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Outdoors commentary: The season transition is upon us with ice fishing on deck

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When one season ends, another is about to begin.

Or that was my thought process recently when I put away the totes — one filled with my blaze orange clothing used during the gun deer season, and another with camouflage gear used during the archery season. The totes, by mere coincidence, are stored next to my ice fishing gear.

Yes, in less than a month — Mother Nature permitting — it will be time to walk on water. Time to check out Mississippi River backwaters and sloughs in pursuit of perch, crappies and bluegills. Ah, bring on the cold weather, right?

“I’ve already started getting phone calls, guys wondering about ice conditions,” said Chad Knapmiller, owner of Schafer’s River Rentals, which is located on the shore of Lake Onalaska near Brice Prairie. “I love ice fishing. It’s my favorite time of the year. I love talking to fishermen, talking fishing with everyone coming into the bait shop.

“They come in in the morning, all excited and ready. I don’t get too many grumpy people coming through. Everyone’s in a good mood and ready to fish.”

Myself included.

Ice fishing can be exactly what you want it to be — a time to be outside, relax and catch a few fish for the frying pan. Or you can crank it up a notch — or two — by investing in some “electronics,” the term more serious anglers use for fish locaters, underwater cameras and other high-tech equipment that helps you locate, even identify, fish on a more consistent basis.

If you prefer the electronics methods, or are thinking about it, be prepared to spend several hundred dollars, or more, to get some of the basic equipment.

Businesses like Island Outdoors, Ace Hardware, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Blaine’s Farm & Fleet or Fat Cat Bait & Tackle in Trempealeau are just a few places where you can find ice fishing equipment, such as electronic, augers, portable shelters and other tackle.

“We pretty much have all our inventory up. Rods, reels, electronics, fish finders, ice reels, ice bibs, portable clams (shelters),” said Patterson Lee, general manager of Island Outdoors. “We don’t have everything we wanted — some things are back-ordered. It’s probably our busiest time of year; I would say busier than summer.

“Everybody can ice fish. You don’t need a boat.”

You just need ice. Safe ice.

Knapmiller said he gets asked all the time whether or not the ice is safe. Everyone’s definition of safe ice is a bit different – and there are variables that come into play, such as current, springs, wind, snow — but a wise move is to jump on the internet and simply Google “safe ice chart.” It will show you that no less than 4 inches of ice is recommended for ice fishing, 5 inches for a snowmobile or ATV, and 8-12 inches for driving a small vehicle on.

Remember, these are only recommendations as ice thickness can vary from lake to lake, river to river, day to day and even hour to hour. It’s always better to be safe and dry. Period.

“When guys call, I am not telling them whether it is safe or not,” Knapmiller said. “I can tell them how thick the ice is by the shop, which is where I will see guys fish. I will start seeing guys there at 2 inches, and more at 3. At least there (by the shop) I know there are not any crazy springs and the ice sheet is consistent.

“It comes down to your own level of comfort.”

And common sense, but Knapmiller didn’t say that. I did. I prefer the 4-to-5 inch thickness before I get serious about ice fishing. What’s a few days, or even a week or two, when the ice fishing season is three months long?

Speaking of the length of the season, Knapmiller said he has a good selection of inventory, including some new jigs and tackle, that should last through the season. He’s tried to get even more, he said, but a number of things are back-ordered.

“It is kind of tough this year with all the shipping constraints. I got about half, or two-thirds, of what I ordered. A lot of the new stuff isn’t in yet, and you just never know when it will be,” Knapmiller said. “I try to pick up one or two new lines (of tackle) each year. I order a new Rapala for perch from Acme (Tackle Company), but haven’t seen it yet.”

What Knapmiller has seen is increased interest in the heated ice shanties that he started renting last year. Last year, he said he rented to groups that came from as far away as Indiana, Ohio and Illinois.

“We have three sleeper shacks and a day shack as well,” Knapmiller said. “It is tough to keep them over fish all the time, but we do move them around quite often. We usually put them over the dredged area, over the deeper water.”

If you rent a shanty, the holes will be drilled and the heat will be on by the time you arrive, he said. For more information on the rental shacks, to go Knapmiller’s website at

With ice fishing, there are multiple options — fishing while sitting outside on a 5-gallon bucket or a portable shelter by day, or a heated ice shanty by night. You can use an old-fashioned hand-powered auger, or pierce the ice with a gas-powered or electric auger.

You can use electronics to locate fish, or test your patience by drilling a few holes and hoping a school of fish passes you by.

However you choose to do it, ice fishing can be an enjoyable winter sport. It is for me.

Now bring on the (safe) ice!

ANY IDEAS: Do you know a longtime ice angler who likes to share his or her stories? Know of anyone who has cross-country skied the Coulee Region and beyond? Know of anyone who does some winter camping? I’m always looking for ideas, so don’t hesitate to send any my way at

Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at


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