Early Season Ice Fishing - Tactics and Gear for Success

By Dave Lorier - January 1, 2013
Wisconsin winters can be brutal. Freezing temperatures, constant snow shoveling, and treacherous roads are a real nuisance. Remain optimistic, when the area lakes freeze up, fishing in southeastern Wisconsin really heats up. Early ice provides some of the best action of the winter fishing season. It is during this time that one can easily catch multiple species of fish in one outing.

Targeting shallow weed beds produces walleyes, northern pike, bluegills, crappies, and even perch. We live in the age of technology and there are many ways to locate weeds. One way is to go back to areas where you found them during the open water season. Hopefully you were thinking ahead and marked these spots on your GPS. If not, there are resources on the Internet that can help point you in the right direction. Aerial photographs and topographical maps are readily available and, if read properly, can show you where to set up. Additionally, many anglers report the success of their outings on websites like Lake-Link. Peruse these sites to see what lakes are producing.

Once you have made a decision on a general area to fish, start drilling. When panfishing, I use a 5-inch auger powered by an electric drill. Beaver Dam Ice Fishing has introduced an ice drill converter that quickly turns your electric drill into a quiet, hole punching machine. On numerous occasions, I have been catching fish when another fisherman fires up a gas auger, and the action stops. I like to get my limit and I firmly believe that reducing noise increases my odds of doing so. However you do it, punch a series of holes, and then go back and look with your camera. In lakes where the water is clear, fish will often vacate when the camera is dropped down the hole. Look for green weeds that are standing tall. This habitat provides both cover and food for panfish. Early morning and late afternoon light conditions usually are best for these water bodies. Dropping the camera in stained or turbid water usually does not spook fish. In fact, the camera sometimes attracts them. When I am scouting for a location to set up I look for numbers and size. Small gills appear long from head to tail, quality fish look deeper (tall from dorsal to pelvic fins). Once I find holes that have a half dozen large fish it is time to wet a line.

I prefer to target blue gills and the presentation that works best on nearly every lake I have fished in Wisconsin is a purple or black teardrop shaped jig (this will also catch lots of crappie and perch). In winter gills are feeding on small zooplankton and therefore I use the smallest jig that I can get down into the strike zone. This means that tungsten is usually on the end of my line tipped with a hand-cut morsel of Uncle Josh MEAT. MEAT is made from pure pork fat stewed in livebait juices and is presently marketed for gamefish in packages of minnows, leeches, worms and bass chunks. With a pocket knife I can easily shave off a strip from one of these larger baits and create the perfect bite sized tidbit that panfish cannot resist. MEAT also has tantalizing action, stays on the hook much longer than livebait, and comes in a variety of colors that can be matched with any jig (including purple and black or the color that works best on your favorite lake).

Whether you tip your jig with MEAT or livebait, start at the bottom and slowly work your jig up a foot or two in the water column while carefully watching your spring bobber for a strike. If you didn't get bit on the way up, slowly jig back down until you return to the bottom. The EasyBite is a great strike indicator that actually shows both positive and negative bites which is perfect for jigging down or when a when a fish swims up with the bait. I usually repeat this up/down jigging cadence 5 times and if I don't get bit, it's time to move on to the next hole.

If I continue to see fish on the camera and am unable to hook up, my next move is to tie on an even smaller jig of a different color 8 to 10 inches above my original tungsten. I have found this "drop shotting" technique to be great for determining where in the water column the fish are feeding and what they are eating on a particular day.

Where you find weeds and panfish, you will also find bigger game fish. Set your tip-ups around the edges of weed beds or in pockets within the weeds. My tip-up of choice is a Beaver Dam because of its flawless spin that goes undetected by finicky game fish. For northern pike, rig your tip-up with a fluorocarbon leader, a #6 red treble hook, and a large or jumbo golden shiner. Manufacturers like Beaver Dam have pre-rigged leaders in a variety of strengths and treble sizes or you can tie your own. Dusk and nighttime hours are the most productive time for walleyes. Use tip-ups rigged with a fluorocarbon leader, a #12 red treble hook, and a small or medium golden shiner.

The most important thing to remember during the early ice fishing season is safety. Southern Wisconsin is known for periods of freezing and thawing and this can lead to inconsistent ice thicknesses. The resulting variation in ice depth from location to location has the potential to lead to tragic situations. Fish with a partner, wear a life jacket, and carry a rope and ice picks-no fish is worth losing your life over.

Tight Lines!

Author Dave Lorier
Dave Lorier
Dave Lorier lives in Oconomowoc and has been hunting and fishing in Wisconsin since his childhood. Dave earned his degree in wildlife ecology from UW Madison and then went on to work for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Fisheries Research and Management. Presently Lorier is a high school science instructor and also teaches youth outdoor education courses. Dave enjoys all types of fishing and hunting, especially competitive bass fishing, bow hunting, and ice fishing for bluegills.