Best Bets Ice-Fishing


You won't even feel the cold when you start hauling fish through the ice at these great Michigan locations!



Saginaw Bay, where this happy angler has landed a nice walleye, is second to none in numbers of fish produced through the ice. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

Michigan's climate varies greatly from north to south. Winter comes early in the western U.P. In the northern tier of U.P. counties, it's possible to be ice-fishing by Thanksgiving. Conversely, in the southern Lower Peninsula, it's normally well after the first of the year before you have safe ice, and some years the ice can be iffy all winter. The beauty of the state of Michigan is that if you're willing to travel a little, you can find some great ice-fishing for a variety of species.

Following are some can't-miss destinations that you'll want to add to your ice-fishing itinerary this winter.

IRON COUNTY LAKES
Winter comes early to Iron County and some of the best opportunities for catching walleyes are on first ice. Smaller lakes in this region are the first to freeze and produce a hot first-ice bite.

"Chicagon Lake is one of the better walleye and perch lakes in the area," claimed Iron County resident and outdoor writer Robert "Dock" Stupp. Chicagon Lake is one of Stupp's favorite winter venues because it is a steady producer of eatin'-sized and larger walleyes and jumbo perch.

Chicagon Lake receives regular stockings of walleyes. The 1,100-acre lake also has plenty of flats, dropoffs and contours, which offer perfect walleye habitat and depths to 115 feet. "You can count on the walleye schools congregating about midway down the lake on the west shore after first ice," said Stupp.

The first safe ice finds walleyes foraging on flats in water as shallow as a couple of feet. Later, Stupp advised, work the contours found off Midsummer's Point, off the public access at Pentoga Park on the south end, and along a dropoff that tapers from 10 to 60 feet along the east shore.

A bonus on Chicagon Lake is sizable yellow perch that can be caught right along with the walleyes. It's not uncommon for the perch to top 12 inches. The walleyes will range from barely legal up to 5 or 6 pounds. A slip-bobber with a lively shiner minnow will fool both.

"Winter is the best time to fish Lake Emily," stated Stupp. "The lake gets very weedy in the summer, so winter is the best time to target the walleyes there."

Not an exceptionally large lake at 320 acres, Lake Emily freezes quickly and can produce excellent fishing by early December. The Iron County lake has a reputation for a hot shallow-water bite. "I've caught walleyes there in as little as 3 or 4 feet of water and there's a chance for a real trophy there," claimed Stupp.

Stupp said that 'eyes in the 29- to 30-inch range are not unheard of and there's good size structure in Lake Emily due to consistent plants.

First ice finds hot action on both ends of the lake in 5 to 20 feet of water. Locate subtle structure that walleyes patrol. Later in the winter, look for walleyes clustered in a hole that dips to 32 feet off the boat launch on the east side of the lake and off a point that extends from the west side. Stupp claims that Lake Emily walleyes are suckers for a minnow pinned to a leadhead jig.

Don't look to Iron County's Iron Lake as a place to catch trophy walleyes. But if you're interested in securing the main ingredients of a fish fry, check out this 396-acre lake. "You're not going to catch a lot of big walleyes on Iron Lake," offered Stupp. "They'll be mostly eating-sized 'eyes and you can catch a lot of them. You won't find too many over 20 inches."

You won't have to go too far to find them either. Stupp claims that right off the boat landing is a hotspot on first ice. Walleyes can be found cruising the 10- to 20-foot contours and will move into water as shallow as 5 feet in the evenings. Later in the winter, follow the walleye schools to the south end of the lake where you can find water in excess of 45 feet. A nice piece of structure extends along the east shoreline there and you can intercept walleye schools working the break. A simple leadhead jig and minnow usually does the trick, but tip-ups take their fair share of 'eyes.

For more information on central U.P. lakes, contact the Northern Lake Michigan Management Unit of the Michigan DNRE at (906) 875-6622.

