Our Late-Ice Panfish Hotspots

Our Late-Ice Panfish Hotspots

Whether your taste buds prefer crappie, perch or bluegill filets, you can satisfy your appetite on these waters.

By Mike Gnatkowski

The ice had that pewter-gray honeycombed look to it that is typical of last ice. I stood and looked long and hard at the punky ice, contemplating the conditions and weighing the odds of whether or not it was worth the risk.

It was then I noticed a set of fresh tracks on the slushy surface. They led to a solitary angler dressed in a bright-red jacket who was huddled over a hole toward the south end of the lake. He obviously made it out there without falling in, and I reasoned that if I walked the same path I should be able to make it, too. I buckled the snaps on my Sospenders life vest and gingerly shuffled onto the ice, making sure to walk in the other angler's path.

It was over a half-mile of half skating/half walking before I reached the solitary ice-angler. It was my friend Eric Shelly.

"You heard about the big perch they've been catching, too?" I queried as I sloshed up to where he was fishing.

"Yeah. I guess they've been getting some real jumbos and some pretty nice walleyes, too," replied Eric.

"You do any good yet?" I asked.

"No," said Eric, "but I just got here a few minutes before you did."

I sauntered off a short distance from Eric to two holes that were already open. Since I wasn't sure if big yellow-bellied perch or walleyes would be the order of the day or walleyes, I decided to hedge my bet. I put on a medium-sized Swedish Pimple and threaded a shiner minnow head onto the treble hook. I also rigged up a slip-bobber rig with a bell-sinker and two small No. 10 snelled trebles attached with Bear Paw Connectors and two good-sized shiner minnows to another rod and sent that down a second hole. The bobber tipped over on its side as the rig hit bottom in 8 feet of water. I adjusted the bobber so it balanced just above the surface of the water.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The warm March sun made gloves unnecessary and its tepid glow felt good on my face. I lowered the Swedish Pimple to the bottom until the line kinked and reeled up about six inches of line. I lifted the ice rod and visualized the lure fluttering downward. I paused for a second before I lifted the rod again and allowed the triangular spoon to settle.

On about the third jigging sequence I felt weight when I lifted the rod and I instinctively set the hook. The hookset was met with solid resistance and I was sure that I'd nailed a nice walleye. The fish dug for bottom and it was a few seconds before I could work the fish to the edge of the hole. I was a bit surprised as I cupped my hand under the foot-long-plus perch and flipped it next to the hole. A bulging yellow belly proved that the fish was a female approaching spawning time. The bright-yellow sides of the perch were in sharp contrast to the deep-olive vertical bars on its sides. The perch's fins were brilliant orange and resembled the fiery orange of the setting late-winter sun.

Last ice spurs panfish to a heightened level of activity that savvy ice-anglers take advantage of. Strengthening sunlight begins to melt ice, causing run-off and increased oxygen levels. This, along with longer periods of daylight, causes panfish metabolism to heighten. Several species, like yellow perch and crappies, begin to think about spawning. Seasonal movements - and a need to bulk up before spawning time - stimulate panfish to go on a feeding binge as the ice deteriorates. Anglers who use their heads can take advantage of this last-ice frenzy.

Following is a collection of panfish destinations that are sure to produce some hot last-ice action this winter.

HAMLIN LAKE
Mason County's Hamlin Lake has gained a reputation in recent years as being one of our state's premier winter walleye lakes. But Hamlin once was considered to be a topnotch bluegill lake, too, and the bluegills have been making a quiet comeback. The lake has a healthy, if not burgeoning, population of yellow perch. Perch topping a foot aren't uncommon, and the lake is full of 8- to 10-inchers. One of the best times to catch both is on last ice.

"It's usually mid to late March before the ice really starts to get punky on Hamlin," said Ludington resident Eric Shelly. "That's probably the best time to catch the jumbo perch. They start schooling in a few areas prior to spawning and you can really take some nice fish then."

Shelly said that's it's not uncommon to ice your limit of yellowbellies when the bite is on. The day Shelly and I rendezvoused on the ice the bite wasn't hot and heavy, but we each managed to take a half a dozen jumbos. By repeating the performance the next day, we each had enough for a perch dinner.

