I WAS bent over a hole in the ice while hooking a new crappie minnow to a tip-down rig when a rush of wings startled me.

The fish were biting and my attention was so keenly focused on getting another minnow down that I had forgotten about the small, gill-hooked crappie I tossed out for the eagles an hour earlier.

There’s always a chance that one or more of the big raptors will show up when you’re ice fishing, because they know that anglers leave fish unattended from time to time and that they always leave some minnows behind.

Quite often you’ll see anglers tossing out nontarget fish such as rock bass, which can be annoying if overpopulated, because they take over cribs and other structure that anglers seek out to locate more edible species such as crappies, perch and bluegills.

Getting the opportunity to feed an eagle is some of the greatest entertainment you’ll ever find on a North Woods fishing adventure, for it’s not often that these majestic birds can be viewed so closely while in flight.

To see an eagle go from effortless gliding on the wind currents to nosediving in your direction is a wild experience — the way they drop their legs straight down, bank hard to start their approach, set a course like a GPS-guided missile and then make the grab with those curled, needle-sharp talons.

It all happens so fast that for the photographer, it’s like trying to capture a snowmobile racer at 90 mph. If you don’t stay on the subject all the way, chances are you’ll lose focus and end up with a blurred image.

It’s perfectly legal to feed fish to eagles and ospreys, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), though the fish in question are to be counted as part of the angler’s daily bag limit.

After a long winter with frozen lakes and limited food supplies, it doesn’t take much coaxing to get an eagle to grab a fresh fish. 

While some are more skittish than others, most will make a pass a stone’s throw away to get that food.

Eagles aren’t the only wildlife that have been entertaining anglers in recent weeks. We’ve seen dozens of deer crossing lakes in early morning and late evening, a relatively easy walk in search of food compared to maneuvering forested land with all the snow we’ve had this winter.

One evening, I did a double take on what appeared at first glance to be a half-dozen deer. It turns out they were turkeys trotting across the ice, most likely headed for a bird feeder. That was a first for me.

Deer numbers have been unusually large on the lakeshores this year, for the herd is booming once again in the residential areas where people feed deer despite a ban in the three-county area — a ban intended to help slow the spread of chronic wasting disease.

Last Saturday morning, I had a stare down with a group of 15 deer that were trying to get to the national forest side of a lake, coming from residential. They made the halfway mark before finally noticing I was partially in their path, probably because they got downwind and were alarmed to discover I wasn’t a stump.

Last week, I watched an otter cross the largest basin of a 1,000-acre lake with that run and slide, run and slide technique that looks so effortless on snow and ice. It was heading for a large permanent pier that had an aeration system going, where I’m sure it could find some clams to eat in the shallow, sandy bottom.

Those crazy Canada geese that have shown up here weeks before ice-out are honking around the lakes, going between creeks and lake channels where they are finding a little open water. The ducks and trumpeter swans won’t be far behind as spring migration continues.

If you drive anywhere at the crack of dawn these days, you will find deer in roads and driveways because they prefer the easy travel to all the deep snow that still remains in many areas. Southern exposures and stands of hemlocks and balsams are their preferred hideout now, because snow depths have diminished the most there.

Some of the best spring panfish action is still to come as snow and slush turns to water, causing the ice block to lift and the water to run into every hole and crack it can find. That’s when oxygen levels rise and the fish become extremely active, often suspending far off the bottom where that fresh water flow can be found.

The bottom line is that you never know what wildlife you might encounter while fishing in the North Woods, adding to some great fishing memories.

Eagles happen to be one of my favorites, and I never take a sighting for granted, even when it’s the third or fourth eagle of the day.

The lake-blessed region of Vilas and Oneida counties harbors more eagles than any other area of Wisconsin, more than 20 percent of the state’s population.

Eagles are the epitome of power and freedom in flight, and their vision has no equal. Old eagle eye is just a fun bird to watch.