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Gary Engberg: Be careful when deciding to go fishing on first ice

December 22, 2018

It’s difficult to predict when solid ice will appear these days. I know many have been waiting anxiously for the first solid ice, but the most important thing to remember is safety early in the season.

Diehards have been “chomping at the bit” for some time. But the weather has been up and down and prolonged the agony of those who are waiting for hard water. The one bright spot has been the chance to keep fishing open water from boats or wading from shore.

There’s always been an ego thing about fishing on “first ice” for the best fishing for the winter. The last location of the year where you caught fish before freeze-up is usually the best place to fish when the ice becomes “safe.” But use common sense and don’t take any chances because no fish is worth going out on thin and dangerous ice.

Some tips for first ice:

• Make sure there are at least 4 to 5 inches of ice where you plan to fish.

• Stay away from spring holes, feeder creeks, and warm water discharges. Ice doesn’t freeze solid in these locations.

• Always bring a pair of ice picks in the case you fall through, affording something to help pull you up if the worst should happen. Wearing a life jacket is not a bad idea if you’re unsure on the thickness of the ice.

• The first few weeks of the season you’ll find all species of fish in water under 10 feet deep and even shallower. During stable weather, you’ll find many fish and particularly walleyes in extremely shallow water to feed and this often happens in low light conditions and during the warmth of the day. Perch are an exception to this shallow water bite. Perch are in deeper water and I’ll write about this later in the season.

• Don’t go fishing alone this time of the year. Always go fishing with a buddy. This is also not the time to bring children or dogs on the ice.

• Remember to use common sense and don’t let the enthusiasm of the moment make you do something stupid.

• Stay away from crowds and large concentration of anglers. Too many people in a close proximity can be dangerous on thin ice. Staying away from the crowds can also improve your fishing success because unnecessary noise can drive fish away from your hole. Later on in the winter season, noise is not as much a factor when fishing deeper water. But when fishing shallow water be as stealthy and quiet as possible.

A few early ice “hot spots” which are well worth fishing in the beginning of the season:

• In the Madison area, the Triangle, around Brittingham Park and Monona Bay are good for both crappies and bluegills on Lake Monona. Early ice seems to give up some larger fish, so this would be a good place to start.

• Lake Wingra, the smallest and shallowest of the Madison Chain, is an early producer with the north end being the best spot. But the bluegills are small and thin.

• Lake Waubesa is another good water that produces early pike on tip-ups.

• Lake Kegonsa is full of springs, so I’d wait a few more weeks to fish it.

• Lake Mendota is the last lake to freeze over in the winter, so keep those perch rods and four-wheelers on dry land for some time. There also are some small bays and lagoons that freeze over early and are good for panfish. At the west end of Mendota, Marshall Park on the Middleton side is well worth fishing. Warner Bay and Warner Park are also good on the first ice.

• North of Mendota is Cherokee Marsh, which is worth trying for a variety of fish. You can jig for panfish and set out a few tip-ups for pike and walleyes.

• If you head out of Madison north on Highway 12, Indian Lake off Highway 19 will soon be frozen. Bluegills are plentiful there, but small in size. It’s a great place to take the kids because the fish will cooperate and make for a pleasant day.

• A few miles past Indian Lake is Highway Y, which will take you to Fish and Crystal lakes. Crystal and Fish lakes are full of largemouth bass which can be caught on tip-ups and minnows. Both lakes have bluegills and Crystal has good crappie and pike which bite regularly.

• The sloughs along the Wisconsin River between Sauk City and Spring Green freeze early, but they have moving water, so be very careful. Helena, Jones, Rainbow, and Badger sloughs freeze early for pike and panfish.

• The other lakes that I’d suggest are White Mound near Plain; Devil’s Lake close to Baraboo; and Gallus Slough close to the north end on Lake Wisconsin.

The fisheries are good and varied. Devil’s Lake has brown trout and big northern pike.

Try some of these early ice fishing locations and you’ll be well on your way to action and some great meals.

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