In Northern Wisconsin, it certainly is that time of year again to put away your fly rods and waders and get out your ice shacks. First ice fishing can be a blast, little to no crowds to compete with and no pressured fish. The one problem with this time of year is that ice conditions can be a little concerning. Personally I use 4 inches of ice as a minimum to fish in this early season but no amount of ice should ever be considered safe ice. Make sure on these early ice trips you have a set of picks and a throw rope. Accidents happen and you want to be prepared for the worst.
As good as the fishing can be on rivers and large bodies of water, it is best to start with small lakes early in the ice fishing season. Small shallow lakes will freeze before others giving you an opportunity to chase after bass/bluegills and stocked trout. These lakes should be approached cautiously and checked in several areas to make that you have an even thickness throughout the lake. Once you have confirmed the ice is safe, break out the gear and start getting the lines in the water. If the water is clear in the lake you plan on fishing it is a good idea to get a camera down (if you have one) and see what the bottom looks like. Setting up on weed lines that are still green or sunken structure such as trees is your best bet for finding fish.
For smaller species of fish like bluegills and crappies, using hook setters can be very productive. These special devices keep your ice rod under tension and when the fish bites releases the pressure on the rod setting the hook for you. With these devices (and bells attached) you are able to sit in your shack comfortably and listen for strikes.
With the early cold snap this winter, the opportunity to get out on the early ice is here. Check ice conditions carefully but don't be afraid to spend some time chasing fish on this hard water. The bite will be good as long as you can find the fish and get your baits down to them.