First Epistle to Wisconsin

I wrote a letter last night to a fellow who wants to learn to ice-fish this winter, a letter meant to prepare him for the harsh realities of the world of ice-fishing in advance of my January arrival where I will take on the role of personal trainer for a few days, demonstrating the cutting of holes, subtle bouncing of impaled maggots and prevention of frostbite. Bill lives on a big lake in Wisconsin, a state I’ve never fished in at all so I don’t really know the water; I just have a few dozen winters’ advantage on Bill experience-wise.

And I got to thinking that with the onset of ice-fishing season across the northeast and upper midwest, this letter to a hopeful novice might be of use to others who’ve thought about trying the sedentary sport (actually though, if you’re sedentary, you’re doing it wrong). So, with a little editing, here’s my letter to Bill from which you might glean some insight on the particulars that don’t readily meet the eye – those things which might enable you to enjoy a first hardwater winter!

Dear Bill,

I hope you and Kay enjoyed your time in Texas and are acclimating well to the harsh reality of another Wisconsin winter.

I’m writing today with a list of things you might want to give consideration to and things you may want to have on hand as you give ice-fishing a shot. First though I wanted to say again that if anything’s changed and it’s less convenient now than it seemed a month ago, please let us know and we’ll change our plans.

I would like to nail down dates for the trip, for your convenience and ours, but the lake will follow its own schedule and that schedule’s really hard to pin down in advance. Ideally, we’d like to be there when there’s 4 to 15 inches of ice on your region of the lake. 4 inches of ice is about the minimum I feel comfortable inviting other people out on and, because I cut with a hand auger, it’s slow going with over 15 inches of ice. Maybe you should let me know if there are parts of January that do not work. I think we could say it’s time to come up as soon as the lake’s frozen with any amount of ice, depending some on the forecast. Early ice is the best time to fish ordinarily and thinner ice is obviously quicker to cut through.

Some considerations:

1. Coming and going from the house will be sloppy so we’ll want to have a place, such as the garage, to get out of wet and dirty stuff. It’s always messier than you think it will be.

2. If you want to eat fish or freeze fillets for later, we’ll need a place for cleaning, preferably with running water.

3. It would be useful to determine the nearest place we can buy live minnows. This is the standard bait for tip-ups and they’re often not easy to catch during the winter. For jigging, we’ll want to buy some grubs that are always available at fishing shops during the winter labeled “spikes,” “waxies,” “maggots,” etc.

4. We’ll plan to fish both jigging rods and tip-ups to be sure you get comfortable with both. Both have their special purposes. I like to fish panfish with the jigging rods, the lightest line possible and microscopic lures. The minnows on the tip-ups are meant to attract larger predators and the largest of panfish. You don’t know the meaning of excitement until you’ve looked up from half an hour of jigging to see a little red flag flopping in the wind.

Some useful stuff:

1. A bucket to sit on and carry rods and tip-ups in.

2. Waterproof snow boots (there’s often a layer of slush on the ice) with removable liners.

3. Mask-type winter hat

4. Mittens – waterproof, if possible. Mittens are superior to gloves because they don’t isolate the fingers.

5. Knee pads – I like the cheap foam ones.

6. Ice creepers – These may or may not be useful depending on the ice surface conditions but these usually take the form of removable spikes for boot traction on glare ice.

7. Ice picks – Like the ice creepers, these may never be useful at all but they’re cheap and easy to find. These are two spiked handles that enable you to crawl out again in a worst-case scenario.

Other options:

1) A collapsible shelter. If you’re feeling confident that you’ll want to try ice fishing again, you may want a collapsible sled-mounted shelter for even this first outing. Wind, more than anything, is what makes you cold out there and a wind break makes all the difference. I don’t fish with one myself because I want to maximize mobility but you might like it.

2) A sled. I will not be able to transport a sled to Wisconsin so if we’re going to have one, we’ll need to have it waiting on your end. It’s not truly vital but it’s easier than carrying buckets of gear, ice auger, etc. I do often fish without one though.

Other thoughts:

Evenings are important. If the Pennsylvania pattern holds for Wisconsin, at least half the day’s fish will be taken from sunset to full darkness. And I have an array of glowing lures that will enable us to keep fishing as long as the fish continue to bite, which can be late if we’re dealing with crappie or walleye (two of the best-eating fish there are). An ideal schedule for many types of fishing is often to plan on hitting it early, taking the mid-day hours for other things and then hitting it again at maybe 3:30 or 4:00.

If it interests you, we could take a run up to Green Bay for some variety. In general, the bays of the Great Lakes offer some of the very best ice-fishing in North America both for size and numbers of all kinds of fish, especially yellow perch, another of the very best fish to eat. And Green Bay has a reputation.

The best way to stay warm on the ice is to stay in motion, cutting holes and moving on. Layered clothing and a good wind-breaking outer shell is vital. Eating well in advance, especially consuming some good fatty foods, is best. A rag is a nice thing to have to dry the hands after a fish. But the most important thing is simply to acclimate in advance of spending a day on a frozen lake. Don’t keep the house too warm and spend as much time outdoors as possible.

You said that you have some lines of your own now but I also expect to bring many of these so I’m sure we’ll have enough.

So, I’ve said a lot about surviving the extreme cold and being prepared for difficulty and emergencies but I think the truth may well be that we’ll have a great time piling up some delicious Rice Lake fish. It’ll be a pleasure to share one of my favorite past-times with you next month!

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