by: Max Wolter
Many anglers skip out on the late open-water season in favor of hunting or warm afternoons on the couch watching Packer games. That pause in fishing can create even greater anticipation for the beginning of ice fishing season, which can be one of the best times of the entire year to fish. I would define the “early ice” season as the period from first ice cover (often late November or early December in the Hayward area) to mid-January. During this period, anglers tend to find fish to be active and somewhat more predictable than later in winter. Aquatic plants are generally still alive and green, producing oxygen and holding food for various species. It is in those weedy areas in 5-15 feet of water that you can reliably find northern pike and bluegill. Crappies like weeds in early winter too, as most have not yet made the transition to open basins where they can be found in the late winter months. Wisconsin allows three lines per angler, making two tip ups and a jigging pole the ultimate arrangement for early ice action.
Walleye fishing can also be good in the early ice period, in fact, it’s when some of the biggest walleye of the whole year are caught. Traditional walleye structure will produce during early ice, but don’t be afraid to go shallow too. Some very large walleye can be caught at the mouths of shallow weedy bays using tip ups near dark.
Safety has to be a top concern for all recreating on the ice in early winter (and really, throughout the whole winter). Ask local bait shops or resorts for ice reports when planning a trip and use spud bars or drill a test hole near shore to test ice when you arrive. Once you have determined that ice is safe, however, you’ll find one of the other great advantages of the early ice season: smooth sailing for foot travel. The early ice season is often characterized by safe ice for walking (not driving yet!) but very little snowpack on top. Under ideal conditions, walking a mile or two across a lake to find spots is as easy as a walk in the park. Great walking conditions are also an equalizer for any anglers that don’t have a boat and spend the summer fishing from shore and looking out at all the spots they can’t reach. In winter, you can get almost anywhere. These conditions lend themselves to fishing with small kids, whose shorter legs might struggle to make it through the deep snow pack of late winter (but check, double check, and maybe triple check that ice safety before bringing kids out).
Winter can be long, but it doesn’t have to be boring, especially if you can start things off with some great memories and maybe a fish fry.