Michigan'™s Great Wintertime Northerns

Michigan'™s Great Wintertime Northerns

Here's a look at the inner workings of the state's legendary pike waters of the Lower Peninsula.(January 2008).

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Facts and the myths surrounding the torpedo-shaped northern pike have become interwoven through the years, and the truth about the "water wolf" is sometimes tough to know. But one thing is certain: The northern pike is one of the most exciting game fish Michigan anglers will ever take from under the ice.

Pike are sometimes classified as a cold-water fish. Smaller pike prefer the warm shallows associated with bays and weedbeds, but once they reach adult sizes, their preferred temperature range drops into the 50s and 60s, forcing them into deeper water to escape the summer heat. When the temperatures dip again in winter, the lunkers are back in the shallows, where anglers can have a chance at them.

The belief that pike kill simply for the fun of it is probably rooted in their inherent aggressiveness and willingness to bite just about anything that moves. There are stories galore of mammoth pike destroying reel drags and breaking lines without effort, of striking muskrats and ducks and leaving nothing but ripples in their wake.

Though pike like these are rarely caught in Lower Peninsula waters, they can be found, and now is the time to find them. One tip to remember on waters where a big northern pike is a possibility is that two or three holes drilled next to each other to make one long hole is a wise investment in time. Trying to bring a 10-pound, or bigger, thrashing pike through a hole designed for landing a bluegill is tough.

Here's a look at a few of the L.P. pike waters you won't want to miss this winter. Maps of each are available from the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Box 30235, Lansing, MI 48909.

FLETCHER'S POND

Though hardly a pond by any stretch of the imagination, this nearly 9,000-acre impoundment in Alpena and Monmorency counties is without question one of the top northern pike producers anywhere in the state. Also called Fletcher Floodwaters, the lake is simply loaded with northerns.

"The pike fishing on Fletcher's Pond has been on fire," fisheries biologist Tim Cwalinski of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said. He added that the growth rates of northern pike here have been phenomenal, and the pike fishing is the best it's been in years.

During a 2005 pike survey conducted by the MDNR's Fisheries Division, personnel found pike ranging from 14 to 35 inches. Many of them were 32 inches and up, and Cwalinski said numerous pike in Fletcher's Pond stretch to more than 40 inches long.

Dave Robinson of Jack's Landing, a small lodge and bait shop on the lake near the public access point, is likewise impressed with the quality of the pike fishing at Fletcher's Pond.

According to him, ice-fishermen can tangle with big northerns just about anywhere, even in water as shallow as 2 feet deep. He said that in 2005, a 48-inch fish came out of the lake -- a size that is almost unheard of in L.P. waters.

Robinson recommends large suckers to draw strikes. Ice-fishing gear that's heavier than normal is called for if anglers hope to land one of the lake's bigger pike. Pike will chase the panfish right up to the surface, so a bait under a tip-up or pegged to a small jigging lure can be smashed in shallow water.

According to Robinson, there really isn't any one best spot on the lake because the habitat is so spread out. However, finding weeds is critical to successful pike fishing in this lake, he added, and the weedbeds are scattered and have been changing locations over the last few years. Stumpbeds also cover much of the lake. An experimental hole or two may be in order to find productive locations, but the north shoreline in either direction of Jack's Landing is usually a good bet for finding pike.

Fletcher's Pond averages only 6 feet deep and is shallower in some places. The deepest spot is about 12 feet deep near the dam. (Continued)

Access: The state-owned public access is located south of M-32 on Jack's Landing Road, then south on Fishing Site Road on the lake's northern shoreline.

Information: Contact the MDNR's Central Lake Michigan Management Unit at (231) 775-9727, Jack's Landing at (517) 742-4370, or the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce at (231) 723-2575.

COLDWATER CHAIN

The Coldwater Chain of lakes in Branch County are heavily fished but not for the northern pike, according to MDNR fisheries biologist Kraegg Smith, and that's surprising, he said.

"Northern pike in the 36- to 37-inch range aren't common, but there are fish like that in the chain," Smith said.

Most of the bigger fish are taken by ice-anglers in the larger lakes. The smaller bodies of water are shallower and weedier and provide excellent spring spawning habitat, but once the spawning is over, the bigger fish will move out into the deeper, cooler Marble and Coldwater lakes.

