By Mike Gnatkowski
Consistently catching winter panfish requires more skill than most anglers realize.
Just about anyone can catch big bluegills and slab crappies when there’s a hot bite on first ice or last ice. Panfish aren’t finicky then. Bluegills will tear into a fat wax worm that’s tethered to 4-pound-test line and a modest bobber when the ice first forms. The fish’s metabolism is still relatively high, competition for food is intense and the fish are aggressive. Even finicky light-biting crappies that normally just suck a wiggling minnow in will whack baits with gusto when the ice begins to deteriorate, oxygen levels rise and sunlight begins to intensify. In between first and last ice is when it requires a little more skill to ice a mess of panfish.
Most winter panfish fanatics wouldn’t think of hitting the ice without a flasher for locating fish. Highly sensitive electronics can help pinpoint panfish schools and provide insight into the fish’s attitude that particular day. Skillful anglers can use a flasher unit to target fish on the edges of schools to pluck a limit of panfish from a particular area instead of just icing one or two fish. Hair-thin monofilament, or even sewing thread, is a must to take numbers of bluegills and specks when fishing gets difficult during midwinter. Without wave action and plant life to cloud waters, panfish get super spooky under the ice. In the ultraclear water, panfish have plenty of time to inspect baits, and their lower metabolism makes them naturally less aggressive.
Even the most sophisticated electronics and equipment won’t help if you’re not on a body of water that has a good panfish population. Fortunately, Michigan has dozens of topnotch winter panfish lakes. So grab your portable shanty, power auger and ice rods and give these lakes a try this winter.
“Gun Lake definitely has some big crappies in it,” said Department of Natural Resources Plainwell District fisheries supervisor Jay Wesley. “Last time we surveyed Gun Lake in 1999 we found a lot of crappies in the 10- to 11-inch range.”
Located in the Yankee Springs State Recreation and Barry State Game areas, 2,680-acre Gun Lake is popular with ice-anglers when a cold Michigan winter causes safe ice to form. Access is good. Anglers can get on the ice at the state park, at a county park on the southwest corner of the lake and off numerous road ends. Gun Lake is a myriad of islands, coves and points where ice-anglers can find plenty of seclusion.
Wesley said some of the best crappie action is on first ice, which usually occurs around the first of the year. Look for crappies in some of the shallower bays at that time on the west side of the lake. Later, schools of crappies will relate to dropoffs near Murphys and Hastings points in 10 to 30 feet of water.
Like crappies everywhere, Gun Lake’s specks love small minnows. Larva will score at times and will also fool some of the lake’s big sunfish and bluegills.
For information on accommodations and bait shops near Gun Lake, contact the Barry County Chamber of Commerce at (269) 945-2454 or on the Web at www.barrycountychamber.com.
“We had some excellent reports of good crappie fishing on the Crooked lakes last winter,” said fisheries biologist Jay Wesley. “Both lakes are very good for bluegills, too.”
Lower Crooked Lake, at 417 acres, is the shallower of the two lakes and produces the hottest action on first ice. Largely undeveloped, Lower Crooked lake has few spots over 10 feet deep. Some of the best first-ice action occurs right off the access on the southwest end. A depression there and several points and islands concentrate schools of bluegills and crappies that will go 12 inches.
Upper Crooked Lake is quite different from Lower Crooked. Spanning some 745 acres, Upper Crooked has holes in access of 40 feet and tends to produce better ice-fishing from midwinter on. Look for both ‘gills and crappies to stack up along dropoffs that taper from 5 to 20 feet in the myriad of bays and points near the center portion of the lake. The bluegills tend to stay close to bottom while the crappies will generally be suspended somewhere in between. Tiny shiner minnows work best for the papermouths, and spikes or mousies are best for the bigger ‘gills. Both can be purchased at Bob’s Gun Shop, (269) 945-4106, in Hastings.
The 275-acre lake is located in southeastern Van Buren County, south of the town of Lawton. Wesley indicated that Cedar Lake has good public access and is particularly good on first ice.
Try the long finger on the northwest side of the lake or the bay on the southeast side of the lake when ice becomes safe in early January.
Expect to find plenty of bluegills in the 8- to 9-inch range in Big Fish Lake. Try the coves and bays on the north end of the lake on first ice.
Big Fish Lake, at 340 acres, is located in northeast Cass County and is only a stone’s throw from Cedar Lake west of Marcellus. There is a public access on the southwest corner.
For more information on Cedar, Big Fish and other southwest Michigan winter panfish destinations, contact the DNR Plainwell District office at (269) 685-6851.
shing pressure, especially during the winter.
“Oakland County’s Loon Lake is probably one of the better panfish lakes in our district right now,” said Lake Erie Management Unit fisheries biologist Jeff Braunscheidel. “Loon Lake has excellent water quality and supports a very good population of bluegills and crappies. Loon Lake doesn’t see a lot of wintertime fishing pressure either.”
Located just east of Drayton Plains off Dixie Highway, 243-acre Loon Lake features sharp dropoffs, islands, deep water, and breaks and points that concentrate winter panfish. The Clinton River flows into and out of the lake, providing a steady flow of oxygen and nutrients. Ice-anglers can expect to catch bluegills in the 7- to 9-inch range and crappies that will average between 10 and 12 inches.
The area off Loon Lake Drive where the Clinton River enters the lake is a prime first-ice hotspot for both crappies and ‘gills. Another good area is directly east of the public access located on the west side of the lake in 5 to 15 feet of water. Winter anglers rely on a smorgasbord of spikes, wax worms and tiny minnows to fool the lake’s panfish.
