It’s no surprise there are four fishing seasons in the “Badger State.” A quarter of the year is dedicated to winter fishing, which is a very popular, yet challenging, sport. Ice fishing in Wisconsin offers endless opportunities for locals and visitors who just can’t wait for the first snow.
For local anglers, it’s all about the winter spirit, shanties spread throughout the lakes, and adventure in the open air. What ice fishing in Wisconsin will be like for you, you’ll only know when you experience it yourself.
In this guide, we cover everything you need to know about the best spots for ice fishing in the state, along with top catches and techniques. So without further ado…
What can I catch while ice fishing?
As soon as it’s ice on all over Wisconsin’s lakes and streams, it’s also time to fish on. So, what can anglers expect to catch on their winter adventure? The majority of all the fish caught in the winter months are Panfish – Bluegill and Yellow Perch to be more precise. Along with those, you can also target Whitefish, Walleye, and Northern Pike.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular Wisconsin ice fishing catches below.
If you’re a die-hard Walleye angler and can’t resist a fishing trip even during the colder months, you’re not alone. Ice fishing for Walleye in Wisconsin is great no matter the season, and winter is no exception. The only things different here are the fishing conditions, weather, and the techniques you’ll use.
How you’ll fish for Walleye under the ice will depend on the time of the day and month. For example, the low-light periods are productive right before dark when fishing the stained waters, while in clear water, you can fish for Walleye even late in the evening.
Key spots to look for Walleye include gravel bars, weeds edges, rocky drop-offs, and mid-depth mudflats, with depths ranging from 20 to 30 feet of water. Sometimes, you’ll need airboats or snowmobiles to reach the Walleye holes, so hiring a knowledgeable guide is a good idea.
The best part about fishing for Walleye in Wisconsin is that you don’t have to target the biggest fish in the lake. Good eaters can be as big as 15 inches!
Ice fishing for Yellow Perch is the most popular activity for any winter angler in Wisconsin, and for good reason. Not only are these fish very tasty, but you can find them practically everywhere in the state: from the slow backwaters to the bottoms of the largest lakes.
Yellow Perch love to eat almost everything, especially minnows, worms, and plankton. You can find smaller fish nearshore, while bigger Perch live in deeper waters. They hang out in schools, so you’ll need to stay mobile. Once you get one fish to bite, it’s almost certain that the whole school is somewhere nearby. Local anglers prefer to work with more than one hole at a time to take advantage of it.
However, ice fishing for Perch isn’t as easy as it sounds, so stay alert. Gentle jigging with a lightweight bobber and a short pole with a strong line and a sinker seem to work great for Wisconsin anglers.
The best advice any Wisconsin ice fisherman can give you is to not complicate things too much when it comes to Pike fishing. These fish are very common in these parts and you can find them in over 2,000 inland rivers and lakes along deep rocky bars and areas with vegetation.
Catching Northern Pike through ice is not too complicated: you’ll need to drill a few holes, put your tip-ups, and wait for that bite. While you’re waiting for the flag to go up, you can sip your coffee and chat with your friends and family. The best part is, you never know what type of Pike you’ll find – your next dinner or a real trophy.
Ice fishing for Northern Pike can be productive all day long. You can start early and enjoy the bite throughout the day, as long as you know the right technique. For instance, Pike prefer to stay in water less than 5 feet deep during early ice, while moving into deeper waters later in winter.
Ice fishing for Bluegill begins just after winter seals the lakes shut. As soon as it’s ice on, you can pack your gear and head to your favorite Wisconsin lake, knowing that fishing will hardly disappoint. As a general rule, the warmer the weather, the better it’s for Bluegill ice fishing. Catching them in bitter weather is challenging since they move to deeper water.
Bluegill winter fishing is great in shallow bays, where the waters aren’t too deep. Once there, you can set your gear in the weed beds and gently jig the lure up and down. Local anglers tip their lure with larvae, as well as garden worms, earthworms, mealworms, and wax worms. Bluegill bite easily, so using light tackle is preferable.
Where to go ice fishing?
When it comes to picking where to hit the ice in Wisconsin, you’ll be spoiled for choice. There are thousands of lakes and streams, filled with interesting winter fish waiting for you to catch them. What you need to do after you’ve chosen your spot is to check if the weather conditions and the temperature are good enough to fish on the ice.
Lake Michigan’s sub-basin, Green Bay, is an incredible place for ice fishing in Wisconsin. The absolute superstar catch here is Walleye, especially during the winter months. The surface may be sealed with ice, but the Walleye action is hot underwater.
Top Green Bay spots include Oconto, Sturgeon Bay, and the Fox River, to name a few. For the best ice fishing experience, hire a professional local guide who knows the waters of the Bay and will take you to spots where you can fish not only for Walleye but also Jumbo Perch and Whitefish.
Ice fishing on Lake Winnebago is perfect for those winter anglers who are looking for a mixed bag. You can fish for Walleye, Perch, White Bass, and even Sturgeon under early ice in the western bays and channels. As the season progresses, Panfish begin to take anglers’ attention in the deeper waters of the basin.
Lake Winnebago’s main basin is pretty big, so you’ll have a lot of ice to cover. Tackling a new adventure on this lake is ideal if you’re willing to change spots frequently, dedicating up to 10 minutes to each spot. Don’t worry, on Lake Winnebago, you won’t run out of spots to cover!
