First ice draws anglers eager to start season

posted Jan. 2, 2018 9:20 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Jerry Davis | Correspondent

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    John Shelbrack played the waiting game as another angler approached to check on fishing success.
  • jd_CT_icefishing_1_010318
    John Shelbrack checked a tip-up on a Wisconsin River backwater. He hoped to catch some northern pike or largemouth bass, but may not have kept them.

ARENA — John Shelbrack has been waiting since the ice went out last spring to walk on hard water, set tip-ups for northern pike and largemouth bass, and then sit down and wait.

He and his friend didn’t have to wait long because the suckers they were using as bait were a little on the big side and kept tripping the flag on the fishing setup.

“The first ice is always the best, it seems, for these backwaters,” said Shelbrack, of Middleton. “We came prepared to fish the day away and there are a couple of bars close by that sell sandwiches if we really get hungry.”

Cold temperatures were not yet a problem. In fact, not yet having the cold was a handicap, because while some of the backwaters were frozen over with up to 3 inches of ice, anything with springs, moving water or a large expanse were more treacherous than these men preferred to test.

“I stopped here a couple days ago and there was only an inch or so. No one has fished and I didn’t see any holes this morning that have been cut, so we and that guy over on the other side jigging for panfish are the first ones on this backwater,” he said.

While Lake Wisconsin is one of his favorite winter and summer fishing spots, the numerous lakes around Madison, while closer, aren’t. Lawn and street runoff, among other things, are reasons, he said.

“At least in the beginning of the ice fishing season, I fish backwaters almost exclusively,” he said.

Snowy, stormy weather and days preceding a front seem to be better times to fish than pleasant days, according to these two early birds.

A gaggle of snow geese flew overhead, breaking the silence of the morning, as well as a vehicle or two on the road nearby. The sound of ice cracking, while usually hardly noticed, alerted Shelbrack this time as he moved a tip-up to a different location. He also put plenty of distance between himself and the other two anglers.

While Shelbrack may be distinctive in trying to be one of the first on what he concludes to be good ice, he isn’t in that he keeps relatively few fish, particularly northern pike and bass. Even though first fish through the ice are the best, most say, many anglers don’t make a pig of the resource.

On the other hand, Shelbrack claims to be on the ice every weekend he can during the hard-water season. Still, he’s no fool and has his minima for ice thickness and safety and what anglers call “decaying” ice when the thaw begins cutting into the layer of hard water.

Governor Dodge State Park lakes, Twin and Cox, are likely to feel the weight of Shelbrack’s sled, boots and other gear. So are Yellowstone and any backwater along the Wisconsin River.

“I’ll be back here again throughout the season,” he said.

An all-day event is common with ice anglers. Shelbrack pushes that envelope, too, sometimes spending the night inside a camper on Yellowstone Lake when the ice is really thick.

“Down there you can drive on the ice and we stay in the camper. It’s heated, has television and everything we need. I’ve taken some nice walleyes through the ice at Yellowstone,” he said.

Don’t walk away with the idea that ice fishing or tip-up fishing is the only hook, line and sinker activity for this Middleton man employed at Electronic Data Control. As much as he waits for ice fishing, he’s already anticipating the next fishing adventure, while fully enjoying this one.

“Right now I’m waiting to get the boat back out on the water,” he said. “I fish everything; keep a few fish here and there; maybe a few more fish through the ice than other kinds of fishing and might bring my panfishing gear along next time.”

Jerry Davis can be reached at

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