By Javier Serna
If ice-fishermen were hoping for a year like the previous one, then the 2003-04 ice-fishing season was a big letdown. Last year’s ice season was about two months shorter than the year before. Safe ice didn’t come until early January on most waters. The ice was too clear at first, which makes for difficult fishing. When the snow came, it wasn’t enough at first. Snow cover hides anglers from the fish, which makes them less spooky and more willing to bite.
When the better snows did come, they came too heavy and then melted quickly, leaving inches of slush on many northern Indiana lakes. The slush, in turn, made a lot of ice unsafe even close to shore. The season was pretty much over by the beginning of March. But hardwater anglers are a tough lot, and they managed to get some fishing in, especially during overcast periods and low-light situations like early morning and late evening.
You never know what this season will have in store for us. The year before last provided excellent conditions. Only time will tell how this year’s ice-fishing unfolds.
There are plenty of spots to probe during the hardwater period in Indiana, but Indiana Game & Fish magazine has come up with five spots you shouldn’t miss this year. On the list are: Pine Lake in northwest Indiana, Lake Tippecanoe near Warsaw, Lake Shipshewana in the town of the same name, Summit Lake south of Muncie, and the naturally deep Clear Lake in the northeast corner of the lake.
Lake Tippecanoe is the deepest lake in the state with a maximum depth of 122 feet. Located in Kosciusko County, it is also one of the larger lakes in the area at 768 acres.
Because Tippecanoe is so big and so deep, it is often one of the last lakes to get safe ice. It’s so deep that anglers have to be really careful.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much access to this wonderful lake.
“There’s not a whole lot of people getting on,” said John Linton, a local angler. Linton noted how the only public access area on Grassy Creek is not a viable option during the wintertime, as the creek is not consistently safe to walk on.
But there are other ways of getting on and the limited access means there’s less fishing pressure and more fish at Tippecanoe. And despite its vast acreage, fish aren’t that hard to find.
“Just find the people and you’ll find fish,” Linton said.
These “people” have usually found the green weeds, which, in turn, attract fish of all sizes.
“It’s not too hard to find the weeds,” Linton said.
One spot is at the Tippecanoe Boat Company, which has given hardwater anglers access in recent years. It sits inside Bruce’s Pit, a little pond-like area connected to the main lake by a channel on the northeastern end of the lake.
This spot is a consistent producer for bluegills and crappies. Bluegills are most susceptible to ice flies tipped with wax worms and spikes. Crappies favor minnows.
Another place to get on is at Plaza Marine, which has also allowed access. The marina is on the circular channel on the southeastern part of the lake. This channel is a popular spot for panfish.
Outside of the channel, perch fishing can get hot in about 7 to 15 feet of water. When it comes to perch, minnows and jigging Rapalas worked off the bottom are best in the eastern end of the main lake.
Largemouth bass are often found at the above spots as well, mixed in with the other species. While muskies and white bass are easily targeted during specific open-water periods, the two species are not easily found during the winter.
“You’ll get them unexpectedly, sometimes,” Linton said. “But there’s no consistent way to go after them through the ice.”
Summit Lake is nestled inside the state park of the same name, and it is one of the southernmost lakes to consistently get hardwater in the state. It’s also one of the most productive waters for ice-fishing. The state lands around the 600-acre lake keep it protected from run-off from septic systems and agriculture.
“Since nutrients entering the system is a slow process, the nutrients end up getting tied up into the biomass,” said Dan Robinson, a state biologist and avid fisherman who is one of the few to live on the lake. The lake is really a reservoir and during low-water periods, grasses grow in the shallow areas. When the water recedes, those areas rot and decay and offer an excellent food source for plankton, the building block of all fish species. “It kind of cycles the nutrients into the lake,” Robinson said.
So when the ice is thick enough, Summit Lake has lots of species of fish ready to be caught. The lake is at one of the higher elevations in the state, so it freezes faster.
The first ice usually occurs at the northeast end of the lake. Anglers will fish as shallow as 4 feet, but Robinson prefers to fish the 6- to 8-foot range.
Largemouth bass, crappies and bluegills are the best bets here.
