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Outdoors commentary: Ice cold out there

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Maybe ice anglers are a different breed after all. Go figure.

When a lot of folks are downtrodden or complaining about the recent spell of below-zero weather we’ve experienced, those who ice fish are likely pondering two very important things: How much ice is being made each day, and are they biting?

The answer to those questions? A lot and a little.

A check with some area bait shop owners and operators reveals about what you would expect, as perch, bluegills and crappies are hitting in some spots, while northerns are popping those flags on tip-ups in other spots.

Flag-popping northern on Round Lake near Trempealeau, that is, but more on that in a minute.

The top priority, however, is dressing for the weather. Now, dressing for cold temperatures — and wind — is easier than ever, if you’ve got some cash, that is.

“How things have changed. Years ago you put on a pair of boots, lined boots, three pairs of long underwear, a pair of jeans, and you went out,” said 81-year-old Bob Veglahn, who has owned and operated Tri-State Bait & Tackle in La Crescent for the past 41 years.

“Nowadays, with these new ice fishing suits — you spend $200 for the bibs, $250 for the windproof and waterproof coat — it makes a big difference. You know, you can get them in flotation, too!”

Yes, many of us have become “comfort creatures,” which isn’t a bad thing in my book. It’s more enjoyable to walk onto Lawrence Lake, a bay off the Mighty Mississippi near Brownsville, Minn., and catch panfish — they’re biting there most days — when you’re warm instead of shivering.

Forget about shivering if you’re in one of Chad Knapmiller’s rental ice shacks on Lake Onalaska. It’s toasty warm inside and there’s plenty of ice — 8 to 10 inches — on Lake Onalaska near Schafer’s River Rentals, which is Knapmiller’s business that is located on Brice Prairie.

In fact, there’s adequate ice — in most places — on Lake Onalaska, as ice fishing is picking up after a slow, and late, start. It may seem like a long time ago, but remember, it was an all-time record 69 degrees in La Crosse on Dec. 15, 2021.

“The temperature swings have not helped us at all. We had a late start, in general, to the ice-fishing season. With the weather pattern unsettled, the fish are unsettled as well,” Knapmiller said.

“Usually the first ice is really good, then it slows down in the middle and it is really good at the end. I don’t think all the fish are here yet. I think it will get better in the next couple of weeks.”

In other words, ice fishing is just heating up as the temps plummet.

Take the area just outside Knapmiller’s bait shop door, the area that was dredged 30 years ago, but still remains one of the best ice fishing spots on Lake Onalaska.

“The 10-12 foot (deep) channel they dredged around 1990, it has the right amount of oxygen, flow and the right temperature,” Knapmiller said of where most people fish in his area. “Fish are really picky where they go in the winter. There are not that many areas on each pool that they like to go to.”

Panfish, as well as perch, do tend to cruise through the area around the airport landing lights. You’ll know when they make a pit-stop in that area, too, Knapmiller said.

“It hasn’t been great yet. I think it will get better. The perch have not showed up like they usually do in their large schools,” Knapmiller said.

“They will come in. Once you start seeing a lot of people by the airport lights, a crowd of 100 or more people over there, then you know the school of fish has moved in.”

The panfish and some perch have moved into the Trempealeau Lakes area, too, according to John Heighway, who was working at Fat Cat’s Bait & Tackle in Trempealeau recently.

“Mud Lake has had some big catches of perch on it lately,” Heighway said. “They are catching them near the top of the ice on rosy reds (minnows), either on a plain hook or with jigs. Some guys are using jigs, pink and purple, with wax worms, or just plastics. For the most part, Round Lake is hit-and-miss right now (on perch, panfish).”

When the panfish are hitting, look out. Sometimes, or too often, Heighway said catching fish brings an unwanted crowd. That, he says, can test an angler’s patience.

This is happening frequent enough, he said, that it spurred them to put a sign in the Fat Cat Bait & Tackle Shop reminding people of fishing etiquette.

“With all the technology that we now have, people are drilling 50 holes all around an area where someone’s catching fish. There has to be some common sense and courtesy,” Heighway said. “Remember your fishing etiquette. Sometimes they (anglers) move like a swarm around someone who is catching something. It’s disappointing to see.”

Heighway said some ice anglers in the Trempealeau area are recording some decent catches of panfish in the marina, too. It’s 6 to 7 feet deep in the public dock area of the marina, and perch and crappies have been known to bite there recently.

There are plenty of places to try, Veglahn said, including Jolivet Bay, Catgut Slough and even Pettibone Park. But just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you can take ice thickness for granted.

“I had a guy in here (bait shop) that was going to spud his way up to the short wall by the dam,” Veglahn said. “You always have to be aware of that (ice thickness), and the snow on top didn’t help.”

Then, with the wisdom he has gained over his longevity in the bait and tackle business, Veglahn added this:

“Look for a guy heavier than you, and follow him. That’s the best advice I can give.”

If you’re looking for bait, tackle and ice fishing equipment as well as where to go, check out one of our area’s bait shops. You’ll likely leave with a laugh or two as well.

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