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? It’s ice fishing and usually by now anglers are fishing the local lakes for panfish and game fish. But “El Nino” or something has the weather unusually warm. There still isn’t any ice in northern Wisconsin and even northern Minnesota! But, the extended forecast calls for colder weather which hopefully will bring some extended cold weather and allow ice anglers to start fishing.
Many ice anglers are so anxious to get on the ice and fish that they forget to use their 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. Use your head the first few times on the early ice till you’re positive that the ice is safe. 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 inches, not 2 inches! We all know that fishing on the first ice of the season can be the best of the year for most species of fish, but no fish is worth doing something stupid, like risking your life to be the first ice angler fishing.
Here are some safety guidelines worth following on early season ice.
1) As earlier said, make sure of 3 to 4 inches of good, solid ice before you consider going fishing. I usually wait for 5 inches to be sure things are safe.
2) Stay away from spring holes, warm water discharges, and feeder creeks and streams. These locations are dangerous even later in the season because they never form good, solid ice.
3) 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 should happen. If you’re unsure of the ice stay off it and wearing a life jacket is never a bad idea. 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 fish species will be in water this shallow.
4) 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.
5) Stay away from crowds and groups of anglers on the early ice. Too many people in a close proximity of each other is never a good idea. Staying away from others on thin ice can also improve your fishing because too many people cause unnecessary noise that can spook fish. When fishing shallow water, it is of the utmost importance not to move around and make noise. Noise spooks fish period!
6) 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 is full of good early lakes and sloughs that can freeze early and by early I mean the first or second week of December. But, this will not be the case this year. The big lake, 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 for a good meal.
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 usually 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 and bluegills too.
Marshall Park, on Mendota’s west side, freezes weeks before the main lake and produces panfish in decent size. Spring Harbor, which is off Madison’s University Avenue, freezes about the same time Marshall Park does and good bluegills and crappies can be caught early 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 just 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 “big” village of Roxbury. I’m talking about Fish and Crystal Lakes which both are full of panfish and Crystal Lake also has some nice 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 them out before fishing. All along the Wisconsin River and Highway 60 are some river sloughs like Badger and Rainbow Sloughs which are always worth fishing.
Above all, be safe because a few fish are not worth risking your life!