Experience the fun of fishing Wisconsin’s “hard water” season
For approximately one third of the year, Wisconsin’s lakes are covered in ice. While some might view this as an impediment to fishing, Wisconsinites see this as an opportunity to enjoy some of the best fishing of the year.
Ice fishing has a number of advantages. You don’t need a boat to ice fish—the ice allows anglers to reach any almost point on a given body of water. The solid ice serves as a totally stable fishing platform, enabling anglers to present their baits to the fish with pinpoint accuracy and the utmost care. And, compared to fishing from a boat, the equipment needed for ice fishing is relatively inexpensive.
Step 1: Gather Your Equipment
The only items an ice angler needs for a successful trip are a hand auger (a large device for drilling holes in the ice), a couple of rigged-up ice fishing roads, a handful of ice fishing jigs, warm clothes, and a bucket to carry the gear (and to sit on). For your first outing, bring lures for panfish, which are both plentiful and relatively easy to catch. A few dozen waxworms or spikes from the bait shop will round out the packing list.
Be warned. You will probably see anglers out on the ice riding snowmobiles and ATVS pulling trailers of gear and portable shelters. All that equipment is helpful, but not essential. Your simple gear is more than adequate for catching fish. Besides, simplicity has its rewards, including mobility, which is important if you want to consistently catch fish through the ice.
Step 2: Find a Lake
After you’ve assembled your equipment, the next task is to find yourself a lake. That shouldn’t be hard. In Wisconsin, there are thousands of lakes, nearly all of which contain panfish, northern pike or walleye. Once you’ve chosen which lake you’d like to fish, you should try to get your hands on a map of the lake. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a lakes database that includes maps of many of Wisconsin’s named lakes.
Using the map, identify potential fishing spots—where shallow water breaks to deeper water, underwater humps, rock piles and manmade fish cribs. Print a copy of this map and bring it with you on the ice, using it to select places where you want to try fishing.
Step 3: Get Out On the Ice
When it comes to ice, always err on the side of caution. You might see anglers venturing out onto ice that’s only two to three inches thick, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. For ice fishing on foot, four inches is the absolute minimum for a novice ice fisherman. Six inches is ideal.
Once out on the ice, head to the first spot you’ve selected. As you travel across the ice, move slowly and quietly. When you’ve reached your spot, it’s time to use that hand auger and drill your hole.
The key to using a hand auger is putting steady downward pressure on the auger and turning it with smooth strokes. Do not strain or try wrestling with the auger—you’ll only exhaust yourself and the hole will take twice as long to drill. Once you’ve made your hole, grab your fishing pole, flip your bucket over to make a seat and sit yourself down. It’s time to fish!
Step 4: Start Jigging
When you’re fishing for panfish, it’s crucial that you get your bait down to the right depth. Before you put a line in the water, check your depth using a lead weight or other heavy metal object tied to a length of fishing line. Then, use this measurement to set the depth of your bait. You want your bait to hang just a foot or two off the bottom.
Once you’ve gotten your hook baited, use a bobber, plastic bead or other method to mark how far down your bait has gone. Try jigging your bait at a particular depth for five minutes. If you get no bites, adjust the bait up or down and start jigging again. Do this until you get a bite or catch a fish.
Step 5: Be Mobile
Crappie, bluegill and perch all travel in schools. Your goal is to find a school of active fish. If you’re not getting any bites in a certain location or if the fish have suddenly stopped biting, it’s time to move.
Moving around also keeps you from getting cold—there’s nothing like drilling a new hole in the ice to get the body warm. Being mobile also gives you a chance to learn more about a lake. You might be fishing for crappie in the shallows and never realize there are bluegills feeding in deeper water just a few yards away. Moving around helps you discover more about the lake you are fishing.
Step 6: Keep Learning
Ice fishing is about learning. When you catch a fish, make note of what bait you are using and how deep you are fishing. Was the bait just inches from the bottom? Or, was the bait suspended high up in the water column? If you’re paying attention to these details, you’ll quickly learn how to catch more fish.
Once you’ve pulled a few fish through the ice, you’ll be hooked on ice fishing. There’s no better way to spend a winter day than pulling plump panfish through the ice. Now, go out there and drill some holes!
Looking for a great ice fishing destination? Here are twelve Wisconsin destinations offering great fishing, numerous lodging options and everything you need for a successful ice fishing getaway.