An impoundment of the Clinton River, 255-acre Oakland Lake has depths up to 60 feet and plenty of flats to attract winter panfish. One first-ice hotspot is in a bay referred to as “Leggets Lake” on the south end of the lake. The 5- to 10-foot depths there attract schools of first-ice ‘gills and crappies. Later in the winter try the area east of the public access around the edge of a hole that approaches 30 feet there. Expect to ice plenty of bluegills and sunfish that will crowd 8 inches and crappies that will average close to 10 inches.
For maps, live bait and fishing reports on Oakland County lakes, contact KD Outdoors at 7688 Highland Rd., Waterford, MI 48327, (248) 666-7799 or on the Web at www.kdoutdoors.com.
Located in southeast Clinton County, 412-acre Lake Ovid is formed by the Little Maple River. Surrounded by Sleepy Hollow State Park, Lake Ovid offers excellent public access for ice-anglers. A road parallels the entire shoreline of the lake so ice-anglers can get on the lake at numerous locations. Most of the lake is less than 10 feet deep. Panfish concentrate near the old river channel and near dropoffs surrounding islands in the middle of the lake.
On my winter trip to Lake Ovid the panfish proved elusive until I located the edge of the river channel. My Vexilar FL-8 showed a school of panfish hovering just off bottom. With the wind howling and temperatures in the low teens, the fish weren’t active. Tiny teardrops baited with spikes were needed to coax the biggest ‘gills into striking. Perseverance paid off with a few hand-sized bluegills. Another group of anglers took a dozen 10- to 12-inch crappies near the dam on the north end of the lake by using minnows.
For information on park hours and access on Lake Ovid, contact Sleepy Hollow State Park at (517) 651-6217 or on the Web at www.michigan.gov/dnr.
Ice-anglers can usually get on Hamlin Lake right around Christmas. Hot first-ice action takes place on the upper lake in Indian Pete Bayou, off Wilson Park, Victory Park and on the opposite end of the lower lake in the South Bayou. Anglers can gain access at the South Bayou, Victory Park and at the end of Barnhart Road.
Last winter ice-anglers took limits of 7- to 9-inch bluegills and sunfish on Hamlin until midwinter. A few Master Angler-sized ‘gills that brought back memories of years past were also taken. The biggest panfish can be caught as shallow as 5 feet of water on first ice. Later, anglers did best in water that ranged from 10 to 20 feet deep. The panfish can be finicky though. The real panfish gurus use ultra-thin monofilament, wispy rods, flashers and tiny teardrops that range from orange and chartreuse to purple and black.
A nighttime crappie fishery develops on Hamlin during midwinter. Anglers park on the ice off Grace Road just east of “The Narrows” and concentrate in the 20- to 30-foot depths. The specks are suspended right off the old river channel. Minnows are the preferred offering, but larva will work, too. The time during the full moon period seems to produce the hottest action. The crappies will average 10 to 12 inches, but specks to 16 inches are common.
For fishing reports, bait and tackle, contact North Bayou Resort at 1-800-261-7415 or on the Web at www.northbayou.com.
“In the 1999 survey, we caught good numbers of 7- and 8-inch bluegills out of Bear Lake,” said Central Lake Michigan Management Unit fisheries biologist Mark Tonello. “We didn’t see any trophies, but there is a good solid bluegill population to fish for. Growth rates for the bluegills were very good. The walleyes we stock in there should continue to keep the bluegill population in good shape.
Bear Lake, at 1,744 acres, is bowl shaped. The center of the lake averages 20 to 22 feet. The 15- to 20-foot contour is a good spot to try for a variety of game fish. Key for panfish is to locate weed edges that provide food and protection. Good areas to prospect are the South Middle Grounds, Little Grounds and the East Middle Grounds. Keep drilling holes until you make contact. Use spikes, wax worms or wigglers for bluegills.
For maps and more information on Bear Lake’s winter panfish, contact the Central Lake Michigan Management Unit at (231) 775-9227.
“Thunder Lake is among the better crappie lakes in the U.P.,” claimed U.S. For
est Service fisheries biologist Chuck Bassett. “The lake is traditionally good for big crappies up to 16 inches.” And the best part is that most U.P. ice-anglers don’t pay much attention to panfish.
Located in southwest Schoolcraft County about 15 miles northwest of Manistique, 340-acre Thunder Lake receives a fair amount of fishing pressure during the summer months, but winter finds the lake nearly barren. The ice-anglers that are out are usually after pike and walleyes.
Several nutrient-rich streams feed Thunder Lake, and off those creeks is a good place to begin your search for crappies. Try the southwest side of the lake. Crappies love structure, too, so they relate heavily to old red pine stumps located in 10 to 15 feet of water along the lake’s east shoreline. Like crappies everywhere, minnows produce the biggest specks, but small jigging spoons and Jigging Rapalas will work, too. Thunder Lake also contains some very nice sunfish and bluegills, which makes for a nice winter mixed bag.
For more information on winter access, contact the USFS Ranger District Office at (906) 786-2351.
Fortune Lakes is made up of a chain of three lakes that all produce jumbo panfish. Anglers can gain access at Bewabic State Park off U.S. Highway 2 and at several road ends. A four-wheeler or snowmobile can be a big help. Key is to punch plenty of holes and keep moving until you locate active schools of fish. When you find them, expect to catch plenty of hand-sized ‘gills between 8 and 10 inches. Try wax worms or spikes in 10 to 20 feet of water.
For more details on winter panfish opportunities on the Fortune Chain of Lakes, contact the Northern Lake Michigan Management Unit of the DNR at (906) 875-6622.
I can’t think of anything I like to eat more than golden-fried panfish filets. And with so many great panfish lakes to explore this winter, there’s no reason not to satisfy your own craving for tasty panfish.
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