THERE’S something strange but magical, and filled with anticipation, about lowering a bait into a hole in the lake ice in hopes of catching a walleye or northern pike.

That’s where I found myself last Saturday as the game fish season was winding down for the winter, set to close this year on Sunday, March 1.

We drill holes, we suspend minnows below tip-ups and we wait, hoping the weed bed or drop-off we’ve selected is holding or will eventually attract some fish.

The whole exercise becomes a grand success on the very first sign of a flag waving in the breeze, the tip-up’s way of announcing that something in those cold, icy depths has taken the bait.

It took no more than 20 minutes for the first tip-up to go, the scramble for a hookset and fight amounting to a snake of a northern pike that measured just 21 inches.

There would be bigger ones eventually, I hoped, for they have to hit the two-foot mark in order to make it easier to fillet out the Y bones that so many people dislike about those bony, slimy pike.

We finally got the cold spell we needed in mid-February to freeze enough lake slush to make transportation and tip-up fishing a feasible activity.

It was one of those too little, too late scenarios for walleye and northern pike addicts who endured terrible conditions for much of the winter due to poor ice conditions, heavy snow and the resulting slush.

Ditto for the sports shops and others who carry live bait, for they’ve endured an extremely slow year on the bait sales that really count — those $6 a dozen shiners.

There’s nothing overly fun about drilling holes and setting tip-ups on a light-ice year such as this, when you discover hours later that your tip-ups are floating because heavy snow forced down the ice block and promoted flooding. 

So when cold and wind arrived to firm up that slush layer, it was great news for anglers who’ve been waiting months for better conditions.

Bait shop owners say they’ve been so slow this winter that the only redeeming factor is that the slush and lack of fishing pressure saved hundreds and maybe thousands of game fish from harvest.

And that’s the second year in a row that ice fishing took a hit thanks to heavy snow conditions and slush on the lakes.

Conditions are now improving just in time for the last hurrah for game fishing and for the start of that late-winter period famous for crappies, perch and other panfish.

That insulating layer of snow has been blown, saturated or otherwise compromised, giving slush and lake ice a great chance to firm up and add inches. These are the best conditions of the winter so far.

We were fishing deep weeds in 8 to 10 feet of water, not far from the edge of heavy pencil reeds and shallower water that might be holding bluegills and other baitfish.

There’s been so little opportunity to experiment and discover patterns that we were forced to pick a spot that worked years earlier in late February.

And wouldn’t you know it, there were a couple of decent pike hanging around that heavy weed edge just off the drop-off. 

They eventually grabbed one of those shiner minnows and despite their attempts to escape, made it up a 16-inch channel of ice to the surface. The larger of the two measured 26 inches.

That’s not a lot of ice for late February, but it’s too early to predict whether spring or ice-out will be early because of it. We could still get the kind of cold weather that produces 24 plus inches of ice, which is normal.

Thank God we got a reprieve on snow in February after going to nearly 30 inches on the level by the end of January. We needed a break this month and so far, we got it.

For those who don’t know it, the flesh of the northern pike is some of the best-eating fish you’ll ever find in the Badger State.

Granted, you’ve got to get through the extra slime and the extra bones to make it work, but the thick, yellowish fillets of a northern are a prized possession in many homes.

I call it the halibut of Wisconsin because northern fillets have more flavor than walleyes, crappies, perch or any of the other popular species here. 

It’s the only species of fish I know that’s equally good no matter how you prepare it. Northern can be fried, deep-fried, baked, broiled, boiled, pickled or smoked.

For poor man’s lobster, we drop square chunks of fillet into boiling water for 4 to 5 minutes. It turns snow white as it cooks and despite being boiled, has a full and unique flavor. Serve with salt and drawn butter.

When it comes to deep-fried fish, one benefit of the thicker pike fillets is how well the leftovers reheat — even in the microwave. You can’t say that about panfish fillets, which can get rubbery.

Soon we’ll be switching from tip-ups to tip-downs as the game fishing season closes but fishing remains open for crappies, perch and bluegills.

March is a great month for chasing panfish, especially when the snow cover begins to thaw and the oxygenated water starts running down the holes.

Just the thought of it, of aggressive taps on the tip of a rod or a bobber slowly dropping down a hole, is enough to get the blood running.