Fishing for Hamlin's last-ice perch isn't complicated. Many anglers double their odds by using perch spreaders, or by fashioning their own using snelled hooks and Bear Paw Connectors. Some of Hamlin's perch gurus use short 3- to 4-inch snells with small No. 10 or 12 trebles. The short snells tangle less when you're trying to get your rig back down to bottom quickly, and the small, sharp trebles snatch light biters. A 1/2-ounce bell-sinker anchors the rig below a slip-bobber. Bigger walleye-sized shiners take the bigger perch.

Spoons are death on Hamlin perch, too. Smaller Do Jiggers, Swedish Pimples, Fire Eye Minnows and similar spoons take the bigger perch when sweetened with a minnow head. The jigging spoons often take bonus walleyes, too. Try in the shallower reaches of at the south and north ends of the lake and off Ludington State Park.

Hamlin Lake was once famous for winter bluegills, and now the lake's bluegills are making a modest comeback. Last ice will usually find some hot fishing on the bayous on the southeast side of the lake, near the mouth of Indian Pete Bayou and off Wilson Hill Park.

For more information, contact Acker's Just Fishin' in Ludington at (231) 845-5206 or on the Web at www.justfishin.com.

LAKE MITCHELL
"When we have ice, usually last ice occurs sometime in March," said Steve Knaisel of Pilgrim's Village & Resort in Cadillac on Lake Mitchell. Knaisel added that there are years when the ice lasts well into April. When it does, it can provide some hot last-ice crappie action on Lake Mitchell.

"The crappies naturally start moving toward the shallow bays and coves because that what starts warming up first," said Knaisel, "but another place to look for crappies is around holes that are open in the lake. Run-off starts opening up shanty

holes, and holes that anglers have drilled start getting bigger and the crappies will be right under the ice near these holes because of the oxygen that's coming in, and the light."

Knaisel indicated you don't even need an auger, because there are enough holes already around. He said the trick is to sneak up to a hole and drop a small minnow or teardrop baited with larvae into the opening. Often, he said, you'll see the crappies holding just under the surface of the ice and three or four will rush the lure. The specks will average 10 to 12 inches, but fish topping 14 inches are common.

For bait, tackle and info on ice conditions, contact Pilgrim's Village and Resort at (231) 775-5412. Details on other lodging and accommodations in the area are available by contacting the Cadillac Area Chamber of Commerce at (231) 775-9776 or www.cadillacmichigan.com.

WIGWAM BAY
"You can't believe the size of some of the perch I caught on last ice on Wigwam Bay," said ice-fishing fanatic Chuck Finlan. "I mean these things are huge, 12 to 14 inches and just fat."

Finlan said the jumbos move into the shallows of this section of Saginaw Bay in mid to late March. Usually, the perch are in as little as 2 feet of water. "I've seen it when it was solid perch from top to bottom, and as fast as you could drop a lure in, one of these jumbos would nail it." Obviously, timing is everything. But Finlan said when it's right, he's never seen better perch fishing.

Wigwam Bay is located in southeastern Arenac County just east of Standish. The Pine River enters the bay there and the incoming water and shallow reefs attract perch from Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. Anglers can gain access to the ice by taking Pine River Road to the Wigwam Bay Wildlife Area.

Finlan said the fishing is uncomplicated. "The perch will hit just about anything that flashes when they're in," claimed Finlan. He said that Jack's Spoons and other flutterspoons work well. If the bite is on, there's no need for bait. Just bring a big bucket.

For information on Wigwam Bay, ice conditions, and bait and tackle, contact Frank's Great Outdoors in Linwood at (989) 697-5341 or www.franksgreatoutdoors.com.

HOUGHTON LAKE
Michigan's largest inland lake, shallow Houghton Lake is one of the first lakes to have safe ice and one of the last, too.

"Last winter wasn't typical," said Kirk Gunther of Lenny's Sporting Goods in Houghton Lake. "Usually we'll have ice well into April." Gunther said that ice on Houghton Lake is usually measured in feet, not inches, and it takes quite a while for it to melt. Before it does, ice-anglers can enjoy some hot fishing.

"I know last year the guys were doing really well on last ice right in front of the Elk's Club on the south side of the lake," said Gunther. Other hotspots for hand-sized bluegills were out from the Height Marina and in front of Arby's. "I know they caught some really big 'gills there on last ice," he said. A big bluegill on Houghton Lake is a pound or more, and Master Angler-sized specimens aren't uncommon when the ice is deteriorating. Try 6 to 8 feet of water in these locations, using teardrops and wax worms or spikes.

