The ice hasn’t been great for fishing in southeast Wisconsin lately.
“It’s been an unusually warm winter with a wide range of temperatures,” said Benjamin Heussner, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist.
“Conditions are unsafe right now,” he said, noting several ice fishing-related accidents across the state.
Heussner, who has been a fisheries biologist assigned to Waukesha County for nearly 30 years, said the current emphasis at the DNR is on safety.
“Use extreme caution if you continue any ice fishing or ice activities,” he said, noting that some rivers are beginning to open in southern Wisconsin.
Fishing season typically closes on the first Sunday in March and reopens in May, according to Heussner.
Still, fishing enthusiasts have options.
You can fish in the panera and some of the open waters, including the Rock River. Earlier this week, Heussner said he observed some shore fishing around the area.
Ground fishing is available in Washington County at Lake Hasmer and in Waukesha County at La Belle Lake, Pewaukee Lake, Menomonee Park, Ottawa Lake, Paradise Springs, Lower Phantom and Little Muskego, according to the website of Wisconsin DNR.
What to look for when ice fishing is possible
In general, experts advise that no ice is safe.
A general rule of thumb is that 4 inches of solid ice is needed for walking and 6 inches for small all-terrain vehicles, according to Heussner, who stressed that the numbers are not scientifically based.
He added that rules vary at Waukesha County lakes.
“Some have local ordinances that don’t allow vehicle traffic,” said Heussner, who said it’s best to check online with area police departments or municipalities to confirm rules.
“There are a couple of lakes that allow vehicles: Pewaukee Lake, Ottawa Lake and Pretty Lake,” he said.
For full-size vehicles, Heussner recommends venturing onto ice only if there is a foot or more of it.
“Another word of caution, when you go to a lake, it helps to do your homework. Talk to local bait shops. Talk to anyone you can who lives on the lake. Make observations like ice shapes. Ice conditions can vary throughout a system,” Heussner said.
The current one is another big issue to consider, he said.
“Also be aware of springs. Many times an established spring flow can cause weak ice conditions,” Heussner said.
When preparing personal safety gear, Heussner said to remember clothing and flotation devices.
He said a flotation jacket or pants can be helpful, as can a throwable flotation device.
Ice picks with bungee cords around the neck can be used to stab and catch the ice in the event of a fall through the ice, according to Heussner, who stressed that if a fall does occur, try to stay calm.
“Don’t hyperventilate. You will exhaust your energies,” he said.
For those still hoping to ice fish this season, the northern parts of the state may offer opportunities, according to Heussner.
“They still have a good month in northern Wisconsin. There could be some decent ice conditions,” he said.
Overall, Heussner said fishing reports in the area have been good.
“Those who have been able to get out have reported good game and fish in the pan,” he said.
And the sport continues to attract many participants, Heussner said.
“There is a lot of interest in box fishing, ice fishing. The best measure would be the number of fishermen observed, and that has been good,” he said. “There are many opportunities for both game fish and pan fish throughout the state.”
The sport provides an economic boost for area businesses, including restaurants and lodging, Heussner said.
“People tend to get cabin fever in the winter. It’s a way to get out and get some fresh air and exercise,” he said. Many winter anglers harvest the fish because the colder temperatures provide “a good opportunity to keep the fish fresh,” Heussner said.
“There are also catch and release anglers,” he said.
Ice fishing techniques
When conditions are right for ice fishing, here are some tips for ice fishing in Wisconsin from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: The most common species caught in the winter are bluegill, perch, walleye and pike. Note: Minnows are illegal on some lakes. Check the regulations before fishing.
■ Bluegill – Try fishing in shallow bays where the water is 4 to 8 feet deep. For bait, try a teardrop bait tipped with live bug larvae.
■ Yellow perch – Perch jig at 35 feet. For bait, try small live or heavy ice flies and bug larvae.
■ Walleye – They are found along coastlines and in shallow bays. The best technique is the notes with fish.
■ Northern pike – Fish shallow bays with big live fish on a tip up in 4 to 12 feet of water.
Ice safety tips
Whether you’re hitting the ice this year or next, here are some safety tips from the Wisconsin DNR:
■ Wear essential safety gear. This includes ice claws or picks, a mobile phone in a waterproof case, a life jacket and a length of rope.
■ Dress warmly in layers.
■ don’t go alone Go out with friends or family, carry a cell phone, and make sure someone knows where you are and when you’re expected back.
■ Do not travel in unfamiliar areas and do not travel at night.
■ Avoid inlets, outlets or straits that may have a current that can cause thin ice.