Ice Fishing in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Fishing bluegills and panfish through the ice

 “Hard water” fishing for panfish is fun and easy and may result  in a fine dinner when the winds blow cold. Here are some basic  tips and considerations to improve chances of success.

Where to fish 

Know the locations where bluegills will be. Often time, winter fishing is a return to the familiar haunts of sum mer. Bluegills associate with weeds, finding green, standing vegetation is often key to finding fish. Don’t over look woody debris either: tree crowns and fish cribs attract panfish. Also, small nuances in depth such as drop offs, breaks, and bars are fish holders.  

Use all the tools. Some anglers use fish locators to hone in on fish or to put their bait in the fish holding areas.  Others consult local on-line forums for location, time and bait details from other successful anglers. On the ice,  cell phones between fishing pals has helped to turn a so-so day into a memorable trip.

Bait use 

Make it tasty. Baits vary as much as fishermen but mousies, wax worms, and spikes ( all larva of insects ) typical ly grace the business end of ice fishing jigs. Don’t be shy about using a small plastic “wedge” or teaser to attract  attention or trigger a strike. Have a selection of colors available to work with changing water clarities. And check  your knot ! There are methods of tying on jigs and baits that create “bounce’ or wiggle that entice hesitant fish  into biting.  

Line and hook tips 

Keep it light. Bluegills are dainty sight feeders. Keep your line light ( 2- to 4-pound test monofilament) and the  terminal tackle small : rat finkys, marmooskas, tear drops and ice jigs need to be kept to scale with a bluegills  mouth , such as # 12. The same goes for floats or spring bobbers…keeping them sensitive and offering mini mal resistance means more bites. But if the bite isn’t happening, don’t be afraid to switch it up and offer up a big  meal….sometimes big aggressive fish will take a large flashy lure. 

More tips 

Be quiet. More often than not, it’s the quiet focused anglers that fill their pails. Fish spook and avoid vibration  and noise. A stealthy approach pays its own dividends. To keep disturbance to a minimum drill extra holes when  you first arrive so when the bite gets hot you can maximize the potential of the area you are fishing. 

Move ! If fish aren’t biting, take a walk and see if others are enjoying any success. Hole–hopping, even small distances, can produce fish. A hole that isn’t fishy isn’t going to put dinner on the table. Also, fish the entire VERTICAL water column. Often ‘gils and crappie may “hold” in a narrow band within the depth range. Cover the depth  by slowly and completely jigging from top to bottom through the entire profile. 

And last but not least, GO ! Stop wishin’ and go fishin’ !

Kurt Welke, longtime fisheries biologist for Dane County (including the Madison lakes)

Fishing walleye through the ice this winter

 “I mainly fish on stained-water lakes and have found that tip-ups fished   with live bait can often catch more walleye than jig-pole fishing. But for   clear-water lakes, jigging may out-produce tip-ups.” 

Time of day 

Time of day is often very important and this also varies with whether you’re fishing on a stained or clear-water  lake. On stained waters, the low light periods are usually the most productive, with the hour and a half before  dark often better than the early morning period (and the bite often shuts down right after dark).  

On clear-water lakes, you may often have to fish after dark to get the best catches, and sometimes all thru the  night can be productive.  

Key spots to look for 

Gravel bars and rocky drop-offs, weeds edges and mid-depth mud flats and break lines where gravel/sand turns  to soft bottom are excellent holding locations for walleye.  

Best depths  

On stained lakes, I like to concentrate my tip-ups in the 6-foot to 12-foot range. On clear lakes, the best depths  are usually in the 10-foot to 20-foot range. However, fish movement does vary and depths as shallow as 2 feet  and deeper than 20 feet can often be very productive as well. 

Bait use 

Live bait is most often used on tip-ups. I prefer to use medium suckers or extra-large fatheads, but many anglers  like golden shiners as their favorite bait. The old adage “the bigger the bait, the bigger the fish” is often true, but  smaller sized bait can produce more action – which is often the goal when fishing with kids!  

