5 Hot Picks For Hoosier Hardwater Anglers

This is the time when ice-fishermen will usually enjoy the best fishing for walleyes, bluegills, bass and more on their favorite lakes or reservoirs. Here are five to consider!(January 2008).

Photo by Tom Berg.

Ice-fishermen in Indiana look forward to their favorite season with great anticipation each year. The only problem is that they never know when the season will start and how long it will last! The "good old days" of cold winter weather beginning in December and sticking around through the end of February seem to be gone. Instead, recent weather patterns have been straying to wild extremes, with temperatures fluctuating between balmy and bitterly cold on an almost weekly basis!

Last year was no exception, and although early-winter weather conditions produced more rain than snow, there were periods of cold weather where ice had a chance to form on many popular lakes. The problem was that as soon as ice-fishermen could get started, the weather would change and a warm front would bring mild temperatures and enough rain to ruin the newly formed ice. It was very frustrating!

One consolation for hardwater anglers last year was the late-ice season. It could have challenged an Eskimo with the thick ice and frigid temperatures that descended upon Indiana. By the last few days of January, temperatures in the northern parts of the state were going down into the single digits every night. By the first week of February, the daily lows averaged minus 10 degrees, with wind chill readings of minus 30 degrees or more. Now that's cold! (Continued)

The icy weather continued until the last week or so of February, and many northern lakes in the state had ice as thick as 19 or 20 inches. The arctic winds made fishing difficult for anglers without shanties, but those who ventured out were not disappointed. It couldn't last, however, and by the last few days of the month, a new weather system moved into the area, bringing rain, thunderstorms and high winds to break up the ice.

What will the weather be like this January and February? No one knows for sure. But hardwater anglers everywhere hope that we will see stable weather for a change and an ice-fishing season that lasts for a solid month or two rather than a mere week or two. Only time will tell, but prudent fishermen will have their gear ready to hit the ice as soon as it is safe!

To help anglers choose a good lake, here are five great places where Hoosier ice-fishermen can try their luck. The lakes (listed from north to south) include Appleman Lake (LaGrange County), Big Long Lake (LaGrange County), Webster Lake (Kosciusko County), Lake Maxinkuckee (Marshall County) and Hardy Lake (Scott and Jefferson counties).

APPLEMAN LAKE

The smallest body of water on our list of prospective ice-fishing lakes is Appleman Lake in LaGrange County. One of the reasons this lake is so popular with ice-fishermen is that it is one of the first lakes in the area to freeze (mainly due to its small size -- 52 acres). The most important reason for its popularity, however, is that it produces plenty of nice-sized bluegill and redear sunfish.

According to Paul Culler, the owner of a local bait shop called The Angler in nearby Helmer, Appleman Lake is a good place for ice-fishermen to try this winter. "Appleman has a lot of good quality bluegills," he said. "There are also redears, bass and crappies, too. It's just a small lake, but it's amazing how many fish come out of it!"

Culler has owned his bait shop for 19 years, so he has seen plenty of fish come out of Appleman and other nearby lakes. When asked where the best places to fish are, Culler responded that it is not hard to find fish on Appleman. "Most people just go straight out in front of the public access site on the north end of the lake, in 12 to 15 feet of water."

One local angler who likes to fish Appleman Lake is Bill LaVigne from Fort Wayne. LaVigne fishes the break line just south of the access site that Culler mentioned, but he also likes to get right into the weeds at times. "The weedy dropoff is good," he said, "but you can also do well if you can find small holes in the weeds in that 10- to 12-foot depth."

When the fish won't cooperate in the shallower water, LaVigne moves to the deeper water a little farther out. "There are quite a few fish that are caught right out in the middle, in 22 to 24 feet of water," he continued. "The bluegills are often within 12 to 18 inches off the bottom in that deep water southwest of the access site."