According to Smith, the numbers are thin compared with other species, and that allows individual pike to reach some mammoth proportions. Most of the pike range from 26 to 28 inches, which on L.P. lakes is a nice-sized fish, but they get much bigger here.

Carl Gillette of Heinamin's Bait Shop has seen pike of all sizes, including one fish in early spring 2006 that reached 41 inches. That monster was taken on an 8-inch chub.

Another long-time local angler who has caught his share of northern pike on the Coldwater Chain is Bernie Behnke.

"I believe my biggest one was a 39-incher," he said.

The chain includes several smaller lakes, including East Long, Wright, Bartholomew, Archer and Middle. The two largest lakes -- Marble and Coldwater -- draw the most attention. Marble Lake is at the northern reach of the chain and covers 780 acres, with depths plummeting to 60 feet. Coldwater Lake is the largest on the chain at 1,610 acres and drops even deeper, to more than 90 feet.

Access: Public access to the chain includes a boat ramp on Marble Lake off Englewood Drive, west of Ray-Quincy Road, and on the south side of the channel that connects Middle and Marble lakes off Bennett Road. On Coldwater Lake, access is on the west side of the lake on Waxon Road.

Information: Contact the MDNR's Lake Michigan Management Unit at (616) 685-6851, or Heinamin's Bait Shop at (517) 278-9026. Tourism informat

ion is available from the Branch County Tourism Bureau at (800) 968-9333.

GRAND RIVER

The Grand River is one of the L.P.'s most overlooked pike destinations and it holds some of the largest pike in the state. Its wide, slow-moving sloughs and bayous are more like lakes than riverine habitat and are loaded with pike fare, such as suckers, panfish and seasonal migrations of alewives and other pike delicacies.

Northern pike can move in and out of the river system at will, escaping the summer heat by sinking into the cold water of Lake Michigan and then heading upstream to spawn in the early spring. The backwaters contain lush weedbeds with bordering stumps, wetlands, lily pads and deep holes -- all perfect pike habitat. As the bigger pike find fall temperatures more to their liking, they'll move up into the river from Lake Michigan to feed heavily.

Though not common, northerns in the 15- to 20-pound range have been taken. Most pike will be smaller and the population isn't dense, but this is one of the L.P.'s best bets for a trophy-class fish.

The main-river channel may or may not freeze up, but backwater sections like the Bruce's, Lloyd's and Stearns bayous probably will. However, ice conditions can be treacherous and anglers throwing caution to the wind may lose more they've bargained for. Spring Lake is a major pike-fishing spot that can produce well, as is Pottawattomie Bayou, according to Gary Stillson of Lakeview Marine and Tackle.

Ice conditions -- and the pike angling -- can be best at Spring Lake bayou, which is connected to the river but lacks the current.

Access: Find walk-on access to Pottawattomie Bayou when the ice is right at the eastern entrance to the Indian Channel. From Route 104, take 138th Avenue south for nearly four miles to the concrete ramp.

A ramp area is located on the northern end of Spring Lake Bayou. From Route 104, take Fruitport Road north for four miles to the ramp that is just north of the bridge. And Pettys Bayou ramp at Spring Lake is located on the southern shoreline. From Route 104, take Fruitport Road north for just a mile to the concrete ramp.

Access to Stearn's Bayou is at the Indian Channel on the north side of the river, about a half-mile upstream. To reach the ramp from Route 104, follow 138th Avenue for just over three miles.

Information: Contact Lakeview Marine and Tackle at (616) 842-2770, or the Southern Lake Michigan Management Unit at (616) 685-6851. Call the Grand Haven Chamber of Commerce at (800) 303-4097 for information on lodging.

LAKE CADILLAC

"Anytime is good for northern pike on Lake Cadillac," said Brian Richards of Schafer's Bait and Sporting Goods. "You can catch a lot of under-sized pike in the 20- to 23-inch range every day, but there are bigger pike in here. The really big ones are caught in the winter, which is when I caught my biggest at 20 pounds. In summer, I think they just go down into the weeds. If you catch a 20-pounder, you're doing pretty well."

Over the last several years, Richards, his father and a friend have together caught seven pike weighing in at the 20-pound mark or more. And according to MDNR fisheries biologist Mark Tonello, a couple of fish approaching 20 pounds come out of the lake every year. He's aware of one 24-pounder taken in the past.

