Hold on to your ice augers. In northern Wisconsin, the state’s annual fishing opener is about to look like one of the oldest running jokes in the book.
And it used to be a lot funnier.
Yes, as Madison and points south are already enjoying open water, central areas like Chippewa and Eau Claire counties are reporting 10-20 inches of ice, and further north even more—in the third week of April. According to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Biologist Scott Toshner of Brule, barring any sudden changes to the long-range forecast, that means much of northern Wisconsin will be ice fishing on May 5.
“We need rain and warmer overnight temps to really make a difference,” he says.
It’s not as uncommon as you might think. The last time ice-out overlapped the fishing opener on a regional scale was in 2013 and 2014, when Wisconsin experienced back-to-back hard winters. Toshner says that it’s typical for ice-off to begin in southern Wisconsin and creep northward. For lakes in Sawyer and Douglas Counties in the far northwest, the average ice off date is April 16.
Toshner is seeing somewhat of a trend, at least locally.
“We’ve been getting these bigger swings it seems like, where the ice either comes off really early or really late. In fact there was a 53-day difference between the average ice-off dates in 2014 and 2015. That’s almost a two-month difference.”
While the long winter brought a much-needed winter tourism boom to much of the state, the ice has overstayed its welcome in places like Boulder Junction, where seasonal fishing resorts like Evergreen Lodge on Little Crooked Lake are taking a hit. Evergreen owner Laurel Malicki says that the late spring has kept her from turning on the water to her cabins. She’s hoping to re-book customers that made plans to visit for opener many months ago, but estimates she’ll lose revenue for at least the first two weekends in May.
“It’s more than a minor inconvenience,” she says. “We need to be working, and we’re not working right now.”
For Toshner and his colleagues at the DNR, who are tasked with monitoring fish populations, the late ice is causing a different kind of setback, pushing their workload into a smaller window of time.
“We start sampling walleye right as the ice goes out,” he says. “We’re kind of just sitting on our thumbs right now, it’s shifting everything later.”
Toshner explains that with different species laying eggs according to water temperature, all spawning will be pushed back this year. First walleye, then muskies. Bass and bluegill will be some of the last to spawn. Those last populations may take a hit.
“With a colder spring, late-spawning fish don’t mature enough to survive the winter,” Toshner says.
But, he adds, there are some silver linings to the whole situation.
“It’s actually not a bad deal. For northern pike it can be really good fishing because the game fish season re-opens.”
The walleye population could also get a little boost from Mother Nature.
“I was told long ago ‘when the deer are dying it’s good for walleyes.’ We don’t have any hard data, but the thought is, in general, that hard winters are good for walleye reproduction.”
Why? Walleye are the first to spawn, which happens when water temps reach about 42 degrees. Toshner says that when that happens later in the season, walleye will lay larger and more robust eggs. And because temperature fluctuations are less likely by then, that makes for ideal hatching conditions.
“What will hurt walleye populations are early ice-offs, like last year,” he explains. “The spawn was spread over two-to-three weeks with smaller eggs and inconsistent water temps, but this year walleye spawning will likely take about six days. The water will warm consistently and fairly quickly, and the eggs have a good hatch rate.”
Walleye are typically done spawning and in recovery mode by fishing opener. But this year, anglers will be able to take advantage of prime walleye fishing—in season. Another win.
As for anyone placing bets on when that season might start, we could see some records this year. The DNR says that shallower lakes and those with rivers or springs will go out first. Deeper lakes, and those dependent on ground water and precipitation will take a little longer to melt.
Until then, keep your jig poles and tip ups handy. And think summer.