Several years ago my hardwater fishing season kicked off on Rooney Lake, not far from Spooner. It was a good quarter-mile shuffle on slick, clear ice out to the weedbed where big bluegills often hang shortly after water morphs into its solid state.
Fishing on first ice is like visiting the casino: Don’t take anything with you that you aren’t prepared to lose. A couple of jig sticks and an ice scoop were the only contents in my bucket with the Strikemaster hand auger slung over my shoulder, considerably lighter than the Browning A-Bolt rifle that I’d been toting for the previous two days.
The deepwater weed edge was green, beautiful and easy to locate. It would be easy to see the bottom just 6 feet down in this clear water, so a stealthy approach would likely be a key to success.
I was mentally kicking myself for wearing that blaze orange parka. Ice-fishing wasn’t part of the initial plan on this trip. It was the tail end of the firearms deer season and I was supposed to be back at camp eating venison chili and admiring a massive buck hanging from the lodgepole.
Somewhere in the big woods fat wolves were probably laughing. Two feet under the Rooney Lake ice, bluegills were probably cowering in fear at the malevolent pumpkin squatting overhead.
Poking seven holes seemed like a good plan. It’s always a good idea to get the drilling done before fishing over shallow, clear water. Excessive noise spooks fish even more than towering orange shadows overhead.
Ice jigs on the two rods were too big and too gaudy for big bluegills in this situation. But the tiny black Ratso in my pocket tackle box should have a symphony of fins slapping on the ice in no time.
Unfortunately, the bulge in my parka pocket was a spare clip for the .270 instead of the tackle box. Hand-sized bluegills, which were all over beneath my battery of holes, were probably laughing like fat wolves at the gaudy jigs dancing in front of them.
Although it was a beautiful day for almost December in the North Country I felt more like a clueless outdoor writer than an alpha predator — and rightly so. My father’s frequent admonition, “If you don’t have it in your head, you’ve gotta have it in your feet” was a mantra whispering in my head all the way back to the truck. I trudged all the way back to retrieve the tackle box waiting on the center console and all the way out to those bluegills again.
Fishing was better the next day on Middle MacKenzie Lake, and even more productive several hours later on tiny Mystery Lake just down the road from Rooney. There is no official opening day for Wisconsin’s ice-fishing season. But the tail end of our traditional nine-day firearm deer season is almost a surefire benchmark that its time to break out the buckets in the North Country.
By the close of duck season, icemen will gather across central Wisconsin at places like Petenwell Flowage and Lake Puckaway. Ditches around Stoughton, the big flat on Lake Kegonsa at Barber’s Bay and north end of the Madison Chain at Cherokee Marsh will have walkable ice about the same time.
Lake Mendota usually freezes over between Christmas and New Year’s Day, with lake trout accessible through safe ice out on Big Green Lake about a week into the New Year.
The first 10 days offer some of the season’s best fishing under new ice. Deciding whether to head north or grind holes closer to home is driven by nature’s calendar, with traditional American benchmarks simply good reference points. If you’re still feasting on leftover Thanksgiving turkey, Washburn and Barron counties are great places to kick off the hardwater fishing season.
INDIANHEAD COUNTRY OPTIONS
A double-digit walleye that skulked away on Long Lake after spitting my hook has tortured me for years. If I’m anywhere within 75 miles of that Washburn County lake the first week in December, at least a few hours will be spent watching tip-downs near the narrowest part of the aptly named lake or along the weed edge of Gruenhagen Bay. Most fish will be 15 to 19 inches, but somewhere beneath the ice that fish of dreams still swims.
The Chetek Chain is known more for panfish than whopping big ’eyes. But setting a tip-up or tip-down is always a good idea when your primary focus is catching a mess of crappies and bluegills near the abundance of fish cribs here.
Dick Urbonya didn’t want to leave a hot cup of coffee when a flag popped up just off the dock at his lakeside home two years ago, delegating his son Kevin to investigate. The almost 33-inch-long walleye that now hangs on Dicky’s wall is a source of both torment and pride.
A mixed-bag of primarily perch and bluegills is also easy pickings off weed edges just up the road on 1,000-acre Rice Lake almost all winter long. Crappies typically hold in deeper water, suspending over cribs on the lake’s south end.
JUST SOUTH OF CANADA
The Pike Lake Chain in Bayfield County experiences less tourist traffic than Minocqua, Hayward or Eagle River during the summer months. That’s because of both remote location and difficulty in traveling between all the lakes in the chain by boat. Navigation is much easier when these small lakes ice over if you have access to a snowmobile.
This water holds some of the biggest crappies in Wisconsin. With Twin Bear and Busky Bay the best lakes to run-and-gun looking for trophy slabs. Guide Craig Putchat targets pockets between still-green weeds at first ice, working a Northland Puppet Minnow while watching for action on tip-downs baited with small shiners.
By mid-December these fish migrate to nearby deeper flats over 15 to 30 feet of water where they will spend most of the winter suspended just off the bottom. Putchat says electronics and a power auger are essential in pinpointing small schools of fish. One-pound-test fluorocarbon line and a little Macho Minnow spoon fished at least 5 feet above marks that indicate fish are keys to consistent success.
SHAWANO & NOQUEBAY
The city of Shawano doubles in size every winter as a major segment of this northeast Wisconsin community migrates to their winter houses on 6,000-acre Shawano Lake.
Euchre and pike fishing are a way of life here, with waiting tip-ups scattered across the ice over little pockets in the weedbeds. A 30-incher is a big fish on Shawano, but action on smaller fish is often so fast that you may have to carry cards out of the shack twice on a single hand.
