Great Ice Fishing on Rice Lake, Wisconsin

Many years ago it became increasingly obvious that the traffic heading north out of Eau Claire was far too great to be handled by a two-lane highway; a four-lane version had to be built.  And as is the case in many similar situations, small towns along "old" US 53 - soon almost forgotten - were by-passed by the new and wider US 53.

  Our Ice-Fishing Guide

As a kid, I remember how painful it was to get "stuck" behind someone towing a boat to his favorite fishing hole along the winding and hilly road that was - or at least seemed to me to be - one long no-passing zone through the entire state of Wisconsin.  (Little did I know that one day I would be one of those folks towing my own boat north...)  Oddly enough, I remember many of those little towns along Route 53.  One of my favorites was Rice Lake.

I am not sure what it was about Rice Lake that could have been interesting to a 6 or 8-year-old kid. Perhaps it was the ice cream place in town (Dairy Queen or Dairy Joy? - I don't remember the name) at which we always used to stop for a cool treat on a hot summer day.

There was no air conditioning in dad's car back then ("If you're hot, open the window..."); it was a place to stop and un-stick the heat soaked wet shirts from our backs and stretch our legs as well. Perhaps it was just the fact that Rice Lake had its own lake right in town where one could both swim and fish - two of my favorite activities.

Perhaps it was the restaurant at which we once stopped for dinner with my grandparents who came along on a trip (that place was renovated into apartments at some point, but the building is still there).

King Edward in downtown Rice Lake

Whatever the reason, I have always liked Rice Lake. For the past twenty years or so, I have spent the night in Rice Lake before driving the rest of the way to Minnesota for an annual fishing trip. It does seem a bit strange to me that I just drive through the town but never stay to try the fishing.

I have been posting fishing reports for the area's lakes for the past year or so; they have finally piqued my interest. Not caring what time of year it was - it seemed to me to a great excuse to try some more ice fishing - I made several phone calls, booked two nights at the Best Western Inn and Heidi and I planned a weekend getaway.

Although Rice Lake seemed farther away than a normal excursion would take us, I didn't mind. If Mother Nature didn't throw a major snow storm our way, we were ready for some quality time away. Not to worry, the temperatures had been quite warm and there was absolutely no danger of snowfall - in any amount - for this journey.

Our contact for the trip was Ron Wilder - a transplant from Indiana who fell in love with Rice Lake and moved there - an easy going guy whose kind smile and friendly demeanor made him immediately likeable. Ron has a house right on the lake and has been doing guiding in the area for about twelve years.

Getting set up

I was a bit concerned about ice conditions, especially after a 340-mile drive during which I saw not a flake of snow or ice anywhere, but Ron assured me that there was a good 7-8 inches of ice on the lake and not to worry. Although I had seen areas of open water, the spot where Ron had his shack was replete with the aforementioned 8 inches of ice; Heidi and I both breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Nice bucket of 'gills!

Although there were other lakes in the area with ice, we had decided that we wanted to fish Rice Lake and were going to target pan fish - bluegills in specific - although any fish would be welcome in our bucket.  Ron's shack was only about fifty yards out from shore, sitting over about 10 feet of water.  Inside it was warm as toast from Ron's own propane heater invention that also supplied heat to a pot of steaming water for hot chocolate and another pot of hot coffee. 

Looking around I spotted a popcorn popper, a large tub of in-the-shell peanuts, and various other amenities.  Adorning the walls were towels and hemostats (for hook removal) and a variety of fishing equipment: reels, poles, tip-ups, ice skimmers, etc.  There was even a barometer clearly visible.  Inserted into six holes in the perimeter of the floor were plastic 5-gallon buckets through which to fish.

  All the comforts of home...

As soon as Ron began to set things up for the day, it was easy to see that not only did he like to fish, he was amply outfitted with all the paraphernalia necessary for a successful day on the ice. 

Not one but two Vexilar flasher units - an FL 18 and an FL 20 - and an underwater camera were available to help locate the fish and even watch them as they inspected our offering.  I have always thought that use of an underwater camera was cheating.  But on this trip I changed my mind.  A camera will show you fish and even help you to follow movement and behavior...  but it will certainly not make them bite, even if you hit them in the head with the bait! 

It also shows that fish are constantly moving from one area to the next.  I'm glad it was available; Heidi used it most of the time and she had a ball watching as bluegills, perch, an occasional crappie and northern pike swam past - alternately ignoring and inspecting the bait.  Once Ron had gotten us started inside, he went outside to auger a few more holes for tip-ups and check with other fishermen around us as to how the bite was going on this particular day, periodically checking back to see how we were doing. 

Amazingly, Ron could drop his bait into any hole and quickly produce a fish, even when we had not had a bite in quite awhile.  His major advantage seemed to lie in the fact that he could read the flasher like a book and coax a "hidden" fish up to his bait at will.

A camera sure helps to see what lurks beneath the ice!

As I mentioned in an earlier piece on ice fishing, there are a lot of "toys" that one can acquire - at great expense - in order to be the consummate ice angler.  In a sense, ice fishing is a lot like any sport in which one gets fully involved, no matter which one.  Sooner or later, a great deal of money can be spent if one gets to the point where a good deal of time is going to be spent doing that sport. 

But it doesn't necessarily have to be that way.  Check out this great article by the Wisconsin DNR regarding ice fishing.  There is even a video showing that even the basics can make the event a fun time!  Or, use the advice from my previous article: "Find a place that is not too far from your home that will supply you with a heated shanty, equipment and bait, and give it a try." 

I have talked with many folks - avid fisherman included - who have never been ice fishing.  But I have to tell you that it is easy to become smitten; I am ready to begin investing in some basic equipment.  Even a small portable tent that can be loaded, along with your other equipment, into a sled and hand-towed by you onto the ice to make for a great outing.  Just make sure to prepare properly for the day: dress warmly, have the right equipment and either know the ice well or hire a guide.  Falling through the ice is something that has no pleasant results whatsoever! 

We ended our day with a bucket full of bluegills, perch and crappies and had a ball catching them; Ron was even kind enough to offer to clean them for me!  We headed back to the hotel and relaxed in the spa prior to showering and heading out to dinner at one of my favorite places: Hansen's Hideaway, about 10 miles north of Rice Lake in Haugen for a tremendous bluegill dinner.

Fresh bulegills deep-fried for dinner -- Yum!

Heidi and I also spent some time the next day checking out the area around Rice Lake.  Just to the north and east is Red Cedar Lake, where we found a great lodge with some incredible history. 

Stout's Island Lodge there has piqued our interest for a future excursion.   And there's another interesting place for dinner that we'll try on our next trip (Robert Earls). And to the north in Haugen is Bear Lake which, according to Ron, has some great fishing too.  I will definitely put that one in my list for next time. 

This trip also allowed for much time in Rice Lake.  We discovered a great little butcher shop, a cheese store and numerous dining venues.  It is easy to see why Ron Wilder has chosen Rice Lake as his home and why I have always liked it too: it is just comfortable and easy to be there. 

Rice Lake is closer than I thought - especially when I was not hauling my boat.  Give Ron a call and have him set you up.  I know that you will not be disappointed!

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