The 1,870-acre Dairyland Reservoir is located on the Flambeau River in northwestern Wisconsin. This is a prime spot for ice fishing enthusiasts not only from Wisconsin but throughout the nation. The Reservoir’s waters are filled with Walleye, Panfish, Pike, and Bass.
Ice fishing in Dairyland Reservoir allows you to not only come back home with a bucket full of bragging potential but land a real trophy. The Reservoir is also a great place for those who are looking for a catch-and-release experience.
Black Oak Lake
Once you arrive in Black Oak Lake, an incredibly clear body of water, you’ll be greeted with some interesting ice fishing targets. Even during the cold months, this lake is home to Panfish, Lake Trout, Bass, Walleye, and Northern Pike – and many more.
Ice fishing in the Black Oak is so good because this is a relatively small lake, so it freezes over fast. You can hit the lake as soon as mid-December and enjoy healthy populations of winter fish. Black Oak Lake is located in Vilas County.
Boom Lake is located in the heart of Rhinelander, which is known as the “Ice Fishing Capital of the World” and is home to ice fishing tournaments. Wisconsin anglers come here to hunt for huge Walleye under the ice, as well as Bass, Panfish, Musky, and Northern Pike.
Boom Lake is 365 acres big with a maximum depth of a little over 30 feet, which means that the lake is very generous for ice anglers. There are multiple lodges scattered around the lake, where you can relax after your winter adventure.
You can hit the ice right on the backwaters of the Mississippi River for some Walleye and Pike action or head to Vernon County and ice fish on De Soto Bay and Jersey Valley Lake. Along the Mississippi River lies French Island with great winter fishing, as well as Goose Island County Park near La Crosse.
In addition to that, there’s the Madison Chain of lakes with great potential for ice fishing and healthy populations of Bluegill, Pike, Walleye, and Crappie, including Kegonsa, Monona, Mendota, and Waubesa lakes.
How to ice fish in Wisconsin?
Knowing the proper ice fishing techniques can help you put more fish in your bucket. Your typical Wisconsin ice fishing trip would begin as you walk out onto a frozen lake with your sled filled with gear and equipment. You find the best spot, drill a hole or two through the ice, and reach open water.
Now, it’s time to unpack your tackle and equipment – lures, rods, or tip-ups. You can carry a portable seat to relax in between the bites or set up an ice shanty. Depending on what you’re hoping to catch, you’ll either explore the lake or work a single spot for a while.
Once you’re all set, you sit and wait for the flag or line to move, indicating that your Walleye (Perch, Bluegill, or whatever it is) is ready to start a fight.
If you’re planning a catch-and-release session, knowing how to put the fish back into the water unharmed is key. What you should know is that a fish’s body slows down during winter, which can help you release it back into the water. It’s important to handle the fish gently or let your guide do the job.
Equipment and Tools
Ice fishing in Wisconsin is similar to ice fishing anywhere else: you’ll need the right equipment for the fish you’re targeting. However, you may also need some tools to make your ice fishing adventure as comfortable as possible.
Here’s a list of the most common tools you may need:
- Auger. This tool is designed for drilling a fishing hole in the ice.
- Chisel. This is also called a spud, and you’ll use it for chopping holes on thinner ice.
- Portable seat. Some anglers sit on buckets, while others bring along a small folding chair or stool.
- Skimmer. This is a handy tool that helps you scoop out chips from a drilled fishing hole.
- Sled. Also known as a toboggan, this tool helps you transport your gear on ice.
- Tip-up. This device lets you know when a fish takes the bait by raising a signal flag.
If you’ve ever been to a lake in Wisconsin during the winter season, you’ve probably seen ice shanties. Those are shelters designed to keep you out of the blowing wind and snow. You’ll find shanties made of different materials, from plastic and canvas to wood. Some anglers in Wisconsin carry portable shanties in case the weather turns bad.
Inside, you may find a bench for you to sit on and just enough room to stand. Some anglers prefer to use heaters in their shanties for extra warmth, while others put small burners outside. Don’t worry, they shouldn’t actually heat the ice – they’re designed to just warm your hands. However, it’s important to always be cautious while using heaters and burners.
To learn more about ice fishing, check out our ultimate illustrated guide.
Ice Fishing Rules & Regulations
While getting ready for your Wisconsin ice fishing trip, you’ll need to purchase a valid fishing license and take a look at the current Wisconsin fishing regulations. There’s a legal minimum length limit for all fish that you can catch in Wisconsin, and minnows are forbidden on some lakes.
The start of the ice fishing season in Wisconsin varies yearly, depending on the thickness of the ice. Typically, there’s a layer of ice around late December or early January. The lakes stay frozen until March or April, however, it’s advised to check the ice thickness in multiple spots before heading out. It’s relatively safe to walk on ice that’s at least 4 inches thick, while snowmobiles can go across 7–12 inches of ice. Make sure to check the weather conditions in advance.
Ice Fishing in Wisconsin – Winter is Coming!
If you come to Wisconsin and ask just about any angler where the best ice fishing in the state is, chances are you’ll end up with a big list of must-visit spots. Ice fishing here is legendary, with so many opportunities to catch fish for dinner and a nice trophy – all in one trip. And what’s a better way to get to know winter Wisconsin than on ice?
Have you ever been ice fishing in Wisconsin? What place would you recommend? Share your advice and fun stories in the comments below!
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