This past week in Madison grass started to peek out from the melting snow for the first time in what felt like forever. The average temperature jumped up to around thirty degrees over the last week. And despite these first signs of spring, ice fishing is surprisingly still in season!
In the last five days, there was a high of about 45 degrees, which after the cold temperatures earlier this month felt warm. There are still plenty of people fishing despite the warmer temperatures so I went out on the ice near Governor’s Island and James Madison Park to talk to the anglers still out on Lake Mendota to ask them what they liked about ice fishing.
One of the most common responses was something along the lines of this ice angler’s answer, “I’m just an outdoorsman. I love being outside, it doesn’t matter weather, it doesn’t matter, you know, rain, snow, sleet. I love being outside, I hunt, I fish. This is what I live for.”
This seemed to be a common enough response among the fishermen out on the lake, but not everyone was a self-described outdoorsman, some just saw it as a way to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors after spending so much time inside.
One person said, “This is one beautiful thing that a lot of people don’t take advantage of, and you wouldn’t believe the scenery out here with downtown and everything, you know? Yeah, there’s nothing quite like it you know, being out in the middle of the lake.” Another man who was out with his wife and two daughters said, “I’ve been ice fishing since I was a kid. I like it just cause it’s something to do, get outside and I like to hunt and fish, and you know, it’s better than sitting in the house I guess. And we like to eat fish, so.”
I also had a chance to speak with Ted Rulseh, better known as ‘the lake guy.’
Ted is the author of The Lakeside Companion, a book focused on understanding and appreciating lakes and why they’re worth protecting. He talks about when and why he started ice fishing, “Oh I just picked it up, I don’t know, maybe four or five years ago. I had dreaded it for a long time. It seemed like something that I would look forward to as much as I look forward to doing my taxes, but now that I live on a lake, I thought, well I might as well try it. And I did, and I found out that I really liked it.”
Rulseh says that when he was eight, his father took him and his brother to what he described as “a wild and beautiful lake.” He says he was hooked after that trip. This was a common theme among the ice anglers – the tradition of ice fishing and outdoorsmanship was something that was passed down. But getting out on the lake to go ice fishing is something that doesn’t require too much to get started.
Ted says, “I started out with a hand drill. Just a manual ice auger – six inch ice auger – and a couple of rod and reel combinations and a little ice scooper and a few jigs, and that’s about all. It cost me about a hundred bucks to get started.”
A typical ice fishing season runs from December to March. As temperatures begin to climb and as the ice begins to thaw, Rulseh says being out on the ice late in the season is a judgment call. He also notes that the length of ice fishing seasons are changing gradually too, “In the long term, with climate change, we are having shorter and shorter durations of ice. And of course that happens very gradually, but that’s the trend.”
The ‘lake guy’ encourages all of us to see why winter lakes are wonderful noting that they’re full of life and beauty. Ted says, “For the most part, when I’m out there, it’s extremely quiet. It’s very peaceful. And then you hear the sound of the, as I mentioned earlier, of the ice booming in the distance, or sometimes a crack will run right down the middle of where you’re sitting. So it’s a real neat religious experience to be out there on a nice winter day, and have all that quiet and peace.”