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Stories from the River

It’s Coming Soon, Early Ice Fishing

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Soon, it will be that time of year many of us in the Upper Midwest wait all spring, summer, and fall to arrive. What is this addictive outdoor activity that has grown adults risking their lives to be the first one to do it this winter? Ice fishing is the answer and they are already doing it in much of central and northern Wisconsin as I write this column. By the time you read this, most of Wisconsin will have ice that the diehards and serious anglers are going to be out fishing on.

I was hoping to be in Vilas and Oneida Counties this past week musky fishing which just closed the last day of November in Wisconsin. Muskie season is open  in southern Wisconsin till the end of December. Most of the small and medium size lakes up north are beginning to freeze over, but the larger lakes like Trout Lake in Vilas County, are still open, but their days are numbered. Legendary guide and lure manufacture, Russ Smith (maker of Smity Baits) called with the bad news that we wouldn’t be fishing the last few days of the season, as we try to do every year, because most of the lakes that we had planed to fish already had 1 to 2 inches of ice on them with people already ice fishing in the shallower bays.

Many ice anglers are so anxious to fish that they forget to use common sense in their zeal (or ego) to be the first one on the ice. The most important thing to remember when ice fishing is safety. As a rule, I wouldn’t venture out on any ice unless it was at least 3 or 4 inches thick. That’s 3 or 4, not 2 inches! We all know that fishing on the first ice can be the best ice fishing of the year for most species of fish, but no fish is worth doing something stupid, like risking your life for a fish.

Here are some safety guidelines worth following on early season ice.

  • As earlier said, make sure of 3 to 4 inches of good, solid ice before you consider going ice fishing.
  • Stay away from spring holes, warm water discharges, and feeder creeks and streams. These spots, are dangerous even later in the season because they never form good, solid ice.
  • Bring along a pair of ice picks (most good outdoor stores should have them) and wear them around your neck for quick use if the worse happens. If you’re unsure of the ice stay off it or wear a life jacket. Early in the ice fishing season, you will be in shallow water, which I consider less than 10 feet. The first few weeks of the season all species will be in water this shallow.
  • Fish with a partner .I never recommend going ice fishing alone this time of year. This also is not the time to bring children and dogs on the ice too.
  • Stay away from crowds and groups of anglers on the early ice. Too many people in a close proximity of each other is not a good idea early in the season. Staying away from others on thin ice can also improve your fishing because too many people cause unnecessary noise that can spook fish away from your area.. When fishing shallow water, it is of the utmost importance not to move around and make unnecessary
  • If there is a path out on the lake follow it because others have gone before you and blazed the trail.

The area around Madison, Wisconsin is full of good early lakes and sloughs that can freeze early and by early I mean the first or second week of December. The big lake, Mendota rarely freezes before Christmas and lately the mild winters have delayed that till January. One of the first places to fish in the general Madison area is the “Triangle”: area on Madison’s Isthmus. This is the area around Brittingham Park and Monona Bay and is good for both early crappies and bluegills though they can run small and require some sorting.

      Cherokee Marsh, part of the Yahara River, is good for early ice crappies and the occasional northern pike. It is located on the north side of Lake Mendota and is less than a mile from the lake. Lake Wingra, located inside the Madison city limits, is shallow and freezes early in December and has lots of bluegills. But, size is small to medium (5 to 7 inches) and you will have to again sort through the fish to get a meal

Warner Bay, on Lake Mendota, freezes earlier than the rest of the lake and there’s always anglers out there early in the season. Warner Park, across the street from Warner Bay has a lagoon that freezes early and has crappies abundant and bluegills.

Marshall Park, on Mendota’s west side, freezes weeks before the main lake and produces panfish of decent size. Spring Harbor, which is off Madison’s University Avenue, freezes about the same time Marshall Park does have some good bluegills and crappies which can be caught early and late in the season

If you head out Highway 12 north and west of Madison through Middleton and toward Sauk City you’ll come across three lakes that are shallow for the most part, freeze early in the season, and have fish though varied in size. The first, Indian Lake, is off Highway 19 and west a few miles off Highway 12. It is very shallow, but is aerated so there isn’t any winter kill. The lake is full of small bluegills and some decent 2 to 3 pound bass. Indian Lake is located in a Dane County Park and you won’t have much of a crowd since this is a little off the beaten path.

The other two lakes are about twenty miles from Madison out Highway 12 before Sauk City and close to the village of Roxbury. I’m talking about Fish and Crystal Lakes which both are full of panfish and Crystal Lake also has some nice yellow perch. Fish Lake has flooded timber and a good largemouth population which uses the wood and the summer’s milfoil for protection and cover. There also are bluegills that need to be sorted, but provide action.

There are backwaters on the Wisconsin River for early panfish action, but be sure to check the ice before fishing. All along the Wisconsin River and Highway 60 are Badger and Rainbow Sloughs which are always worth checking out for panfish and northern pike.

Above all, be safe because a few fish are not worth risking a life!

               Information; D and S Bait (608) 241-4225. McFarlanes True Value Hardware, Sauk City, Wi. (608)-643-3321.Toll Free (800)-627-8569..

   Guides; Wally Banfi (608) 644-9823, Ron Barefield (608)-838-8756 cell (608)-235-7685, and Lee Tauchen (608)-444-2180.



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