Ice Fishing on Lake Delavan, Wisconsin

As I stated in my very first article on the topic: "Winter sports are surely not for the faint of heart. But if the hustle-bustle rat race and other stresses have got you feeling that you want to scream, my suggestion would be to head north for a little getaway." Seems like it was time to follow some of my own advice...

Until just a few years ago, I was strictly a "soft water" fisherman -- meaning that I preferred to be on the water in a boat when the water was in its liquid form and the temperatures allowed for shirt sleeves. Even so, I have written a couple of articles chronicling an ice fishing trip or two that I really enjoyed.

Heidi is warm and toasty inside the Otter II!

And when cabin fever set in again recently, I started to look around for places that offered ice fishing from heated shanties so that Heidi and I could do some fishing. Although there may be numerous places out there that offer this type of thing, I quickly discovered that actually finding one was far more difficult than I had anticipated. Suddenly I realized that the same forces that finally convinced me to get my own boat were now pushing me to get my own ice fishing equipment: cost and convenience.

Now, I may have been bitten by the ice fishing bug -- almost ready to secure my own gear and allowing for forays onto the ice at any time I wish -- but I certainly have much to learn before I head out to my local sporting goods store with checkbook in hand...

However, a recent trip to Lake Delavan, Wisconsin with a knowledgeable and easy-going local guide added some valuable insight into the sport and some necessary insight into the proper equipment. He also helped to provide some fun and a few bluegills for dinner.

John Reddy, of Reddy Guide Service, was our choice for a number of reasons, not the least of which was a very prompt return of my phone call and a polite demeanor during the conversation. Delavan Lake also provided a place fairly close to home.

Due to the proximity, we could have easily fished and returned home on the same day. But fishing Delavan also provided the only excuse I needed to stay at an old haunt -- Harbor Shores on Lake Geneva -- and to visit one of my favorite dining spots: The Mars Bar and Restaurant.

Our transportation...

Reddy is a native of the Delavan area and has an extensive knowledge of the area lakes, has all the gear needed for every group configuration and, as we quickly found, is very easy going.  The drive was an easy one of about ninety minutes early on Saturday morning; we met John at about 12:30pm. 

We were in luck that day, as the temperature had finally climbed out of the deep-freeze and was headed for a high close to 30 degrees.  I was first to head out to the lake on the back of an ATV, towing an Otter II ice shelter behind us.  Strapped to the front of the machine was a new, 10-inch bore ice auger. 

The wind on my face produced a bit of a sting, but it was not the kind of cold that makes one want to change one's mind about the day ahead; the end of the lake appeared as an ice-shanty city, densely populated with a wide variety of equipment -- from the single fisherman sitting on a bucket, to those in permanent wooden shacks.

  I watch as John drills the first of many holes in the ice...

In less than five minutes, we arrived at a spot that our guide had chosen for a start; away from the masses and on the other side of the lake. The shelter was up in minutes and a "Mr. Heater" was glowing warmly in the tent as John headed back for Heidi. The pair arrived back shortly and John went about drilling two holes in the 18"-thick ice for fishing inside the shelter.

We were concentrating on bluegills for the moment and the set-up was simple: a tiny 1/64th oz. jig tipped with a red spike (grub) fished just off the bottom. No sooner were we happily zipped back into the shelter, than John set about drilling a half-dozen holes around the perimeter and setting tip-ups for northern pike that might be cruising through and looking for an easy meal.

It wasn't long before I heard: "We've got a flag up!" I exited the warmth of the shelter and headed toward where John was standing. Watching as the small spool was reeling off yards of line, John gave me some brief instruction as to how to set the hook and play the fish, then gently removed the board from above the hole and the fight was on.

This was definitely a first, as I had never hauled in a fish by hand -- without the aid of a fishing pole! Suddenly, the head of a decent-sized pike appeared and I hauled him quickly up through the ice. Unfortunately, he was not the required size of a keeper on Delavan -- 32" -- and we released him back to the frigid world beneath the ice.

Heidi meanwhile, had not received any bites and upon my return to the warmth of the shelter, we both decided to share a sandwich -- and of course a beer -- that she had brought along. The wind had begun to blow fairly hard; the tent flapped and shook but we were secure and toasty warm. By now -- fish or no fish -- the decision to purchase our own ice shelter was pretty much made.

The Otter II folds nicely into the 'black box' that comes complete with bench seating

John did decide to move the shelter to water that was a bit deeper and, upon doing so, the fish began to bite.  Most were small and had to be tossed back.  But we did manage to catch about eight that were big enough to keep; they ultimately came home with us and we enjoyed a nice blue gill dinner.  (Not sure how to fillet bluegills?

