Cold weather kicks off WI Ice fishing season

Cold weekend weather helped firm up ice in many parts of
Wisconsin to kick off what is often some of the best fishing of the
hard water season, state fish biologists say.

“Early ice fishing can be some of the best fishing for walleye,
bigger game fish, for a lot of species,” says Steve Avelallemant,
fisheries supervisor for northern Wisconsin. “Especially on those
lakes that are shallow and weedy. The fish seem to be accessible
and biting more early in the hard water season. Any time before

Fishing pressure nearly triples in December in Wisconsin after
lakes freeze over, based on results from a 2006-7 statewide mail
survey of anglers. Fully one-third of the state’s 1.4 million
licensed anglers reported ice fishing, and they spent about
1,589,000 hours in December alone, up from 624,000 hours in
November of that year, according to Brian Weigel, the DNR fisheries
researcher who analyzed the survey results.

Across the entire ice fishing season, anglers caught 14 million
fish in the survey year and released more than half of them during
the survey year.

Avelallemant advises that ice anglers who want to maximize their
chances of catching fish go to a lake with a good northern pike
population. “Northern pike, when you look at their distribution
worldwide, you’ll find them all the way up into the Arctic Circle.
They prefer cold water. Pike tend to get cranked up when it gets

He advises that anglers check in with local bait shops to find
out what the walleye are hitting on, and fish that. “A pike will
take whatever you throw down,” he says.

How to fish for panfish, pike and walleye

Panfish, northern pike and walleye are most frequently caught in
the winter, with 11.7 million, 866,000, and 750,000, respectively,
based on the mail survey results. Four northern Wisconsin fish
biologists who are avid ice fishermen share their secrets for
success in targeting the big three:


“Panfish are creatures of habit and habitat. They tend to be in the
same general areas every winter. Don’t waste a lot of time looking
for that secret honey hole away from the crowds. You’re probably
just moving away from the fish. Instead, getting out there at the
crack of dawn may put you on a hot bite before ever-increasing
crowd activity puts the fish off. Most any tackle works when
panfish are in a biting mood but most of time they will be in a
neutral or negative mood. Light tackle is a big advantage to tease
out a bite from reluctant fish. Quality 2- or 3-pound test mono
with a limber rod to absorb any sudden shocks will handle most
panfish situations. The line should stay soft and supple in the
cold. If your tear drop can’t pull the kinks out you’re not even
going to detect bites that could have been a fish in the bucket.
Bobbers are still popular bite detectors but the smallest one
possible that barely holds the bait up is best. Even then bites
won’t always take the bobber down. It takes some experience to
learn when to set a hook on a bobber wiggle. Wire or spring steel
bite detectors on the end of the rod are the most sensitive. They
also let you detect bites while you raise or lower your bait.
Slowly pulling your bait up and away from a fish you spot on your
fish finder often triggers a strike. On good bite days, fish are
actively milling around and you can sit in one spot and wait for
the fish. On slow days, the fish are pretty stationary. If you drop
a bait right down on a resting school you’ll often get one or two
to bite right away and then nothing bites even if you can still see
fish on your finder. Since fish aren’t moving, you have to move
from hole to hole picking up a few here and there for a meal.” –
Larry Damman, fisheries biologist, Spooner

Northern pike

“When pike are active during early ice there is really no best
time to fish. That’s one of the reasons pike are so popular during
winter – morning, mid-day, or afternoon can all be excellent times
to catch pike. My advice? Keep it simple. Don’t out-think your
opponent. Pike are low on the evolutionary scale and supposedly
have a brain that is 1/1305 of its body weight (Becker 1983). No
need to get too fancy. Also, 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 you bait based on x feet from 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.” – Terry Margenau, fisheries
supervisor, Spooner.


Our surveys show that this is the best time all winter to put a
walleye on the ice. Caution should be used at this time of year as
ice thickness can very greatly even on the same body of water.

