Early last winter, one look out at Lake Winnebago revealed hundreds of trucks and ATVs speckling its snowy surface. Ice fishing season was underway and consistent frigid temps formed a thick layer of ice.
This season, however, has been a much different story as a result of above freezing temperatures and high winds. Ice shoves have already formed along Lake Winnebago, an uncommon sight to bring in a new year.
Still, ice fishermen are optimistic with a much colder January in progress. “We have more than a month to go (until sturgeon spearing season),” says Don Herman, former president and current board of director’s member at Oshkosh’s Otter Street Fishing Club. “It really takes one week of cold weather,” he adds.
If temperatures are below zero, ice begins to freeze around one to two inches per day. This is the hope prior to sturgeon spearing season, as many area fishing clubs take part in the event on Lake Winnebago.
There is little reason to worry, Herman confirms. “There has been open water during sturgeon spearing season in the past. Sturgeon spearing will never close,” says Herman.
Sturgeon spearing typically lasts one to two weeks, leaving time for more ice fishing to close the season. “After spearing, you’ll still have at least a month of good ice. Then the walleye and white bass will be able to be caught in the river,” says Jim Hamill, a lifetime member of Otter Street Fishing Club.
“After that (sturgeon spearing), it’s still your typical ice fishing with pan fish, walleye, white bass,” adds Jim Erdman, Otter Street Fishing Club’s Vice President.
According to Herman, walleye, sandfish, white bass and sand pike will be some of the most abundant fish in Lake Winnebago this winter. Sandfish should be a popular catch this month, whereas walleye and sand pike — characterized by slightly different markings than walleye — will be present throughout.
Where are the popular destinations on Winnebago to catch these fish? “Seventy percent of people that fish (in Oshkosh) go off of Merritt Avenue,” says Herman. This location on Oshkosh’s east side neighbors Menominee Park, a popular boat landing.
Once vehicles and ATVs leave from this area, miles of prime icy real estate await fishermen. “Otter Street Fishing Club plows around 50 miles of roads. The roads are three trucks wide,” comments Herman.
While this provides plenty of space for people to navigate, Herman realizes the potential danger far out on the ice. “The ice is never 100 percent safe. It can change in one hour,” says Herman. “If you want to go out on the ice, check with your locals.” With so many vehicles on the ice, there is bound to be some risk, but Herman’s advice can make a difference this winter.
Erdman echoes the same sentiment on Lake Winnebago’s current state. “The lake as a whole is not safe at all. The ice is unsafe for vehicle travel, but the bays are safe — along the west shoreline from Neenah to Fond du Lac,” says Erdman.
One method of keeping people safe is to place bridges in gaps on the ice. “When the lake water settles, there is always an expansion crack,” says Herman. Otter Street Fishing Club fills in these cracks with metal bridges for cars and ATVs to cross. Herman mentions these cracks can vary from a mere six inches to two or three feet.
These efforts from Otter Street Fishing Club, along with Herman’s “Sunk? Dive and Ice Service” for sunken vehicles have protected those on the ice for several decades. With a fast approaching sturgeon spearing season, having fun and staying safe will be the main priority for the roughly 20,000 people who take part in the event.
For information on purchasing a license, go to dnr.wi.gov and click on the ‘Licenses & Regulations’ tab to select anything from one-day to annual licenses. Costs range from $3 to $31 for state residents and $10 to $65 for nonresidents. Once this is complete, be sure to keep the license on your person while fishing and enjoy the ensuing catch.
Grab your drill, rod, tip ups and more, and dress warm for another ice fishing season on Lake Winnebago.