For most of its 430 miles, a foot or more of ice covers the Wisconsin River through the end of March. Currents and unpredictable conditions make icefishing difficult, so anglers must wait for ice-out to pursue the walleyes and saugers that spend winter in the river’s deepest holes.
HOW IT’S DONE: Some bold folks in Wisconsin Dells, however, give spring a kick start and send the ice downriver in February. “Big Dave” Ehardt took over the task from the Leonhardt family, who started breaking ice in 1973. Ehardt slides his boat across the ice to the first small patch of open water he can find. He runs it up onto the ice to break it loose, one chunk at a time, then motors around in circles to create waves, which speed the process. This is no job for a novice, as sharp ice sheets can gash an aluminum boat like a can opener. Working his way upstream, he clears about five miles of river below the Wisconsin Dells dam, and the open-water season is on.
WHAT TO USE: Walleyes and sauger feed on minnows and crayfish on the first shelf above the deep holes, usually 18 to 20 feet below the surface. The water temperature is just above freezing, so it takes a delicate pre sentation to entice these lethargic fish to bite. Ehardt rigs a No. 2 split shot 18 inches above a plain hook, which he baits with a minnow. Jigging vertically, he can feel the sinker bounce on the bottom, but the fish feel no resistance when they take the bait. As the water warms on sunny days, the fish will hit blade baits and heavy jigging spoons. Walleyes up to 4 pounds are common; sauger run much smaller. On a good day, you might catch and release 20 to 30 fish and take home a five-fish limit of 15- to 20-inch eaters.
BEST SPOTS TO FISH: The tailwaters below the river’s 26 dams are the first places to open naturally. Besides the Dells, the most popular stretches are at Necedah, Nekoosa and Prairie du Sac.
Contact: Dave Ehardt (414-803-7160); River’s Edge Resort, Wisconsin Dells (608-254-7707).
DaveEhardt of Wisconsin Dells takes open-water fishing into his own hands. He usesmotorboats to clear the Wisconsin River of ice below Wisconsin Dells Dam asearly as February.