on the lake or river you want to fish.
5 steps to early ice fishing success
But the ice is coming, and in the meantime, it’s the perfect time for anglers to take the first step that avid ice angler and DNR fish supervisor Terry Margenau says is one key to great ice fishing.
“Tool up,” he says. “Some ice anglers may be like me and stash the tip-ups and jigs poles after the last outing in February or March without a thought until first ice the following December. Then suddenly, you find yourself ready to go and surprise, after sitting around all summer some grease has dripped out of the tip-ups, the lines are in a snarl, leaders need replacement, and hooks are a little rusty. Similar to any trip, fishing or otherwise, it’s a great asset if you can take a little time BEFORE that first trip to get organized.”
He’s learned a few things over his long fishing career – he ice fishes 20 to 40 days a winter – he’s also gained insights working since 1983 as first a DNR fisheries researcher, and now a fisheries supervisor.
Here are Margenau’s four other top tips to assure tip-ups during early ice:
- Creepers. Don’t leave home without them. Early season ice can be smooth and slick, especially with a dusting of powder snow on top. These metal cleats and traction devices attached to boots help avoid slips and falls. Not sure about everyone else, but I don’t bounce quite as well as I used to.
- Travel light and be mobile. One of the nice things about early season ice is that the ice isn’t that thick yet. No need to drag that power auger along until at least 6 inches of ice has formed. A hand auger or ice spud can carve out a nice hole in a minute. Because you can open a hole much quicker than during late season, you can have more freedom to move around into different areas to find fish.
- Think shallow. Inland predators like walleye are often found in shallow water during the early season. Why? That’s where the food is. Learn more about fish biology and feeding habits during winter the article Life Under the Ice in the December 2009 issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.
- Split the difference. Many anglers, when setting tip-ups, place their bait a certain distance off the bottom. For example, say water depth is 12 feet. Find bottom and set your bait one or two feet off bottom. If you are fishing in vegetation, my general rule is to think in halves. Twelve feet of water –put your bait at six feet. This serves two purposes. First, vegetation is still occupying a fair portion of the water column at early ice. If you place your bait too close to the bottom, there is a good chance it’s in the vegetation. No sight – no bite. Second, predators like northern pike cruise the water column. Even if they are near the bottom they can find prey above them. The opposite is less likely to be true.
- Wisconsin has 1.4 million licensed anglers, and about one-third that number report they ice fish.
- Ice fishing trails only sledding, snowmobiling and ice skating outdoors as the most popular of outdoor winter activities.
- Ice anglers catch 14 million fish during the ice fishing season.
- Nearly half of all fish caught during ice fishing season are kept, compared to about one-third during the open water season.
- Panfish, northern pike and walleye, are the top species caught, in order, with 11.7 million, 866,000, and 750,000, respectively.
Online ice fishing resource
Find more ice fishing tips and techniques, links to fishing reports, lists of places to take kids fishing and tips for ensuring they have a good time on the Ice Fishing in Wisconsin Web pages. Also learn safety precautions to ensure you return home safely from your outing, and VHS rules to make sure you keep fishing strong for now and future generations.