Walleye will be on the feed during this time period and
frequenting the same places they were looking for a meal in late
summer and fall. Deep weed flats and outside edges are the key
sites to look for. Once ice and snow are on a lake finding these
sites on your favorite lake may be difficult. Open water scouting
and a GPS make finding these spots much easier and saves a lot of
hole drilling. Walk softly on the ice and set up and wait away from
your tip ups. Too much commotion on only a few inches of clear ice
will spook fish.

Most anglers use tip ups, though jigging can also be very
effective, baited with small sucker or medium golden shiners. Set
some tip ups with each because on some lakes walleye sometimes show
a preference for one over the other. Use light monofilament or
fluorocarbon leaders (6- to 10-pound test) that are 2-plus feet
long. Also try to use smaller sharp #10 or #8 (even #12) treble
hooks because this makes the bait look more natural.” – Steve
Gilbert, fisheries biologist, Woodruff.

“My trick for walleye fishing . . . . just go fishing a lot!
Actually, the key for me is that I mostly fish at prime time (the
hour before dark), and I concentrate on break lines and substrate
edges in 8 feet to 12 feet of water. As for bait, I mostly use
medium-size suckers and fish them 4 inches to 6 inches off the
bottom with my tip-ups.” Skip Sommerfeldt, fisheries biologist,
Park Falls.

Check out his predictions for ice fishing in 2010-11 and the
daily diary Skip Sommerfeldt kept last hard water season, when he
fished 68 days in a row. And learn how to make ice fishing fun for
kids and the adults who bring them.

Take steps to prevent going through the ice

Early ice can also be treacherous ice, so it’s important to take
a few basic safety precautions, warns DNR Recreation Safety Chief
Todd Schaller.

“Check in with local bait shops so you know ice conditions
before you go,” Schaller says. “Tell someone where you’re going and
when you’ll be back, and then go prepared with some basic equipment
to help yourself or others should something happen, like wearing a
float coat or carrying picks and a rope.”

Follow rules to prevent spreading fish

Ice anglers eager to start the hard water season are reminded to
take steps to prevent spreading VHS and other fish diseases and
aquatic invasive species.

Viral hemorrhagic septicemia, a virus that can infect several
dozen fish species and cause them to bleed to death, was confirmed
in 2010 in fish from Lake Superior. The disease has now been
confirmed in all of the Great Lakes.

Avelallemant credits anglers for helping contain the disease —
it has not been detected in new inland waters since it was
confirmed in the Lake Winnebago system in 2007 — and says that the
VHS prevention steps are helping keep Wisconsin fish healthy from
other invasive diseases and species.

“Our lakes are under constant threat from invasive species.
There’s over 200 invasive species in the Great Lakes alone,” he
says. “The same tactics for preventing VHS will also help prevent
the next one.”

They are:

Follow bait rules. Buy bait from Wisconsin bait dealers. If you
take minnows home after a day fishing and you’ve added lake water
or fish to their container, you can return with them only to that
same waterbody the next day.

Preserve bait correctly if you catch your own. If you use smelt or
other dead bait, preserve it in a way that does not require
freezing or refrigeration. Watch the video Preserving Your Bait
[VIDEO Length 2:48] for more information.

Don’t move live fish away from the water. Keep the fish you catch
and want to take home on the ice until you leave at the end of the
day, or carry them away in a dry bucket.

Drain all water from your equipment. That includes all buckets and
containers of fish. When you’re leaving the ice, you may carry up
to 2 gallons of water in which to keep your minnows.

Following these rules will protect Wisconsin lakes and rivers and
anglers’ pocketbooks: a citation for carrying live fish away from a
water runs $343.50, while the penalty for failing to drain the
water from fishing equipment is $243.

Wisconsin Ice Fishing Fast Facts

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.

Anglers spent 11 million hours ice fishing in 2006, the most recent
year for which statistics are available. That’s 21 percent of the
total 52 million hours spent fishing across all of the 2006-7
license year.

Anglers reported catching 14 million fish while ice fishing, and
keeping 6.6 million of them, or less than half. During the open
water season, about one-third of all fish caught are kept.

Panfish, northern pike and walleye, are the top species caught, in
order, with 11.7 million, 866,000, and 750,000, respectively.


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