Fishing, Life, Love & The Great Outdoors
Dick Ellis' On Wisconsin Outdoors - Submitted October 2010

First Ice Backwater Blues
By Joel “Doc” Kunz

As winter takes its grip on the Wisconsin landscape, there is a call of sorts, once heard only by a few brave souls. That is, the calling of “first ice”. Small lakes and ponds will begin to freeze first as will the backwaters and bays on area rivers and larger lakes. Because many of these areas are the type of places that panfish are using, the draw is obvious. First ice bonanza stories are as common as tales of 10 point bucks. Any die-hard ice fisherman has a few. Tales of limits of bluegill, crappie or perch abound, and in this day and age, there are digital pictures to prove them. You see, red hot first ice fishing is no longer a well kept secret shared only by a few. Todays angler has better access to the information and equipment that help to provide a rewarding day on the ice. To the fishing industry, it is all good news. To old uncle Joe who used to fish the backwaters of the Wolf, Wisconsin or Fox river generally alone, well not so much. But that is the way of the world and the best thing we can do is to teach the younger generation to respect both the resource AND the people who are using it.

Access to the Internet is one of the biggest factors in putting more people on first ice. Reports of good fishing leak out and create the potential for droves of anglers to descend on an area. That can not only be bad for fishing, it can create some potential danger on thin ice. Anglers should be cognizant of this potential problem and watch for changing ice conditions at all times. Anglers should also have a backup plan and look to fish in areas less crowded.

The cold night, warm afternoon conundrum is, how much sun can the ice take. I have over the years been witness to anglers who have ventured out in the morning on good ice, then got stranded far from shore when trying to return in the afternoon. Current is another factor and a major consideration when fishing any river system. Even the backwaters have current, providing a potential deadly combination with a warm sun.

Travel light, travel smart. Anglers should use “creepers” to avoid falling and keep equipment to a minimum. A “Sit N Fish” bucket, rod or two and flasher or underwater camera should be all you need. All of that can be carried in the bucket leaving the other hand available to carry a spud bar. Anglers should check ice thickness every step or two from start to finish. Again, ice thickness can vary quickly, especially on river systems. Always be of the mindset that your first step on good ice, doesn’t mean everything else around you is that thick.

Find the weeds and you’ll find the fish. Crappie, perch and bluegill will use this cover as long as it is standing. Once snow cover reduces sun penetration, weeds will start to die quickly. Although clear ice can make fish spooky, snow cover just inhibits ice forming. So does a windy day. The best first ice is created by a few days of stable, COLD, weather with below freezing temperatures, especially at night. A few nights of sub-zero temps are even better. As far as bait and tactics, I still like to use wax worms, spikes and live minnows although there is a growing tendency to use plastics. New more supple material is scented with fish catching attractants that have been tested by some of the best ice anglers on the planet. Their effectiveness can be quite good but there are times when two or three wax worms wiggling on a hook are what triggers the fish.

Yes I said two or three wax worms. One thing I have learned over the years of tagging along with some of the areas best ice anglers is that at times, I didn’t use enough bait. I’d pick the nicest looking jig and stick a “bug” on it and hope for the best. I also found that I often moved the presentation too much and didn’t fish light enough line. Now days I have an ice fishing set up specifically for panfish, use light, specially formulated “ice line” and use electronics to help me locate the fish. I’ll drill a few holes then let things settle down a bit before even starting to fish. Keeping still and limiting movement is important on clear ice as it is even with a bit of snow cover. Once I start fishing, I don’t want to drill any more holes if I can help it.

Your local bait shop is your best source of information. Stop by and find out what’s been producing fish and for the latest in ice conditions. It is your best, first and most important step to being productive on a consistent basis. Good Luck and be safe.

Joel “Doc” Kunz is a 2005 “Readers Choice” Award winner and member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW). Visit his web site at or his new project for information on fishing in the lower Wolf River area of Wisconsin.


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