Weedbeds are dense in the shallower parts of Lake Cadillac, which covers 1,150 acres in Wexford County. The lake is heavily fished, with a primary feature being the extensive cabbage beds, although these can be difficult to penetrate.

Richards recommends anglers start in 10 to 12 feet of water near the channel connecting Lake Cadillac to Mitchell Lake. A dropoff extends from the channel along the southern end of the lake, about 75 yards off the shoreline. This is where much of the lake's cabbage grows during the summer. If it's still green in January, it's still producing dissolved oxygen, and the pike will gravitate to it. Pike move up into the shallows near cover during the early ice and then on out into water in the 10-foot range later on, especially in the green cabbage.

One traditional hotspot lies by the causeway on the west end of the lake. Depths average close to 15 feet and range to nearly 30 feet.

Access: Lake Cadillac is easily accessible from Route 131. A boating access area is in Mitchell State Park on the western end of the lake, off Rose Avenue on the northwestern shore, and off Lake Street on the east end of the lake.

Information: Call Schafer's Bait and Sporting Goods (231) 775-7085, or the MDNR's Central Lake Michigan Unit at (231) 775-9727.

DEVIL'S LAKE

"There are some 20-pounders in Devil's," said Terry Gottschalk of the Minnow Bucket Bait and Tackle, and under the ice, northern pike are prone to wander just about anywhere.

Devil's Lake isn't unique in that respect, but it can be a frustrating experience for anglers. Locating the weedbeds, most of which are in the northern section of the lake, is a good bet if they're still green and producing oxygen. Anglers that aren't familiar with the lake can find some vegetation near the dropoff by the boat ramp.

Having a portable sonar or underwater viewing system can be a real plus, and more ice-anglers are taking advantage of the technology every year. Drill a tentative hole and begin investigating the area. Look for schools of baitfish that the pike, likewise, will be showing interest in. Several holes may have to be drilled to find the honeyhole, but a couple of Devil's Lake northerns on the end of the line will make all the work worthwhile.

Devil's Lake is located just east of Addison in Lenawee County and covers 1,330 acres. According to fisheries biologist Jeffrey Braunscheidel of the MDNR, a lake survey conducted a few years ago captured 19 pike, six of which were longer than 24 inches; one fish measured 31 inches long.

"Overall, there were pretty good numbers of pike with plenty of legal fish," Braunscheidel said.

Access: Access is off U.S. Highway 223 from the north and Devil's Lake Highway from the west. The MDNR boat ramp area lies on the west shore, off Devil's Lake Highway.

Information: Contact the MDNR's Livonia office at (734) 432-1267, or the Minnow Bucket Bait and Tackle at (517) 764-1909. For tourism information, contact the Lenawee County Visitor's Bureau at (800) 536-2933.

HOUGHTON LAKE

No discussion of ice-fishing is complete without mentioning Houghton Lake. It's probably the most heavily fished lake in the L.P., but it's definitely a numbers lake where northern pike are concerned. Thousands of pike are taken every year, many of them through the ice, and fish up to 10 or 15 pounds are a real possibility.

Houghton Lake has been known as a northern pike bon

anza for years. It's the state's biggest inland lake at 20,000 acres and is reputedly the most heavily fished lake in the state. But the pike just keep on coming -- both sublegal and big, impressive fish.

"There are a lot of big northern pike in the lake," said Gary Hath of Lyman's On The Lake Resort. "I saw a 41-incher and several 33- to 35-inchers last winter, along with a few that measured from 35 to 38 inches."

Houghton Lake's deepest spot is only 20 feet, with an average depth of 9 or 10 feet. Scattered weedbeds make pike fishing good just about anywhere.

"Fish anywhere along the weedbeds," Hath recommended. "If you throw out a live minnow under a bobber, it won't last five minutes."

Access: Houghton Lake lies in Roscommon County off Route 27. Public access is off East Houghton Lake Drive on the northeastern corner of the lake, Iroquois Avenue, west of Knappen Creek, where it flows into the lake on the southeastern shoreline, Clearview Road on the lake's west side, and off Route 300 on the northern tip of the lake.

Information: Contact Lyman's On the Lake Resort at (989) 422-3231, or the MDNR's Northern Lake Huron Management Unit at (989) 732-3541. l

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