One thing to keep in mind about Appleman Lake is that it has a reputation as a low-light lake. Like most lakes, the bluegills and sunfish here tend to bite best early and late in the day. "But Appleman is REALLY that way," LaVigne reported. "The very early morning bite is good, and then they really shut off until just an hour or two before dark."

Stop in at Culler's shop in Helmer and get a current fishing report when you stock up on bait or tiny ice jigs. You can also give him a call at (260) 351-2877.

BIG LONG LAKE

Big Long Lake is also in LaGrange County, not far from Appleman Lake. It is a completely different type of water, though, as it is long, narrow and deep. The lake's surface area is 365 acres, and the average depth is 30 feet. The deepest spot in the lake reaches all the way down to 82 feet. An abundance of underwater humps, holes and sharp break lines provide almost limitless spots for ice-anglers to pursue the No. 1 fish species here: bluegills.

According to Larry Koza, the District 2 assistant fisheries biologist for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Big Long Lake is very popular with local ice-fishermen. "We consider it to be one of the best bluegill lakes in the state -- if not the best," he beamed. "The bluegills there are just huge!"

Koza has the data to back up his claims, too. DNR biologists performed a general lake survey and a creel survey at Big Long Lake in 2005, and the bluegill numbers were impressive.

"Bluegills 8 inches long and larger made up 62 percent of the harvest," he said. "That's almost three times the state average!"

Considering that more than 7,100 bluegills were harvested during the creel survey, it is easy to see why the bluegill is king at this lake. Besides excellent numbers, there were plenty of big 'gills caught, too. A total of 149 bluegills were harvested that measured 10 inches long, and 30 more were a whopping 10.5 inches long! Paul Culler from The Angler knows that this fishing hole is home to bragging-sized panfish, too. "Big Long probably has the biggest bluegills in the area," he agreed. "It's not unusual to get a lot of

10-inchers in there."

When asked where to fish for these big bluegills, Culler pointed to the small cove at the north end of the lake. "There's a spot called Marina Bay straight out from the access site," he said. "People catch bluegills and perch right there. It drops off to about 15 to 20 feet pretty quick, and the fish move right in there once the ice forms."

Koza recommends fishing the north end of the lake, too; however, he said the south end of the lake is another hotspot. The only problem with that area is that it is a long hike from the public access parking lot at the north end. The hike is much shorter if you know someone or can obtain permission from one of the property owners near that side of the lake to park your vehicle.

WEBSTER LAKE

Webster Lake in Kosciusko County is 774 acres, including the backwater area. The lake is located at the town of North Webster. This lake has become the most productive muskie fishing water in the state over the last several years, with large numbers of trophy-sized muskies swimming around in its depths. However, the lake is also a good ice-fishing destination for bass and panfish anglers.

Jed Pearson, the District 3 fisheries biologist for the DNR, reports that muskies are now more numerous at Webster than ever before. He conducted a study there in 2005 to assess the muskie and bass populations (among other things), and found that both populations are doing well.

"Individual muskies captured in trap nets ranged from 23.5 to 50.5 inches long and averaged 33 inches," he reported. "Harvested largemouth bass ranged from 14 to 20 inches long."

Most muskie anglers do not fish for their favorite species once ice forms on Webster; instead, they wait for the spring thaw. But that doesn't mean muskies can't be caught through the ice. Imagine the surprise on the face of an unsuspecting tip-up angler when he tries to pull a 50-inch muskie through the ice hole!

Largemouth bass fishermen descend on the lake in good numbers during the ice-fishing season, and they target the bass both in the shallow backwater area (early in the season) and out in the main lake. Tip-ups set with big golden roaches or large bass minnows are the preferred rigs. As the season progresses, most bass anglers set their tip-ups along the dropoffs in the main lake right at the weed edges. There are some lunker bass in this lake, just waiting to be caught!

Although many people fish for bluegills, the average size is not as large as it once was. There are still plenty of nice-sized fish caught every year, though. In the 2005 creel survey, bluegills up to 11.5 inches were recorded. Yellow perch are also numerous, but they aren't usually large. Nice-sized crappies can be caught on small minnows or ice jigs that are suspended near the weedlines in 10 to 15 feet of water.