Crappies go a feeding binge when the ice starts to go out on Houghton Lake, too. The specks start moving toward the mouths of canals and marinas, where they'll spawn once the ice leaves. Smart ice-anglers set up off the mouths of these waterways and intercept them. Other hotspots are near the Middle Grounds. Minnows are the bait of choice for Houghton Lake's crappies.

For information on ice conditions and fishing reports, contact Lenny's Sporting Goods at (989) 422-3845.

FLETCHER FLOODWATER
"The ice-fishing really picks up right before the ice goes out on Fletchers," said Dean Robinson of Jack's Landing. "I think the snow and ice melting just seems to jump-start the crappies and it's a great time to catch some of the bigger fish." Bigger crappies on Fletcher means papermouths pushing 16 inches.

Fletcher Floodwater, also known as Fletcher's Pond, is shallow in nature, meaning there's usually no shortage of ice and it's well into April before the ice-fishing season ends. Robinson said crappies will move to the backs of coves and bays where they'll spawn later. Like crappies everywhere, they can't resist a small minnow.

Fletcher is home to some dandy bluegills and perch, too. Because of the lake's shallow nature, the panfish can be found just about everywhere, so you need to move. Most times the panfish can be found on the flats adjacent to the old river channel. Try minnows for the perch and larvae for the bigger 'gills.

For more information on lodging and ice-fishing success on Fletcher Floodwater, contact Jack's Landing at (989) 742-4370 or on the Web at www.jackslanding.com.

MUNUSCONG LAKE
Some of the hottest perch fishing you can imagine occurs on last ice on Munuscong Lake, also known as Munuscong Bay, on the St. Marys River. Tales of 13- to 15-inch perch that push 2 pounds aren't exaggerated. The timing can be difficult. Safe ice comes and goes quickly on this body of water. Last-ice action can be short and sweet, but hit it right and you'll see perch fishing like you've dreamed of.

Last-ice perchin' on Munuscong is a shallow-water affair. The best catches typically come from 3 to 4 feet of water. Hotspots are off the area locals refer to as "The Birches" and off Barbeau Point. A local favorite is a Jack's Spoon adorned with a minnow head. Most anglers use a second rod with a slip-bobber suspending a lively minnow. Both rigs score when the yellowbellies are in.

For more information on Munuscong's hot last-ice perch action, contact the Sault Convention & Visitors Bureau at (906) 632-3301 or on the Web at www.saultstemarie.com.

SHAG LAKES
"Shag Lakes are two of the best lakes in the area for big bluegills, and last ice is a great time to fish for 'em," suggested Dan Gorcella of Carpenter's Outdoor Outfitters in Marquette.

Located in southeast Marquette County, Big and Little Shag lakes are just southwest of the town of Gwinn. Gorcella said that Little Shag is the best of the two, but both have a reputation for producing plenty of 8- to 10-inch 'gills on last ice. Last ice comes late in the Great White North of the U.P. It's possible to still be ice-fishing in mid-April.

Gorcella said that the key to finding the biggest bluegills in Shag Lakes is to keep moving and probe the drop-offs in 10 to 15 feet of water. Typical bluegill fare, like teardrops and wax worms, accounts for plenty of limit catches on last ice.

LAKE INDEPENDENCE
Another Marquette County lake that Gorcella said produces incredible last-ice action is Lake Independence. The 1,860-acre lake i

s tops for giant yellow perch.

"They look like smallmouths," claimed Gorcella. "These perch are huge! I've seen them up to 16 inches and there are bigger ones in the lake." Lake Independence produced the current state-record perch, which weighed 3 pounds, 12 ounces and measured 21 inches, way back in 1947.

Independence has few spots over 30 feet deep, and perch can be found just about anywhere in the lake, but Gorcella said the key is to locate shallow depressions on the flats in midlake. Wigglers and small minnows produce equally well.

Anglers can access the ice at Perkins County Park near the town of Big Bay on the west side of Lake Independence. For information on ice conditions, fishing success and hot tactics, contact Carpenter's Outdoor Outfitters at (906) 228-6380 or www.carpentersoutdoors.com.

* * *
Anglers need to use extreme caution when venturing onto the ice during late winter. Make sure to take a rope, wear a life vest, take a cell phone along and let someone know where you're going and when you'll be back. Take the necessary precautions and you'll be able to enjoy some of Michigan's hot last-ice panfish action.



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