Minnows should be hooked lightly through the middle of the back so they hang in a horizontal position and stay  lively.  

Bait placement 

On stained lakes, I set my minnow about 4 to 8 inches off the bottom. On clear lakes, bait placement can be 6  inches to 20 inches off the bottom, as the fish can better see the bait above them and come up to get it.  

vLine and hook tips 

• Monofilament or fluorocarbon leaders are both good (though I’ve found that you have to re-tie more often  with fluorocarbon as the knots fatigue more quickly than mono). Use a 2-foot to 3-foot leader that is attached to  the nylon tip-up line (a small snap swivel works well for this).

• Line markers – many people use a button, but I prefer a very small bobber. Reason why: the bobber will keep  the line up off the bottom as a fish runs with the bait, whereas a button may drag along the bottom and catch on  obstructions. 

• For hooks, I like to use a double hook (a treble with one barb snipped off) or a single circle hook, and usually  in size 8 or 6. I also place two small split shots about 7 to 8 inches above the hook to keep the minnow down near  the bottom (see attached picture).  

• Many people use small treble hooks but I’ve found that these can be very hard to remove from fish when your  hands are wet and cold. In addition, walleye often swallow the bait and double and single hooks can usually be  removed without much damage to the fish. If a treble hook is left in the fish, it can pinch the throat closed and  this may keep the fish from eating until the hook becomes dislodged over time.  

A final thought 

Remember – bigger is not better for eating quality with walleye. The best eaters are in the 12- to 15-inch size (if  allowed by the harvest regulations) and catch and release does also work with walleye. Today’s 20 inch release  may be your 28-inch mounter several years down the road!  

 – Skip Sommerfeldt, a fisheries biologist based in Park Falls, ice fishes   about every day the ice is safe. 

Fishing northern pike through the ice

 “Northern pike are the ultimate winter sport fish, the “people’s  fish.” Any angler worth his or her salt will admit a northern pike has saved many fishing trips from being a skunk.” 

Where to fish 

Do a little homework. If you don’t have a favorite lake already, check our internet page (  for lakes in your area, or better yet, contact your local fisheries biologist. They can provide information from  recent surveys and send you in the right direction. 

Keep it simple. Don’t try to out think a northern pike. Northern pike will suspend in the water column, they  will be found along deep rocky bars, but for the most part they are going to be associated with vegetation. Vege tation is where the food generally is located and also provides concealment for a stalking predator like the north ern pike. In most inland lakes vegetation extends to depths of 10-15 feet of water. Find the vegetation and you  will find northern pike.  

Best depths and bait placement 

Split the difference. Many anglers when setting tip-ups place their bait a certain distance off the bottom. For ex ample, say water depth is twelve feet. Find bottom and set your bait one or two feet off bottom. If you are fishing  in vegetation my general rule is to think in halves. Twelve feet of water –put your bait at six feet. This serves two  purposes. First, vegetation is still occupying a fair portion of the water column at early ice. If you place you bait  based on x feet from the bottom there is a good chance it’s in the vegetation. No sight – no bite. Second, preda tors like northern pike cruise the water column. Even if they are near the bottom they can find prey above them.  The opposite is less likely to be true.  

Don’t forget the shallows. Especially during early ice northern pike will frequent water less than 5 feet deep.  When setting up your tip-ups put one in shallow. You won’t be disappointed. 

The mystique of the northern pike 

• Northern pike are common in Wisconsin. At last count they were found in over 2,000 inland lakes, rivers, and  flowages in Wisconsin. Not to mention the bays of Lakes Michigan and Superior, and the Mississippi River. 

• Northern pike are multi-dimensional. They are mostly known as a food fish but also provide trophy opportu nities. Northern pike fillets in a skillet are second to none. Check our website for proper filleting techniques to  remove those troublesome “Y” bones. 

• Northern pike are active and bite all day. Show up at noon and you are good to go. No more of that putzing  around in the dark. You should be on your way home by then. 