“It can be very good,” Robinson said. “This last year, it was the best.”
The best baits are small ice jigs tipped with spikes and mousies.
“There’s usually a lot of green vegetation around, so look for that to find the fish. They love to be around that stuff,” Robinson said.
Robinson likes to actually use two jigs on the same line with one about 1 to 3 feet above the other. The bluegills are usually holding either close to the bottom or somewhere about 3 feet off the bottom. The key is using the heavier one on the bottom. “You won’t get tangled that way,” Robinson said.
In some years, anglers have luck finding yellow perch. Last year was a tough one for anglers to find these little cousins of walleyes.
“Some years they really take off,” Robinson said. “We couldn’t find them last year. I kept going back to the bluegills because I knew I could find them.”
When the yellow perch are on, it’s because anglers have
gone out to look for them. A common practice is to use small minnows under tip-ups in various spots. Yellow perch can be in water as deep as 40 feet. Once they’re located, jigging Rapalas tipped with spikes are usually effective.
Channel catfish on Summit usually suspend at specific depths, so a flasher unit is very helpful to finding them. Catfish are also susceptible to jigging lures. Robinson remembers a few years ago when an angler caught an 18-pound channel catfish through the ice.
“We had to drill three holes to get it through the ice,” he said.
Are you looking for variety? Pine Lake, a 564-acre lake in LaPorte County, has it.
While the bigger bite is for panfish and perch, bass, northern pike and walleyes are common, too, according to Steve Hardwicke of Kasst Bait and Tackle (866-266-1400) in LaPorte.
But first, Hardwicke said, you have to understand the lake or know someone who does. He freely gives out information.
The lake itself is shaped much like a bowl, though it has a peninsula dividing it into north and south portions. Structure wise, there are a few humps, a few dropoffs and some fairly distinct rock structure. The lake also has a few nice gradually descending points, according to Hardwicke. While the lake gets as deep as 45 feet, most of it is fairly shallow.
The shallower areas are where most panfish anglers will concentrate. In general, the north side of the lake is better for bass, while the south side is better for pike and crappies. There’s a shelf in front of the public ramp on the tip of the peninsula. It holds a lot of yellow perch.
At first ice, bluegills and crappies are usually in 2 to 6 feet of water. Teardrop jigs tipped with wax worms, mousies and colored spikes are usually the best bet. Lime, red and chartreuse are popular colors for jigs on Pine Lake.
Jigging lures are effective for both perch and crappies. In fact, Hardwicke said the bigger perch are almost always caught on those baits. Also, there’s a good chance of incidentally catching a pike, bass or walleye with a jigging lure.
Early ice is also time for northern pike in 7 to 15 feet of water and bass in 8 to 15 feet during the day. Some large walleyes usually show up, too. The most effective bait for these three species are large roaches dunked under a tip-up.
Pike and walleyes also head into the deepest water available during the middle of the winter. They return to the shallows in February as they begin to come into the time of spawning and feeding.
Even panfish will head into deeper water. After the first two weeks of ice, for example, panfish in the 2- to 6-foot water range will move into 6 to 10 feet of water – and fish in 6 to 10 feet of water will move into water 10 to 15 feet deep. Yellow perch, at this point, begin to suspend in depths of 15 to 25 feet.
“They’re moving around from the bottom to the top,” Hardwicke said, noting that anglers with flasher units have better success in finding and catching perch.
But yellow perch here are worth the effort. The average perch is 10 to 12 inches, with some of the bigger ones reaching 15 inches. Last year’s largest perch was around 16 inches and weighed just under 2 pounds.
Medium-sized bass minnows work well for “guys who are ambitious,” Hardwicke said. “Bigger perch are looking for a bigger meal.”
Hardwicke also preached about finding green weeds to find fish.
“You’re going to have to probe some holes,” he said. “If you find black weeds, you don’t want to fish there.”
He recommends using a weighted treble hook and letting it fall to the bottom. If the weeds come up black, “there’s no life there, there’s no oxygen.”
At 802 acres, Clear Lake is the largest of all the waters sampled in this article. It’s also another deep lake, getting down to 107 feet. Its name is apt, as the water is so clear there’s often enough oxygen even down in the depths to support life.
