Keep Your Ice Outings Safe And Successful

Keep Your Ice Outings Safe And Successful

Traveling around Central Wisconsin from county to county, probing through the ice on many of  our state’s most popular bodies of water like I do is nothing to jump right into without doing some homework before each and every outing. Whether you are an avid ice angler that spends more time on hard water than in a boat, or just getting into the sport of ice fishing, there are many things to consider in order to keep every adventure safe. I am not only sharing safety tips here, but many different strategies that keep me and my clients consistently successful on many different frozen lakes.


Early ice can be some of the best fishing that you get into all winter, but that is also when someone may be at risk of the unexpected “polar plunge.” The three main hazards, when it comes to travel on any frozen lake, are current, cracks, and birds.  I like to start my early ice scouting before the ice is even close to safe by watching with binoculars from land. I will watch for uneven freezing in certain areas; which could be from geese keeping an area open or even wind and current that doesn’t allow the area to settle down and freeze the same day.  These areas are most important to know about for the first few weeks of the ice season until the ice thickness evens out over time. If you are unaware of an area that has just recently frozen over, you are at risk of breaking through.

Once the ice is finally safe, I run through my lake to lake patterns. What I mean by that is some of the lakes that I make my winter living on are always safe to navigate well before others are even frozen.  Shallower lakes like Puckaway, Poygan, and Butte des Morts, are usually fishable and productive far before some of the other big lakes.  Shortly after that I start roaming the river channel of the Wisconsin River, such as Castle Rock and Petenwell. That is about the same time that Winnebago is ready for ATV travel.  I normally have close to two months of great ice fishing in on these lakes and many more before we can start ice fishing on Big Green Lake. Like the rest, Big Green will have areas that are safe and areas of dangerous thin ice. The east half of the lake is always safe first due to more 100 foot depths, unlike the west end having more 200 foot depths. I have always said the most important information to have on any frozen lake is where the thin ice or pressure cracks might be. A guy told me one time that being on the ice every single day was high risk of getting wet, but I disagree. I feel much safer by practically living on the ice and watching new pressure cracks form and observing areas that could be a hazard on a regular basis.

Safety Strategy

Now that I’ve preached a little safety strategy, I can talk about some search techniques. It is hard to beat the run and gun method on most lakes, but I have seen this crazy short window of  fish movement over and over again.  During this short time of each day, you need to have a rod in your hand and not an auger.  What I mean is, I will have scouts and or clients in many different areas of a lake on the same day.  The fish will light up for everybody all at once, then 10 minutes later you would think that they disappeared, but they haven’t. They just don’t move until they want to eat.  This short window occurs at the same time with different fish all over the lake every couple of hours.  Many days of the winter I see these sporadic feeds that will accumulate a nice mess of fish for those who wait them out by staying glued to their locator.  On these days, or locations, the person that moved 25 times will usually have an empty pale at the end of the day. Most likely because during the short feeding window they may have been drilling or driving. By no means do I simply pick a spot and sit there all day on just any body of water. This only works for me on structure such as river channels, reefs, brush piles, stumps, and weeds; places that fish actually live during the winter months.

On the other hand, for some of the lakes that I frequently guide on, it is popular to search the sand, gravel, and mud flats for hungry schools of fish.  While targeting flats like that, I don’t sit still until I land on the fish. The open water flats of Puckaway, Winnebago, and Poygan have schools of roaming fish that sometimes take a lot of work to find.  In these cases, the way I search for schools is almost nonstop drilling of holes. Fishing half of them, and just dropping the locater in the other half to cover more area in less time. I will quite often drop the transducer in and out of a line of a dozen holes before I mark a fish or school of fish.  When I mark a fish, I quickly rifle a Swedish Pimple or Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon tipped with a minnow head or Chena bait down the hole. I try to read the fish by their first reaction, if it ignores my bait and travels by it, it could likely be baitfish or a rough fish. If it comes toward my search bait (jigging spoon), but does not bite it, I will then go to a tungsten jig tipped with either a spike, wax worm, or Chena bait. Another one of my go to finesse baits is a Northland bloodworm. I know it is going to be good when they come up fast and hammer the jigging spoon after a few aggressive twitches.  This approach will often lead us into hungry schools of perch, white bass, crappies, and walleyes all mixed together.  Sometimes it does take 100 or more holes of searching before we start filling buckets with fish.

Follow the preseason scouting tips to assure safety before traveling on any frozen bodies of water. Remember, knowing the type of lake or structure that you are targeting will tell you whether to wait for the fish to wake up and start to feed or if you need to travel and fish aggressively to find them. Also start with a louder shinier lure to locate fish then switch to more subtle lures if the fish don’t get fired up for it.   You will also find more helpful ice condition reports and fishing tips at


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