Fishing & Boating in the Northwoods


Rice Lake Ice Fishing

rice lake ice shanty

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 bypassed by the new and wider US 53.

Note: I dedicate this article to the memory of Ron Wilder, who passed on in May of 2023. I considered Ron a very good friend, and I went ice fishing with him many times.

A Favorite Town

King Edward Inn

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, Wisconsin.

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 King Edward Inn building is still there).

Rice Lake Ice Fishing Weekend Plan

Whatever the reason, I have always liked Rice Lake. For the past twenty years or so, I have spent the night at Rice Lake before driving the rest of the way to Minnesota for an annual fishing trip. (View a list of the hotels.) 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.

Ron Wilder our ice fishing guide

Ron Wilder

Our contact for the trip was Ron Wilder – a transplant from Indiana who fell in love with Rice Lake and moved there. Ron was 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 guiding in the area for about twelve years.

I was a bit concerned about ice conditions, especially after a 360-mile drive during which I saw not a flake of snow or ice anywhere. 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.

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.

A Great Set-Up for Ice Fishing

Inside the shack, 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. Another pot held 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 around the perimeter of the floor were plastic 5-gallon buckets through which to fish. This was quite the set-up, and a great way to enjoy ice fishing!

R Karl ice fishing

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 using 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. Those fish alternately ignored and inspected 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 to see how the bite was going on this particular day. Ron periodically checked back to see how we were doing.

inside the ice shanty

Ron was amazing. He could drop his bait into any hole in the shack and quickly produce a fish, even if we had not had a bite in quite a while. 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.

Toys & Getting Hooked

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 “hooked”. I am more than 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!

Bluegills in bucket

At the End of the Day

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 us! 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. Our destination was Hansen’s Hideaway, about 10 miles north of Rice Lake in Haugen for a tremendous bluegill dinner.

Bluegill fish fry dinner

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 incredible history.

Stout’s Island Lodge there has piqued our interest as a future excursion. And there are other interesting places that we’d like to check out for dinner. To the north in Haugen is Bear Lake which, according to Ron, has some great fishing too. I will definitely put that one on my list for next time.

Rice Lake is easy to like. And it’s easy to see why Ron Wilder chose Rice Lake as his home and why I have always liked it too. It is just comfortable and easy to be there.

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R. Karl

Angler, Author & Epicure

Fishing since the age of eight.  Seriously writing since the age of 16. Chef and foodie from the age of 22 years… and counting. So much to learn and so little time. I have enjoyed every minute of it all.  Whether on the water (where I like it best), in the kitchen, or at the keyboard, churning out content, I feel like I have found my place.  I am sharing it with you in the hope that some of what I love to do will rub off on you. I hope to see you On the Lake!

R. Karl