• Northern pike are low maintenance; the perfect winter fish for kids. Drill a few holes in the ice, put in some  tip-ups, sit back and have a cup of coffee, let the kids play, and when a flag goes up, everybody runs. That’s good  living in a Wisconsin winter. 

 – Terry Margenau is a fisheries supervisor stationed in Spooner.  
You can often find Terry… on the ice… fishing… for northern pike.

Tips to make ice fishing fun for the family

Pamela and Scott Toshner are avid ice anglers and parents of twin girls. The couple – she is a DNR lake and watershed protection specialist and he is a DNR fisheries supervisor — started getting the girls involved in fishing when they were about 3 years old. The first couple of years were short trips and by 5 years old, the girls were already fairly seasoned ice anglers.

Here are the Toshners’ tips for ice fishing fun with the whole family.

Getting ready for adventure

Go into the adventure with an open and patient mindset.

We have had success starting out with tip-up fishing in spots that have good action. Northern pike are usually what we catch and make a great fish to start kids on. Try to get them involved in the whole process. For instance, take them to the bait shop to pick up minnows, snacks and refreshments. Let them help with scooping the slush out of holes and catching minnows out of the bait bucket.

Make sure they’re dressed for the weather. Let them go inside a vehicle, shack or house to warm up when they get cold.

vBring food, snacks and beverages for them – but have a plan on how to take care of bathroom needs. A bucket and maybe a blanket to hold up to provide some privacy can work if you’re fishing in a busy area.

Fishing with tip-ups is usually more successful than asking kids to sit on a bucket watching a hole. With tip-ups, they don’t have to sit in one place and watch for a bobber to go down. However, if you have a good action lake for panfish and either a warm winter day or an ice shack, jigging is fun as well.

Have other activities for them to do while waiting for a flag to go up. Our girls like ice skating, cross country skiing and sledding. They play tic-tac-toe in the snow and shuffle ice path mazes with their feet followed by a game of tag in the maze. Veer outside the path, and you’re out! Bringing our dog along also provides them with some entertainment.

When they catch a fish

Let them catch the fish. If more than one child is along, figure out a system of taking turns before the first flag goes up. We often flip a coin for who goes first. The other child’s turn begins after the first has actually caught a fish and not just run to a flag to find no fish or after losing a fish.

Be ready for some tears when a fish is lost at the hole. It happens and is a bit of a life lesson. We personally try not to give too much instruction on how to land a fish, they figure it out pretty quickly.

Make a big deal about any fish they do catch — any size or any species. To a kid, a skinny 22-inch northern pike is a bigger fish than a nice chunky 19-inch walleye.

Have a camera or your phone along – it makes a kid proud to get his or her picture taken with a fish. Again, any size or species of fish will do. With today’s smartphones, you can also take video footage of the kids catching the fish.

We usually bring a fillet knife and cutting board along, which enables us to fillet the fish out on the ice. The kids love watching and always ask to cut the fish’s stomach open to see what it has been eating.

Take it from the ice to the dinner table. The kids are proud to provide a meal for the family, so make sure they are involved in the process. 

(Quick tip: for northern pike up to about 26 inches in length we simply fillet the fish with the bones in it and put it through the meat grinder…. bones included and unnoticeable in the final product. We then add bread crumbs and seasoning, an egg or two and mix. Make some patties and fry them in a pan for a delicious dinner.)

Take the opportunity to teach them a bit about fish and fish habitat. The questions of why we are fishing here and not there are the basis for them learning about fisheries habitat and ecology. For example, we fish for northern pike in bays with aquatic plants because those are the habitats that allow pike to feed and seek cover. Without the aquatic plant habitat, the fish may not be there for us to catch.

This one may be the hardest for hardcore adult ice anglers…….be ready to leave when the kids are no longer having fun. Sometimes the bite isn’t good or even if it is they just get tired of it. Especially for younger kids, two hours is plenty of time on the ice. Although “prime time” may be coming up, if the kids aren’t having fun they are less likelyto want to go again.

Let them bring their friends. Not only will this make for more fun when the fish aren’t biting, but you may introduce someone to the sport who otherwise might not get the opportunity.