What brings a woman — reared on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, with the lilt of her regional roots still in her voice — to ice-fish in mid-February at Minnesota’s Winona District, a part of Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge?
Yes, she’s the project leader of the refuge that touches Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. But that’s not the answer.
“It was the first winter that we lived in Wisconsin, my son was four, and the refuge was offering a free clinic to introduce kids to the sport,” says Sabrina Chandler. “He loved it. Because when the fish aren’t biting, he could build a snowman on the ice.”
More motivating: Ice fishing is very social in a season when people can feel cooped up at home. People bring their fish cookers, and it’s “kind of a party,” Chandler says. “More important than catching fish, it’s spending time outdoors.”
In addition to refreshing recreation, ice fishing can provide a healthy harvest. Bluegills and crappies are among the species that can be caught at South Dakota’s Waubay National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Thomas Wickstrom/USFWS)
Ice fishing creates family memories. Tom Wickstrom, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist at Waubay National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota, has been ice fishing since he was five years old. “I went with my dad, and he sure didn’t have to drag me!” recalls Wickstrom, who grew up in neighboring Minnesota and has been at Waubay Refuge since 1989.
Now he goes ice fishing often, sometimes two or three times each week “if the fish are biting.” He and his friends have a portable fish house and a heater to stay warm.
In South Dakota, the ice may be thick enough as early as Thanksgiving. It is certainly thick enough – about 18 inches to two feet – by Christmas. At Waubay Refuge, you can catch walleye, perch, northern pick and white bass. “Ice fishing is easier than other fishing because you can just walk out onto the lake, drill a hole and go fishing.”
Ice anglers going to Waubay Refuge can park on the south side of the entrance, take fuel for their portable heaters and walk to their fishing spot. At most national wildlife refuges, including Waubay, visitors are not permitted to drive onto the ice. Check with your local refuge for details.
Anglers enjoy a day on the ice at Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in Illinois. As these tips from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources make clear, it’s important to have proper clothing and gear before heading out. (Photo: Stan Bousson)
Here is a sampling of national wildlife refuges and wetland management districts where ice fishing can be great. Check with an individual refuge before you go.
Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge
Big Stone Wetland Management District
Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District
Fergus Falls Wetland Management District
Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge
Minnesota Valley Wetland Management District
Morris Wetland Management District
Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge
Windom Wetland Management District
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge
Lake Darling at North Dakota’s Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge is one of the few places at a national wildlife refuge where vehicles are permitted on the ice. At most refuges, visitors must walk onto the ice. (Photo: North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
Before you go ice fishing at a national wildlife refuge or anywhere, make sure the ice is thick enough to support your weight. In its general ice thickness guidelines, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources suggests contacting a local bait shop or lakeside resort to ask about ice conditions and, once on the ice, checking it at least every 150 feet as you walk.
More refuges where ice fishing can be excellent:
Benton Lake Wetland Management District
Bowdoin Wetland Management District
Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
Nine-pipe National Wildlife Refuge
Pablo National Wildlife Refuge
War Horse National Wildlife Refuge
Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge
Audubon National Wildlife Refuge
J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge
Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge
Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge
Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge
Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge
The more the merrier on the ice at Bowdoin Wetland Management District in northeastern Montana. (Photo: USFWS)
“To those who have never tried it, ice fishing is sometimes looked upon as an oddity, but for others, ice fishing is the best kind of fishing,” says the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on its Ice Fishing, The Coolest Sport Around webpage. “Ice fishing is more than just a way to fill the long days of winter. It’s a chance to breathe the cold, clean winter air, to spend quiet time outdoors with family and friends, and to relax and collect one’s thoughts away from the hustle and bustle of a busy world.”
Where better to do that than at a national wildlife refuge?