Hardwater anglers interested in trying Webster Lake for large bass through the ice will need to get some really big golden roaches for bait. Stop in at Ye Olde Tackle Box bait shop on state Route 13 in North Webster to stock up on bait and supplies. You can also get a fishing report when you buy your bait. Call (574) 834-2011 for more information.

LAKE MAXINKUCKEE

The second largest natural lake in Indiana is Lake Maxinkuckee in southwestern Marshall County. This 1,864-acre lake boasts an excellent multi-species fishery, and it attracts anglers from across the state -- from spring through winter. With a maximum depth of 88 feet, Maxinkuckee is a deep lake, but it has plenty of shallower flats and humps where fishermen can target their favorite species. Some of the most popular fish species here include bluegills, bass (largemouth and smallmouth), yellow perch and walleyes.

Bob Robertson, the District 1 fisheries biologist for the DNR, points to Lake Maxinkuckee as a great place for ice-anglers to try their luck this winter. "I think it's a fabulous fishery," he said. "Some really nice bluegills and yellow perch are caught here every year by ice-fishermen. A few years ago, we did a creel survey of the ice-fishermen on Maxinkuckee, and our creel clerk caught a 12-inch bluegill through the ice!"

That creel survey was performed in 2004, and it showed that most anglers (33.5 percent) were targeting bluegills through the ice. The second-most sought-after fish by ice-fishermen, however, are walleyes. More than 28 percent of fishermen reported that they were fishing for walleyes during the survey. Walleyes are a popular fish here, and the DNR stocks them in the lake annually.

Robertson recently completed another survey of the lake in the summer of 2007. Although the data has not been compiled yet, he reported that bluegill and walleye numbers were good. "We caught bluegills up to 9.2 inches long," he said, "and walleyes up to 20.5 inches." Bluegills were the second-most abundant by number, and surprisingly rock bass were No. 1 by number! A total of 83 rock bass were caught during the survey, up to a maximum of 11 inches long.

"Ice-fishermen do a lot of jigging for walleyes," explained Robertson. "They use a jig/minnow or a small artificial jigging minnow. Some anglers also use tip-ups with large live minnows for the walleyes (and bass)."

Walleye fishermen catch some monster perch every year, too, with reports of perch in the 15- to 16-inch range!

There are plenty of places to fish on Maxinkuckee, but they aren't all easy to get to. The south end of the lake is popular, especially around the channels. Some of the mid-lake humps, however, require a very long walk. According to Robertson, walleye anglers with snowmobiles tend to fish the underwater humps out in the middle of the lake, just because it would take so long to walk out there!

HARDY LAKE

The southernmost body of water on our list is Hardy Lake in downstate Scott and Jefferson counties. This 741-acre impoundment is home to an excellent population of largemouth bass and panfish (bluegills, crappies and redear sunfish), and although gizzard shad are present in the lake, they have not yet caused a decline in the game fish populations.

According to Larry Lehman, the DNR's District 8 fisheries biologist, this reservoir is a good place to fish during the winter. "Hardy Lake is a popular ice-fishing destination when the weather is cold enough to make safe ice," he said. "The big question is whether or not we will get ice so far south this winter."

If so, the ice-fishermen will be ready. The most recent DNR creel survey here (2003) showed good catches of bluegills. These scrappy panfish were the most abundant fish in the harvest (53 percent), and they measured up to 10 inches in length. Crappies were the second-most abundant species, with fish as long as 14.5 inches recorded. Redear sunfish also entered anglers' catches, with chunky redears up to 10 inches being reported.

Many of the small creek arms are popular spots to fish, especially those that have distinct weed edges. "Anglers tend to congregate on the ice in Bethany Bay, Cedar Cove and Windrift Bay as they seek crappies and bluegills,

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