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January 17, 2020

Kim Goerg of Rhinelander waits for a bite on Lake Minocqua on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019. He said he enjoys ice fishing because it gives him something to do in the winter.
Kim Goerg of Rhinelander waits for a bite on Lake Minocqua on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019. He said he enjoys ice fishing because it gives him something to do in the winter.
1/4/2020 7:30:00 AM
Ice fishing report
Ice is inconsistent, but fish are biting
Jacob Friede
Of the Lakeland Times

The trickiest part of the ice fishing season thus far has been the ice itself. Almost since it formed on area lakes it's been under a thick blanket of heavy, insulating snow which has resulted in stressed out, inconsistent ice.

"There's a lot of water yet on the ice," said Jeff Smith, owner of J and J Sports in Lake Tomahawk. "And it's a big question mark as to what is good and what isn't."

Because of those questions business at area baitshops has been fluctuating with the weather. Smith has been busy as of late, though he's dealt with some slow weeks this season due to low numbers of fishermen on the ice.

"It's been going good. I think it could be better had we had safe ice where people know if they can ATV out and snowmobile out on," Smith said. "But at least we got guys that are going out on foot travel."

And those anglers who are hoofing it are catching some fish.

Smith is hearing reports of bluegills being caught not only in the shallow, weedy bays, in 8-12 feet of water, but out even deeper. And perch have been found in some bays but primarily out deep. It's also a good time for northern pike.

"That's been the hot thing now," said Smith, who's heard reports of northern in the 30-inch range being caught. "At least guys are catching fish, and I'm seeing guys come back with not too many minnows in their buckets, so they're using them. And at least they're using them and catching fish now."

To keep steady fishing going, as well as steady sales of bait, Smith is hoping for consistent cold weather that will increase fishermen's confidence in the ice, but he understands the current predicament.

"The question mark is what keeps some people off and I don't blame them," Smith said. "It's their life."

Kurt Justice, of Kurt's Island Sports Shop in Minocqua, has also noticed few ice anglers heading out due to shaky confidence in the ice, and he said that caution is warranted.

"We've got too many reports of people finding 8, 9,10 inches and then moving 40 yards and popping through 3 or 4 or less. It didn't build uniformly," Justice said of the ice.

Though bait is selling well as of late, these conditions have created a drop, so far, in overall business for Justice this ice fishing season.

"It's kept people from coming up. It's kept them from being on the ice, Justice said. "It hurts our business, because a lot of people want to be able to drive their snowmobiles, ATVs, or trucks out on the lakes. We just can't recommend it yet. The only thing I can recommend is foot travel.

And, for safety, he recommends following the footsteps of other fishermen.

"The higher the traffic, actually, the better, when you think about it," Justice said. "The foot traffic knocks the snow down and allows the cold weather, when we do get cold snaps, to dry up and freeze up the crust. It firms things up real well. So one of the better places to fish, for safety reasons, is where everybody else is fishing because they're actually creating better ice by packing down the insulating snow."

Justice also said some of the bigger lakes that didn't freeze until after the heavy snow have better ice conditions because they haven't been stressed out by so much weight.

"The bigger the lake is, it's probably the less snow it has on it," Justice said.

Despite the ice conditions, Justice said there's been plenty of action for those who have ventured out on foot.

Panfish, he said, are being caught in 8-13 feet of water where there's tall narrow leaf cabbage. Bluegills are biting on wax worms and mousies. Crappie are hitting on crappie minnows but also, on more finicky days, on small plastics, mousies, spikes, or wax worms

"Plastics seem to be the best," Justice said. "They usually have a little bit of a wiggle to them to entice the fish to bite."

Perch, Justice said, have been caught with small crappie minnows or minnow shaped jigs waded up with two or three crushed wax worms. though, he said, better perch fishing is to come.

"A lot of the better perch fishing occurs when the fish move out to the deeper mud flats," Justice said. "And there hasn't been as many people wandering out that far. Until they can start using vehicles, you're probably not going to see a lot of people fishing out over the open basins."

As far as walleye, Justice said fishermen are having luck on the weed edges in 12-14 foot of water just after dark. Suckers or shiners have been popular bait.

"When it comes to the walleyes, it seems like it's a lot more of the walleye suckers, especially if they're getting out a little bit deeper," he said. "If they're staying up in a shallower lake with more weeds shiners tend to hang out in those weeds more so, that's more of a natural bait in there."

Justice has also heard reports of northern pike being caught in the 30- inch range.

But for more people to trust the ice and get in on the action, the ice has to thicken uniformly.

Safety first

To help that and to get rid of the top layer of snow and slush, Justice said a warm-up with rainfall could be the best thing.

"Get rid of the snow on top and let that ice thicken up and get back to solid 12-14 inches of good ice. Then we'll be able to support the snows to come," he said.

Strong ice will also be able to support the ATVs and snowmobiles that so many fishermen are waiting to use on the lakes.

But until there is better ice, Justice is adamant that foot travel is the only safe way to go.

"I'd rather see the customers be safe and keep coming back year after year than sending them out on a risky ice-scape," he said.

To ensure a safe return from fishing, area warden supervisor Chris Bartelt advises ice anglers to not go alone and keep someone aware of their plans.

"If you're gong to go out on the ice, bring somebody with you and at the very least tell somebody where you're going to be so if you don't come back in time or check in, we know where to go looking," he said.

Bartelt has been out on the lakes and he also reported sketchy conditions.

"No ice is ever safe, and that's especially true this year," he said. "The ice conditions vary so much right now from lake to lake, and even from bay to bay on our lakes."

Conditions are definitely questionable on the lakes, therefore caution is the key to a good day on the ice this season.

Jacob Friede may be reached at or

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