Gary Engberg: Ice fishing at Brittingham Park is good place to start for kids


Gary Engberg: Ice fishing at Brittingham Park is good place to start for kids

Now that southern Wisconsin has enough ice on its lakes, it’s time to take the children out fishing.

Wait until you are sure that the ice is safe and to me, safe is at least 5 or 6 inches thick and most area lakes have at least that much right now.

Keep your children away from any pressure cracks, feeder creeks and streams, warm water discharges, and any water that is moving. Keep your children close to you when fishing and try to make their time on the ice as enjoyable and educational as possible. Make it a fun activity and spend time teaching and demonstrating the ice fishing basics.

Make sure to pick a day when it’s nice out with temperatures in the 20s and 30s and hopefully not too windy. Make sure children are dressed warmly: boots, mittens, wool hats, plus warm under garments. It’s always a good idea to bring some extra garments because a cold child is not a happy child and your fishing day won’t bring fond memories.

I’ve always found that the chemical hand warmers work wonders on cold hands.

There’s a certain amount of responsibility when taking young children on the ice. Don’t just set up your ice shelter or bucket and start fishing.

Take the time to show the children how you’re fishing and show them the correct and proper use of the equipment and gear that they’ll be using and a little talk about fishing technique and ice safety. Help them as much as you can.

Catching fish is one of the important things when trying to introduce kids to fishing. This is why the first few outings should be to small waters with abundant fish — where “keepers” are not important.

One good location in southern Wisconsin is Brittingham Park in downtown Madison’s “Triangle” area. The local fishing club, the Yahara Fishing Club, has a ice fishing jamboree every winter for hundreds of young and beginning anglers at this location, The club gives away fishing rods, bait buckets, and other fishing gear to all the kids who show up to learn and get instruction to improve their ice fishing skills.

Brittingham Park and nearby Monona Bay are locations where panfish, mainly bluegills and crappies, can be caught by children with minimal instruction. The fish are on the small side, but there are also some “good” keepers that would keep anyone happy and later make a great fish fry.

Most of the bluegills are in the 5- to 7-inch range with a few in excess of 8 inches, which I consider to be a decent or “keeper” bluegill. The crappies average 8 to 9 inches with the biggest fish around 10 inches. There also are the odd largemouth bass or northern pike that are occasionally caught. But panfish are the most abundant species and bite most of the time — if you stay mobile and keep moving from hole to hole and area to area.

In many of these spots you can get fishing without an auger, just by fishing holes already drilled by others.

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The Yahara Fishing Club outing for children this year is Jan. 21 from 9 a.m. to noon. There will be plenty of free equipment for the children and club members to help beginners. There also are hot dogs and hot chocolate for all. Club members drill hundreds of holes. The date occurs during Wisconsin’s free fishing weekend so no license is needed.

The nice thing about fishing Brittingham Park and Lake Monona Bay is that there is a parking lot close to the ice and the walk is not too far for even young children and older adults. There’s plenty of fish for the kids to catch and they usually bite consistently.

You don’t need any fancy equipment to catch fish. A light and sensitive rod and reel with a spring bobber on the tip to detect light bites, an assortment of ice jigs for pan fish, wax worms or spikes for bait, and a 5-gallon pail to sit on is all that is needed for a child’s success. You will catch some keeper fish, so the kids can eat some of what they catch and also learn something about cleaning fish plus the important practice of catching and releasing fish.

No matter where you live, there are places like this where you can take the kids to catch some fish and learn the sport of ice fishing. Take the children to a place where they will have some success and hopefully get hooked on fishing for their lives along with other outdoor activities.

Madison’s Lake Monona and the Triangle around Brittingham Park are two good spots to go on a nice sunny day — or even a cloudy day if it’s not too cold.

There are other fishing locations where you can take a child and not have as many people and also have success fishing. Those include Fish and Crystal lakes near Sauk City, Indian Lake off Highway 12 and Highway 19 west of Middleton, and I almost forgot to mention little Lake Wingra near the zoo in Madison which is full of small bluegills.