The unseasonably warm and rainy weather means that “hard water” anglers won’t be hitting their favorite holes anytime soon, but when the season opens record number of anglers are expected.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, a national recreational survey found that over 110,000 more Wisconsinites are ice fishing these days than a decade ago
"Clearly more people are getting interested in ice fishing in Wisconsin, which is great," Mike Staggs, Wisconsin's fisheries director, said. "It's a low cost way to try fishing or to extend your season if you're a veteran open water angler. It's as easy as drilling a hole—or finding a hole someone else left behind—and using some basic equipment to catch some fish for dinner."
An estimated 590,700 Wisconsin residents 16 and over report they ice fish, up from 479,900 in 2000, according to the most recent National Survey on Recreation and the Environment. Department of Natural Resources staff are using results from the federally funded survey and other studies to develop its 2011-2016 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan.
Terry Margenau, a DNR fish supervisor in Spooner and an avid ice angler, credited the sport's growing popularity to several factors, perhaps primarily to the development of specialized ice fishing gear.
"I'm not talking just about the basics, but more on the creature comforts side and, of course, technology," he says. "I have never been one to freeze my buns off for a fish, so have always traveled with a shelter and a heater.
"But now shelters have evolved drastically to be light and made of high quality fabric, heaters are better and safer, and take your pick on sleds to transport your gear. Not to mention the apparel now available to keep you warm. Anglers are equipped to catch fish and be comfortable while doing it."
Margenau added that more people are ice fishing because it provides angling opportunities that don't require a boat. And more second-home owners from the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Madison metro areas seem to be spending more of their winters in the Northwoods as the internet makes it easier to set up a home office anywhere.
"Tag returns from fish tagging we have done supports the contention that historically the winter is dominated by residents," he says.
Skip Sommerfeldt, a DNR fish biologist based in Park Falls and an avid angler, added a few other reasons for the growing popularity, including increased media coverage and the popularity of recreational television shows, the milder winter temperatures and lower snow totals than in past years, which make it more comfortable to be outside, and an increase in the amount of leisure time, whether through the growing ranks of retired Wisconsin citizens and a higher unemployment rate that makes more 'fishing time' available to some.
"And to toot our own horn—the success of Wisconsin's fisheries management program," Sommerfeldt said. "Season limitations, size regulation and various management activities have ensured that there is an abundance of sport fishing opportunities all throughout Wisconsin."
Sommerfeldt ice fished 93 of 96 possible days last year and recorded both a record number of flags and fish caught.
“It's just plain fun,” he said. “There's nothing like watching the slow steady turn on the spindle of your tip-up and knowing that there's a big fish on the end of the line ...and then seeing that fish fill the hole as you slide it out onto the ice."
Moderate temperatures this fall—against a backdrop of rising temperatures statewide over the last 50 years—are conspiring to push the hard water season back. While there's some ice formation in northern Wisconsin, it's behind normal, fish biologists are reporting, and all but the smallest southern waters are wide open, they say.
According to DNR statistics, ice fishing trails only sledding, snowmobiling and ice skating outdoors as the most popular of outdoor winter ice and snow sports.
Anglers spent 11 million hours ice fishing in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That's 21 percent of the total 52 million hours spent fishing across all of the 2006-2007 license year.
Anglers reported catching 14 million fish while ice fishing, and keeping 6.6 million of them, or less than half. During the open water season, about one-third of all fish caught are kept. Panfish, northern pike and walleye, are the top species caught, in order, with 11.7 million, 866,000, and 750,000, respectively.
In 2011 there were 122 ice fishing tournaments held in the state. For 2012 so far there are 56 approved permits, with likely many more to come in as folks continue to submit applications.