Fishing, Life, Love & The Great Outdoors
For Wisconsin Outdoor News
Written November, 2007

Backwater Blues, Golds and Silvers.
By Joel “Doc” Kunz

There is one thing that I can say that I wish I had the time and intestinal fortitude to do. That is, hit those areas of first ice for bluegill, crappie and perch. I know of a number of people who look so forward to this opportunity each year they literally bubble with anticipation. Thoughts of finding a group of unsuspecting pan fish while suspended on the thin sheet of good solid ice dominate their outdoor visions. Stories of great catches are passed among enthusiasts along with individual reasoning for why first ice is so good. Or, in some cases, what made a first ice trip so bad. Freezing nights are looked to with glee and each record warm day, like a Packer loss.

Wolf River Country has a good number of first ice enthusiasts, much like any area where ice fishermen are found. We have quite a few small lakes but the main draw is the area back waters and tributaries to the Wolf River system. Places such as “The Oxbow” and “Old River” are well known honey holes as are some local mill ponds. Channels and sloughs on the lower river system and around Winneconne also see the first sheets of fishable ice, but where the fish show up is always a guess. Anticipation is high this year due to the abundant yellow perch population on the Winnebago system, making Wolf River Country backwaters potential prime locations. Bluegill fishing was also quite good on the Wolf River system this year and the crappie have shown up in good numbers this fall. That’s all fuel to the fire for first ice fishing enthusiasts and more reason to smile comes with every forecast of below freezing temperatures.

Like any fishing trip, location is the key to catching fish. For early ice bluegills, perch and crappie, it’s no different. But, there are factors that lead up to the early ice period that make a difference as to where that location may be. The amount of sunshine is one of them. Add water clarity and condition of the shallow weed growth, and you have the beginnings of the formula that affects fish location under first ice. If the weeds have turned brown and are laying on the bottom, most likely, there will be few panfish around. If your fishing the Wolf River system, add another piece of the puzzle, water level. Water level not only effects the condition of the weed growth in the back waters but the amount of “flow” makes a difference in the amount of available oxygen. If the back water doesn’t have enough flow of fresh water coming in, the decaying weed mass and low oxygen content force the fish to look for other areas.

Lake or river, channel or bay, just because you caught fish in a particular place before, doesn’t mean you’re going to catch fish there again. Sure, some bays or channels are usually hot spots, but some years they just don’t pay off. A bit of study let me know that the weather pattern leading up to the days of first ice fishing are a part of the key. Stable sunny weather will usually congregate the fish near any remaining shallow weed growth. This is often the best situation because that usually means the back of the bay or a protected channel. Those are usually areas with better access for first ice fishing but as always, NO ICE IS CONSIDERED SAFE. Stable cold weather usually means good sheets of ice too. Of course, if the ice is very clear, not spooking the fish becomes the next challenge. If the weather has been stormy, overcast and snowy, fish will probably be a bit deeper or suspended somewhere over deep water. That’s the case on some small local lakes and even in the river. The first drop and small holes with structure can hold fish in this situation. On “bowl” style lakes, the deep weed edge might be the spot or the fish could be suspended anywhere.

Once again, access becomes part of the challenge. Each year I dread the almost eventual news report of someone who feel through the ice. I’m not talking about the person who takes his 4-wheeler out well before the ice is safe. I’m talking about the guy who is usually a well seasoned ice angler who made a mistake. That mistake comes with the sun quite often as anglers walk out on good ice in the early morning and find deteriorated conditions on the trek back. Wind and current can also add to the danger of a warm sun on thin ice. Traveling lightly, wearing a life vest or “float jacket” and making sure not to be too adventurous are all important rules to being safe. Carry your cell phone in a zip lock bag and in your top pocket with a small heat pack to protect the battery. Have an “In Case of Emergency” (ICE) number on your phone and never go fishing early ice without telling someone where you are going and when you expect to return. A better rule of thumb is to never fish alone. You don’t want to fish right next to each other. Just stay close enough to help each other out should the need arise. Also, do not go to areas you are unfamiliar with and always use a spud bar to check the ice with every step as you walk out. A single blow that strikes water means turn around!!!! “Ice Safety Picks” can be a life saver but never replace making good decisions.

Good equipment is important to first ice success. If you are forced to look for fish, an underwater camera or flasher are a must. The right line, rod, reel and spring bobber are all important tools to the best success. A light weight portable shanty is a good way to bring your equipment and best towed by a rope around your waist. That allows you to keep your hands free and safety picks ready should you fall through. Jigs, baits and presentations vary from plastics to the old ice fishing standard wax worm. Of course there are so many varieties and colors of both live and plastic baits that it could be an entire new article. Point is, your local bait shop should have an idea of what is working in the area because that’s what they are selling a lot of. The local bait shop is also the best place to stop and get the low down on area ice conditions. Year round shops such as Cashes in New London and Ma’s in Fremont work hard to make sure they take care of their Wolf River Country ice fishing clientele. For many, it’s the difference between survival and closing the doors. Although they may not give you the exact spot people are catching fish, they are the BEST place for up to date information and the final key to a successful first ice outing.

So be safe and good luck finding what can often be the most exciting bite of the year, first ice.


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