LITTLE BAY DE NOC
The main draw for anglers on Little Bay De Noc is walleyes, but you're just as likely to catch big northern pike, whitefish, burbot or jumbo yellow perch. "You really never know what you're going to catch when you're fishing on the reefs," said Bay De Noc guide and resort owner Kevin Lee.

The obvious winter draw for anglers on Bay De Noc is walleyes. "The reefs are good areas to look for walleyes, especially on first ice, but as the winter goes on, the walleyes tend to move to the west and deeper water," said Lee. Most of the walleye action on the mid-lake reefs is early and late in the day. Other species tend to remain active during the mid-day hours, filling in the slow time when the walleyes are dormant.

"We've taken some big northerns in the middle of the day on tip-ups," claimed Bay De Nov regular Ron Hanna. Pike in excess of 20 pounds are not unheard of here. Prime pike locations are off Saunders Point, in Nelson's Bay and on the flats off Black George Creek on the south side. Big suckers or golden shiners interest the biggest northerns.

"Every once in a while you can get into some jumbo perch too," said Hanna. Using a slip-bobber with some lively shiners or a smaller Swedish Pimple sweetened with a minnow will tempt neutral mid-day walleyes and jumbo perch. The perch routinely top a foot in length and it's not uncommon to take a bucketful once you locate an active school.

Proven perch hangouts include reefs between Butlers Island and the Oil Tank, the mid-lake reefs off Kipling, and off the east end river mouths, especially on last ice. Whitefish are an added bonus that will bite the same types of bait and lures as the perch and walleyes. Few fishermen target the whitefish, but they are a welcome bonus and great eating.

Burbot is another Bay De Noc specie that few take advantage of. "You can catch them all over the bay at night," said Lee, "but no one really fishes for them." Several species of trout add to the mix.

"I'm expecting the walleye fishing this winter to be phenomenal," predicted Lee. "We've had a huge year-class of walleyes out there this summer that are anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 inch short. Those fish wi

ll be legal size by winter."

For more information on Bay De Noc ice-fishing, contact Sall-Mar Resort at (906) 553-4850 or go online at www.sallmarresort.net.



The author hauled this nice bluegill through a hole in the ice on Hamlin Lake in Mason County. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

HIGGINS LAKE
I like ice-fishing destinations where you really don't know what you're going to catch. Having several species to catch adds variety and gives you a backup if one species or another isn't cooperative. Roscommon County's Higgins Lake is one of those places.

A good example of the kind of variety Higgins Lake can produce occurred a couple of years ago. Friend Bill Lowrie and I joined ice-fishing guide John Michalik and his friend for a Higgins Lake adventure. John knows Higgins Lake like the back of his hand and took us to a destination on the west side of the lake that tapered from 60 to 90 feet. John had been baiting the area for whitefish and it served as our base of operations.

Two anglers set up on the whitefish grounds while John and I spotted tip-ups and Slammers in deeper water for lake trout. John had some live smelt that he had caught the night before. Shantytowns spring up at night all around Higgins in areas the smelt schools frequent. The shanties emit an eerie glow in the winter darkness.

We didn't even have the third line set when Bill Lowrie iced a 4-pound whitefish. A short time later his slip-bobber dipped ever so slightly and a twin to the first whitefish was flopping on the ice. It was about then that I noticed one of the Slammer rods pointing skyward. John and I jumped on a sled and roared toward the bouncing rod. The fish was solidly hooked and I took my time working it to the hole. John put a death grip on the 7-pound laker and flipped it onto the ice.

And so it went. Every so often a whitefish, cisco, perch or smaller lake trout would suck down one of the slip-bobber rods baited with spawn or wax worms. Tip-ups sprung to life every once in a while and produced some nice-sized trout. The time went by very quickly and by day's end we had a smorgasbord catch.