The sandy lake has lots of sharp dropoffs and submerged islands. Find these spots and you’ll often find the fish.
Like other large lakes, this one is one of the last to freeze up because of its size. The lake attracts a lot of geese in the winter, which prevent the lake from freezing up quicker.
“Some years, it takes a lot of cold weather to ice this one up,” said Neil Ledet, a state fisheries biologist.
While it may be big, the Steuben County lake, east of the town of Fremont, isn’t that hard to figure out.
Rainbow trout might offer the lake’s best fishing in the summer, but during the winter months, bluegills and smallmouth bass are the best biters.
There’s a large, shallow flat that extends from the roundabout point on the east side of the lake. This is considered the top bluegill spot during the winter. Bluegills at Clear Lake get up over 10 inches. Sometimes, anglers can get into a mess of the larger ones.
“You don’t have that on many of our lakes,” biologist Ledet said.
The smallmouths usually show up in the shallow rocks on the north end of the far west bay, known as Marina Bay. Ledet recommends finding the green leftover vegetation in this spot.
This is also where a lot of the larger bluegills are taken.
“There’s deep water in that bay, but it shallows up to 6 feet deep,” he said. “When you hit the big ones there, it can’t be beat. But guys are going to make three or four trips before that happens.”
So be patient.
Another species worth targeting are walleyes, Ledet said. The species has been stocked at Clear since the mid- 1970s. The walleye fishery goes through good and bad phases that last about three years each.
“We’re into good fishing right now,” Ledet said. “It’s one of the longest-running natural lake walleye stockings we have in the state.”
There’s an island on the south end of the lake that often produces northern pike early and late in the ice-fishing season with large roaches under a tip-up. There’s a steep drop- off on the southern tip of that island. Walleyes and pike both relate to this spot. This break is not unlike other breaks that occur along the south shore. This spot shouldn’t be ignored for both walleyes and northern pike during the winter.
One problem with Clear Lake is access. The only public access site is on the southeastern end of the lake. There are only 20
spots there and you’ll have to walk clear across the lake to get to any of the spots mentioned above.
But when the bite is on, it’s worth it.
At 202 acres, this LaGrange County lake, just outside of the town of Shipshewana, is a panfish angler’s heaven. It’s just over 20 feet at its deepest point, and it’s one of the first lakes in northern Indiana to freeze up.
The average depth of the lake is 12 to 14 feet deep, so its shallow water allows it to freeze quickly.
“Whenever the ice starts forming, you’re a week or so ahead of the other lakes,” said local angler Delmas Davis. “Sometimes the ice stays solid longer than the other lakes, too.”
Known for its out-of-hand algae blooms in the summer, the split-pea soup effect is a passing thought during the winter, especially when panfish get on a tear. And Shipshewana Lake is also one of the most productive fisheries in the area.
“You can catch a ton,” Davis said, laughing.
While largemouth bass are present, crappies and bluegills are the most common catches.
“Crappies are tops,” said Davis, who frequently gets his limit of the speckled white and black panfish.
Crappies here are like anywhere else – better biters at night and in low-light conditions. The favored crappie rig is pretty common, too.
“Just a little teardrop jig with a little wax worm is about as good as anything you’ll want to use,” Davis said.
While Shipshewana is known for its numbers of crappies, the fish aren’t known for being big. Most papermouths will run from 8 to 10 inches.
“Sometimes one will reach 11 inches,” Davis said.
And last year, Davis noted another emerging fishery. Yellow perch up to 13 inches also had a substantial bite early in the season.
“We did real good on them,” Davis said. The perch were best in front of the public access ramp in the southeast corner of the lake. Davis used mostly wax worms and minnows.
As the season progresses, Davis will usually move toward the north end of the lake, eventually ending up in front of the beach and church campground. Most of his crappie and bluegill action is in 7 to 10 feet of water.
Davis said he always looks for white ice, especially during brighter days.
“Fish under there,” he said, noting how sensitive fish can be during the day. “The sun’s rays don’t penetrate through white ice as much.”
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