An early January thaw and rain in the forecast for this week has conservation wardens cautioning people about thin ice and potentially dangerous conditions on lakes throughout the state. There have been a number of reports this week of vehicles and ice anglers going through the ice at various locations.
With no new snow since the late December snowstorm, snow levels have dropped statewide, and most counties have now closed snowmobile trails, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism’s Snow Conditions Report (exit DNR). Trails remain open in the most northern tier of counties but are in poor to fair condition. Cross-country ski trails were faring better as of Thursday, but rain in the forecast Thursday night could change that. Lake Kegonsa State Park in Dane County had cancelled a candlelight ski scheduled for Saturday night, but candlelight events at Kohler-Andrea and Wildcat Mountain state parks and the Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest were still scheduled. People interested in attending these events should contact the properties directly on Saturday to confirm if they will be held.
In the cold snap before the recent warm-up, ice had been forming on Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay with some people beginning to drive vehicles out, but extreme caution is needed as an ATV went through a pressure ridge with the operator getting out after a cold and wet wake up call. Ice was also forming on Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, but there was still open water off Oconto. Ice conditions along Door County are extremely poor at best, with ice only present on a sheltered bays. Several anglers had to be rescued this week when a section of ice they were fishing on near the southern end of Door County broke off and began floating away with the anglers still on it.
Inland, lakes in the Northwoods have ice depths up to 9 to 10 inches, with only about 2 to 3 inches of snow on top. Some undisturbed areas of the lakes may still only have 6 to 7 inches of ice and not enough to support larger vehicles.
Despite nice fishing weather, walleye action has continued a generally erratic trend into the new year. Northern pike success has been fair to good. Panfish action has been sporadic, with a few nice catches of crappie, bluegill and perch reported but anglers have had to move around quite a bit to find the active fish.
In the south, ice conditions vary greatly, with some larger lakes like Mendota still having open water, to smaller lakes having ice ranging up to 4 to 6 inches, but still highly variable. Anglers have been having some decent success in the south for panfish, and open water anglers have been fishing walleye and sauger below the Prairie du Sac dam.
While the warm-up is not favorable for human winter recreation, wildlife have been be enjoying the weather. Deer are somewhat grouped up and have been able to paw through the snow, or use exposed south-facing slopes. Raccoons have ventured out of their dens for a stretch and a snack. Squirrels are also out of their nests looking for a bite to eat. Otters have been running and sliding on the ice in the backwaters. Muskrat and beaver trappers were pretty active until the ice got too thick to easily chop through.
Bald eagles have begun to congregate along open water stretches of the Wisconsin, Baraboo, Fox, and Mississippi rivers. Visitors to backyard feeders have included juncos, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, goldfinches, cardinals, blue jays and red-bellied, downy and hairy woodpeckers. It's been a good season for varied thrushes in Wisconsin so far with no fewer than 10 reported. A female northern shrike first banded in March 2006 has returned to its winter territory near Ashland for at least an eighth consecutive year, making her at least 8.5 years old and by far the oldest northern shrike ever known in North America.