At 9,600 acres, Higgins Lake is slow to freeze. It has depths in excess of 130 feet and it's often well into January before there's safe ice over the deepest water. First ice produces great perch fishing. The perch frequent the 25- to 40-foot depths and can be caught on minnows, wigglers and wax worms. The perch average 7 to 9 inches, but bigger specimens are caught. Try fishing off the state parks on each end of the lake and near the sunken island near the center of the basins.

Higgins gets yearly plants of trout that produce an excellent ice fishery. Lake trout are the main focus for ice-anglers who jig or spot tip-ups in the 70- to 130-foot depths. Brown and rainbow trout are taken in shallower water right off the first dropoff.

For more information on amenities and bait shops on the area, contact the Higgins Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce at (989) 275-8760 or check online at www.hlcc.com.

PENTWATER LAKE
Perch fishing has been kind of hit or miss in recent years on west Michigan's drown river mouth lakes with the exception of Pentwater Lake. Oceana County's 440-acre Pentwater Lake is one of the smallest drowned river mouths, but it's been a big producer of winter perch.

"We caught our limit almost every time we went down there last year," said Ludington resident Mike Smith. "They were nice-sized fish, too. They'd average 8 to 11 inches, but every so often you'd get one 12 or 13 inches."

Smith said the key was to concentrate on the main river channel that runs through the lake. "It was better in 28 to 30 feet of water and you had to get there early," offered Smith. "We had really good action from about daylight until 11 a.m. and then they'd shut off. More people would show up as the morning went on and the noise seemed to shut them (the fish) down. We'd move away from the crowd and manage to catch a few more fish."

Access is easy on Pentwater Lake. You can park at the city marina or several other locations right in downtown. "Wigglers seemed to be the best bait," claimed Smith, "but minnows might catch some bigger fish."

He said the Northland Buckshot 1/16-ounce Forage Minnow in the glow/perch pattern was the hottest bait last winter. Key was to watch your electronics and bound the bottom to attract the perch schools.

For bait, maps and tackle contact Pere Marquette Sports Center at (231) 843-8676.

HAMLIN LAKE
Mason County's Hamlin Lake has a reputation for producing big winter panfish. It has a very healthy predator/prey balance. When the bluegills aren't biting, the predators usually are. "Last winter was a little slower for the bluegills than past winters," claimed Mike Smith. "But it seemed like when the 'gills weren't biting the pike and walleyes were."

The focus on first ice is on the upper lake off Wilson Park. Bluegills school in the 6- to 10-foot depths there and limits of 7-inch-plus bluegills are common along with foot-long crappies. The panfish bite sporadically at times when predators are cruising the area. Savvy anglers spot a tip-up or two baited with golden shiners to interest the predators. Anglers take walleyes up to 28 inches and northerns that routinely top 30 inches. Safe ice often is available by Christmas, and fishing remains hot through January.

For bait, maps and tackle, call Hamlin Grocery at (231) 843-2058 or go online at www.hamlingrocery.com.

SAGINAW BAY
If there's a better winter walleye fishery than Saginaw Bay I'd like to see it. The Bay is absolutely chockfull of walleyes right now and winter is one of the best times to take advantage of the incredible fishery.

Usually by early January you can get out to the 6- to 12-foot depths that produce hot first-ice action for both walleyes and perch on each side of the Bay. As winter deepens, anglers head out of Erickson Road, the DNRE public access and Linwood Beach Campground and Marina to the 15- to 24-foot depths where the midwinter walleye schools congregate. First and last light produces the hottest bites. Keep moving and punching holes until you make contact. Jigging is the most productive technique, but slip-bobber rigs often take neutral fish at mid-day.

Right now there are a lot of smaller walleyes in the Bay, which is prefect for those of us who love eating fried walleye. With such an abundance of walleyes you needn't feel bad about taking a few.

For more inf

ormation on Saginaw Bay contact Frank's Great Outdoors at (989) 697-5341 or go online at www.franksgreatoutdoors.com.

Michigan has an unbelievable variety of ice-fishing opportunities. Make sure you get on the ice this winter and enjoy them.

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