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MADISON – Ice fishing opportunities are going to come early and often this season, good news for the growing number of ice anglers drilling down into this favorite winter sport, state fisheries officials say.
“The colder weather in recent weeks has frozen smaller lakes much earlier than last year, so we’re looking forward to a nice, long season,” says Mike Staggs, Wisconsin’s fisheries director. “There are an abundance of great places to fish across the state and even more time for anglers to hit their favorite hot spots and try some new locations.”
Staggs reported people fishing on a back bay of Delavan Lake in Walworth County on Thanksgiving, and conservation wardens and fish biologists are reporting seeing anglers ice fishing on smaller lakes, bays and backwaters in many parts of Wisconsin.
“The ice season is already underway up here, as I’ve seen anglers on the ice for almost a week now,” says Skip Sommerfeldt, a DNR fisheries biologist based in Park Falls in Price County and an avid ice angler. “I haven’t made it out yet – as I stayed busy with deer season and then a short vacation with the family. But that will change this afternoon (Dec. 2) – as my tip-ups and minnows are ready for the late afternoon bite.”
An estimated 590,700 Wisconsinites 16 and over report they ice fish, up from 479,900 in 2000, according to the most recent National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, a federally funded survey.
Staggs thinks the growth reflects in part that ice fishing is a low-cost way to try fishing or for veteran open water anglers to extend the fishing season. “It’s as easy as drilling a hole — or finding a hole someone else left behind — and using some basic equipment to catch some fish for dinner,” he says.
Add to that simple appeal the fact that better technology — lighter, warmer ice houses and better, safer heaters and outerwear – is making it more comfortable to be out on the ice longer.
Early ice fishing and ice safety tips
Early ice offers some of the season’s best fishing, but also a need for extreme caution due to ice conditions (or lack thereof.) Wisconsin recreation safety wardens sent out their list of top safety tips for the ice fishing season on Dec. 2.
Steve Avelallemant, fisheries supervisor for northern Wisconsin, says that early ice fishing can be some of the best fishing for walleye and northern pike. “Especially on shallow lakes, where the fish seem to be accessible and biting more earlier in the hard water season,” he says.
Fishing pressure nearly triples in December in Wisconsin after lakes freeze over, based on results from a 2006-7 statewide mail survey of anglers. Anglers reported spending about 1,589,000 hours in December alone in that year, up from 624,000 hours in November, the survey showed.
Panfish, northern pike and walleye are most frequently caught in the winter, with 11.7 million, 866,000, and 750,000, respectively, based on the mail survey results.
Find helpful tips for fishing for panfish, walleye and northern pike from fisheries biologists Kurt Welke, Skip Sommerfeldt and Terry Margenau on the ice fishing pages of the DNR website. Find also links to ice safety information, to tips for getting started ice fishing, and how to have a fun and successful ice fishing outing with the kids.
Free Fishing Weekend
Wisconsin’s second annual winter Free Fishing Weekend is set for Jan. 18-19, 2014. No fishing license or Great Lakes salmon stamp is needed to fish any Wisconsin water. This includes all inland waters and Wisconsin’s side of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River and other boundary waters. Other fishing rules apply, such as limits on the number and size of fish anglers can keep and any seasons when anglers must release certain fish species.
“Ice fishing is a great way to get outside during the winter and to fish anywhere without a boat,” says Theresa Stabo, Wisconsin’s angler education director. “Free Fishing Weekend is a great time to discover what it’s all about – fun with friends and family and, of course, the fish.”
Stabo encourages fishing groups, local chambers of commerce, youth group leaders and others to consider hosting their own Free Fishing Weekend events and to fill out an electronic form with their event details so DNR can help publicize those events that are open to the public. DNR tackle loaner sites have ice fishing gear for loan that groups and individuals can use, and the agency can supply limited quantities of age appropriate materials about ice fishing, fish populations, and fishing in general.
Posters are also available to download, print off and post to help promote Free Fishing Weekend.
All materials are available on DNR’s Free Fishing Weekend web page. Go to dnr.wi.gov and search “Free Fishing Weekend.”
Advice to maximize health benefits, limit contaminants from eating fish
Ice anglers eat a greater proportion of their catch than open water anglers, so it’s important to be aware of and follow fish consumption advice, says Candy Schrank, an environmental toxicologist who coordinates the fish consumption advice DNR issues with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
An online search tool allows anglers to use a drop down menu to select the county and lake or river reach they are fishing to bring up consumption advice for fish species on that water. The advice booklet, videos, and other materials are also available on the “Eat Your Catch pages of the DNR website.
Follow rules to prevent spreading invasive species like Asian carp and fish diseases
Ice anglers eager to start the hard water season are reminded to take steps to prevent accidentally spreading fish diseases and aquatic invasive species like Asian carp, the young of which look similar to common baitfish such as gizzard shad, emerald shiner, spottail shiner or golden shiner. Viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS, is a virus that can infect several dozen fish species and cause them to bleed to death.
Here is what anglers need to know to help prevent fish diseases and other invasive species from spreading:
• Follow bait rules. Buy bait from Wisconsin bait dealers. If you take minnows home after a day of fishing and you’ve added lake water or fish to the container, you can return with them only to that same water body the next day.
• Familiarize yourself with what the different Asian carp species look like as juveniles and as adults, and learn how to tell the difference between them and common baitfish. Inspect bait you buy to assure you do not have any Asian carp in the bucket. Put on ice any fish suspected of being Asian carp and contact your local DNR.
• Preserve bait correctly if you catch your own. If you use smelt or other dead bait, preserve it in a way that does not require freezing or refrigeration.
• Don’t move live fish away from the water. Keep the fish you catch and want to take home on the ice until you leave at the end of the day, or carry them away in a dry bucket.
• Drain all water from your equipment. That includes all buckets and containers of fish. When you’re leaving the ice, you may carry up to 2 gallons of water in which to keep your minnows.