Early Ice Fishing for Wisconsin Panfish
Wisconsin residents have two great loves in the winter, one is watching the Green Bay Packers play football and the other passion is ice fishing. People from state’s farther south don’t understand why Wisconsinites love to go out in winter’s cold and pursue bluegills, crappies, and perch. But, you have to do it to fall in “love” with it! The last decade has seen significant climate change and the first day of fishable ice has been later and later every year and the total number of ice fishing days has steadily been diminishing. Now, the southern half of the state has had weather above normal with little snow. This means that ice fishermen in the southern half of the state are “chomping at the bit” to get out on the ice and fish. I just received an update from the Weather Channel and they are predicting possible heavy snow Wednesday or Thursday followed by colder weather which should start lakes freezing over and hopefully allow people to get out and begin ice fishing.
Safety is the key when fishing the first ice of the year. The future weather forecast finally looks good for the next week or so and it looks like we’ll finally be making ice. There always has been an ego thing about being the first person ice fishing, but use good judgment because no fish is ever worth going through the ice for. Here are my important tips and suggestions for going out on first ice; 1) Make sure that there is at least 3 to 4 inches of good ice where you plan to fish. 2) Stay away from spring holes, feeder creeks, and warm water discharges. These are always extremely dangerous locations all winter long! 3) Bring along a pair of ice picks in case you go through the ice. They can help you pull yourself out if the worst should happen. It’s also not a bad idea to wear a life jacket if you’re not sure of the thickness of the ice. But, my advice is if you are not sure of the ice, don’t risk going on it. All of the locations that I’m suggesting are for shallow water fish. The first few weeks of the season, you’ll find all fish species in water less than 10 feet deep. Perch are the exception and this column doesn’t apply to fishing deep water perch or walleye. 4) Don’t fish alone. Try to always go fishing with a “buddy” this time of the year. It’s also not the time of the year to bring your children and dogs on the ice for safety reasons. 5) Stay away from crowds and large concentrations of anglers because this can improve your fishing because too many anglers in shallow water make too much noise. When fishing shallow, try to be as stealth as possible because you don’t want to spook the fish. 6) If there is a path left by other fishermen try and stay on it because other anglers have “blazed” a safe trail for you to follow.
Lastly, I’m going to give you some of the best early season “hotspots” that I know and fish myself in southern Wisconsin. In the Madison area, the “Triangle” around Brittingham Park and Monona Bay are good producers of both bluegills and crappies. Later in the season, you’ll have to sort through your fish for “keepers”, but early ice usually gives the fisherman the biggest panfish of the year. Lake Monona’s bays are a good place to begin your fishing. Another of the Madison Chain of Lakes, Lake Wingra, is small and shallow and has a good population of small to medium bluegills. This is always a good lake to take the children to because they will catch fish! Lake Waubesa is a good early producer for panfish and particularly good for pike on tip-ups. Lake Kegonsa is full of springs, so I’d wait a few more weeks after first ice to fish it. Big Lake Mendota will be the last lake in the “Chain” to freeze, so keep those perch rods and ATV’s on dry ground for a few more weeks. Lake Mendota rarely freezes over till Christmas or later. But, there are some small bays and lagoons off Lake Mendota that freeze early and provide some great early season panfishing. These locations are; 1) Marshall Park on the west-end of Lake Mendota is one of the lakes best early season spots and since it is small it freezes early. 2) Warner Bay and the Warner Park lagoons on the north-east end of Lake Mendota attract panfish on early ice. 3) The Cherokee Marsh, just north of Mendota, freezes early and crappies, bluegills, and a few walleyes are caught the first few weeks of ice. Try jigging for panfish and set out a couple of tip-ups for walleyes and pike.
If you drive north of Madison on Highway 12, turn left on Highway 19 and take it to Indian Lake which is just a few miles down Highway 19. Again, you’ll have to sort through the smaller bluegills for a meal, but the action can be fast and steady. This is another good location to take the kids to and get them hooked on fishing. The size of the fish is not as important to children as is the action. If you catch fish regularly, the children will be “hooked.”
A few miles past Indian Lake is Highway Y which will take you to Fish and Crystal Lakes which are a few miles outside of Sauk City. Crystal Lake has largemouth bass, perch, crappies, and bluegills many of which are of keeper size. Use tip-ups for the bass. Fish Lake has about the same fishery plus some northern pike and muskies. Be sure to let the muskies go because their season will be closed at the end of December. The pike season is still open all winter. Both of these waters are good, especially during the first month of the season.
The sloughs of the Lower Wisconsin River between Sauk City and Spring Green freeze early, but the water is low. Many of the river sloughs need rain or snow before freeze up, so keep your fingers crossed. Most of these locations have moving water, so be extra careful when fishing these areas. Helena, Jones, Rainbow, and Badger Sloughs will all freeze early with some cold single didget temperatures. All these sloughs have good numbers of panfish and pike with a connection to the Wisconsin River.
The other early waters that I’d suggest include; White Mound Lake near Plain, Devils Lake south of Baraboo, and Gallus Slough, just north of Lake Wisconsin. These fisheries are all good for ice fishing with a variety of fish. Devil’s Lake has panfish, pike, and the most caught species is the brown trout that can be caught jigging or on tip-ups. I’ve seen pike up to 20 pounds caught in Devil’s Lake. Gallus Slough is a bluegill factory connecting to Lake Wisconsin with fish active most of the ice season.
In closing, the most important thing to look for when ice fishing is green weeds because they are a fish magnet during the winter and attract baitfish and all fish species! You’re going to be fishing shallow water, so being quiet is of utmost importance. Dress warm, fish with a friend or two, and always be safe.
Contacts; D and S Bait and Tackle, Madison, Wisconsin, (608)-241-4225.
Wilderness Fish and Game, Sauk City, Wisconsin, (608)-643-2433