Bluegills and crappies are abundant, but require focusing on fishing rather than multi-tasking with a friendly game and brandy-sipping competition. Cecil Bay is where you’ll find more “serious” anglers hole hopping after 9-inch ’gills and crappies more than a foot long. A pink Hexi-fly with red plastic tail is a great weapon for catching both fish.
Most card games that go on well into the night are in shacks close to humps and hard-bottom flats, with a No. 8 treble hook and small shiner replacing big hooks and pike bait. Shawano is home to some really, really big walleyes, which are most active at night.
Noquebay is also a multi-species lake, but trophy bluegills attract the most attention. This is extremely clear water, with weeds growing down to about 18 feet. Look for pivot points at the apex of inside weed edge turns with at least 15 feet of water and you’re in the hunt for big bulls. Fish much shallower and most fish will be dinks. Dawn and dusk are the best times to be on the ice.
Filling a 10-fish limit with whitefish is essentially a sure thing over deep water out from Sand Bay all winter long. Captain Bret Alexander has chasing these fish down to a science, taking clients to Larsen’s Reef for walleyes at dawn and dusk and filling those hours in between with continuous action on 2- to 3-pound whitefish.
Beach Harbor Resort is one of my favorite winter outposts, with productive tip-up locations mere yards from Jon Hanson’s memorable chili and outstanding fish dinners. This resort is on the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal that connects Green Bay with Lake Michigan. Perch, pike, walleyes and the occasional smallmouth bass are just a short hop away in either direction.
Guide Jesse Quale likes to see late-season mallards piling into a pair of small lakes he hunts not far from this largest Wisconsin River flowage. When the greenheads flock to these spring-fed lakes, he knows that Petenwell is finally frozen over and a potpourri of fish species will soon be coming through the ice.
Muskies and sturgeon measuring more than 4 feet long might find a hook intended for other species and must be carefully and immediately released. Walleyes between 20 and 28 inches must also go back down through the hole. You’re liable to encounter all three species, even when soaking a small minnow in pursuit of crappies.
Both black and white crappies are swimming in Petenwell, with dominant year-classes from both species well over 12 inches long. A combination of tip-downs and jig sticks with Buckshot Spoons and Puppet Minnows are great ways to hook up, but hooking a half-dozen species from the same hole is not unusual.
A couple of years ago, guide Justin Kohn and I tied into multiple catfish, crappies, white bass, walleyes, pike, a muskie and a big sturgeon Kohn nicknamed “the general” while fishing two holes just 10 feet apart.
Because this is a flowage, late ice can be treacherous. Kohn doesn’t fish Petenwell after mid-February, due to both safety concerns and the fact that he’s whackin’ the daylights out of lake trout on Big Green Lake.
BIG GREEN LAKE
This deepest inland lake in Wisconsin is one of the last places to freeze over every winter. When that happens shortly before Superbowl Sunday, look for a shanty over the main-lake basin that looks like it was designed by a giant, homeless wino.
The occupant likes to look out of side windows of the truck topper, which caps this 8-foot-tall tower, for action on tip-ups while intently pumping a large blue/chrome jigging Rapala to tempt suspended trout.
Nobody fishes harder or with more success than the man known locally as “The Legend” or “The Nephalim,” who is also renowned for his homemade pickles. An inland trout stamp is required to chase salmonids on Big Green Lake. Anyone intent on fishing within a quarter-mile of the truck topper shanty would be wise to check their life insurance coverage before walking on the ice.
These natural lakes in and around the state capital have been a winter fishing destination for decades. The shallower and more fertile lakes Waubesa and Kegonsa at the south end of the chain are generally the most productive for bluegills and crappies.
The main-lake basin of Lake Monona is probably the best place to find a mess of jumbo perch, although some would argue the slightly larger Lake Mendota has bigger fish. Both of those lakes have some whopping big pike, with Squaw Bay the most productive spot on Lake Monona and weed edges near Warner Park a great place to find a 40-incher on Lake Mendota.
The ice on and near Dunn’s Bar out from Governor’s Island on Mendota’s north side is a good place for a multi-species day, which might include panfish, pike, white bass and large channel catfish that often suspend in deeper water. Yes, winter catfishing can be great.
Picnic and Second points attract both big pike and walleyes at dusk and after dark on this lake, with the best fishing around New Year’s Day when Mendota usually ices over entirely.
THE MIGHTY MISS
Backwaters of pools 8, 9 and 10 and Lake Onalaska, north of LaCrosse, are popular ice-fishing destinations all winter long. Smaller, more protected backwaters like Green Lake near DeSoto typically freeze in early December, offering nearly sure-thing action for a mixed bag of panfish until about Christmas.
DeSoto Bay, just to the south, is popular for perch anglers later in the year. The 10-feet-deep slough also holds good numbers of crappies, bluegills and the occasional pike.
Ice just north and directly west of Stoddard on Pool 8 is probably the easiest place to ice a mess of panfish, other than Lake Onalaska. Fishing was consistently productive on Onalaska for the entire ice season last year.
Ambro Slough and adjoining backwaters called Big and Little Missouri are popular on Pool 10 north of Prairie du Chien, with backwaters to the south of this city, known locally as River of Lakes, also productive water to fish.
Reciprocity agreements with Minnesota and Iowa allow for fishing ice east of the railroad tracks, which parallel both river banks, with a valid Wisconsin license.
Last winter, most safe ice was gone along the Mississippi by mid-March. In 2010, bucketeers were still venturing out on April Fool’s Day. Every winter has a different personality, which won’t be totally revealed until it’s time to break out the long rods again. In the meantime, get out there and have some fun on the Wisconsin ice!