Throughout the remainder of the afternoon, from the small windows of our shelter we watched snowmobilers as they zoomed past, and we occasionally hurried outside as the now familiar phrase "We've got a flag up!" was heard several more times. 

The pike were timid that day and as close as we got to another one was to simply watch, as a monster-sized specimen hung suspended and uninterested within inches of our bait.  The sun had begun to dip below the tree tops as John pulled in the tip-ups, secured the equipment and took Heidi back to the car. 

In the fading daylight, the scene was almost surreal: The charcoal grills were being fired up and the ice fishermen were about to partake of dinner... almost like a tailgate party. Even as the temperature headed back into the teens, no one seemed to mind.  It may as well have been the 4th of July.  The only thing different was that the party would have been on shore instead of on the ice!

We paid and thanked John for his efforts and talked about a return trip for some of the lake trout that he said were lurking in the deep waters of Lake Geneva... a trip for another day. And speaking of Lake Geneva, we headed back to the Harbor Shores on Lake Geneva there for hot showers before heading out to the Mars Bar for fish dinner. It was as good as ever!

As I prepare for my ultimate and full entry into the world of ice fishing, I have decided that -- although I'm sure many get by with less; obviously more is always possible -- there are definitely several items of equipment that I consider to be essential. At the very least, these include proper clothing, a portable shelter, auger, ice skimmer, small heater and a five-gallon pail.

If you want to be comfortable, the number one consideration is a good pair of waterproof and very warm boots, followed by layers of lightweight, warm clothing. Cold feet will lead to a miserable day on the ice!

As for a shelter, there are several manufacturers (Otter, Frabill, Eskimo, Clam and Shappell) that make shelters ranging in size from single-man up to a two/three-man that can be connected to form something akin to a duplex on the ice. Your consideration must include the fact that you are going to be towing this thing from your car to your spot on the ice. If you have an ATV, perhaps you aren't worried about weight.

But you also need to consider that if your shelter is too light and the day turns windy, your shelter can quickly become something like a kite... unless you have some ice anchors that will securely fasten your shelter to the ice! Weight can range from as little as twenty pounds to over a hundred. You may end up purchasing some ice spikes for your boots to make walking easier, and also fashioning some sort of sled from an old pair of snow skis to make travel less of a task.

Some of these shelters are referred to as "pop-up", pop-over" or "flip-over". They are pretty slick and easy to set up. Drill a hole, pop your shelter over you and start fishing! Some have seats as part of the structure, and some do not. If the seat is not part of the shelter, you will obviously need to think about what you want to sit on.

Some are equipped with a floor as part of the structure; some are not. Those without floors make for easier logistics when it comes to drilling holes. These are all things to consider before purchasing a shelter. Depending on manufacturer, style and size, cost will vary widely and can range from as little as $100 to as much as $400 or more.

Drilling through the ice is a task -- literally -- that requires a special instrument. Augers can be of the manual type, which will run about $75. Or they can be motorized, in either gas or electric versions. Be prepared to pay upwards of $400 for this gadget, whether gas or electric. I still have a bit of homework to do here, but my chiropractor actually made my decision for me when he asked how many holes I would want to drill on a given day -- before I need to call for an appointment -- if the ice were more than six inches thick...

My choice will be a motorized version! And based on the newer battery technologies, I am leaning toward an electric auger. By the way, bit size is also something to be considered, especially when the fish coming through that hole may not quite fit if the hole is too small...

A fat Lake Delavan Bluegill

Several types of heaters are available for your consideration and the price will range from around $50 to over $100; the one that John put in our shelter (Mr. Heater) runs about $70 and does a very nice job!  Safety is a major consideration and open flame is not the way to go.  But a heater is definitely on my list of necessities, as staying warm is at the top of my list.

The ice skimmer is an inexpensive but necessary item to have so that the hole can be kept from icing over. And the bucket? Well, I've seen them used to sit on... But let's assume that luck is with us. So we need something to put the fish in after we catch 'em! Which begs the question: "Don't I need a fishing pole?" Well certainly you do. I just assumed that you had that part covered!

R. Karl out on the ice at Kab

One last but very important thing to keep in mind when you head out: there is no such thing as safe ice!  And there are numerous factors that will make even the safest looking ice... unsafe!  Get a guide to take you, or at least follow these guidelines:  Never accept less than 4 inches (at least) of good clear ice to walk on, and 6 inches if you are going to use a snowmobile or ATV. 

How about your vehicle?  I'll never recommend it, but if you make that choice, you better make certain that you have at least 12 inches of ice -- or more -- beneath your feet before heading out!

Best of luck; I hope to see you... On the Lake!

R. Karl