If we get safe ice this winter, you'll want to try these waters for walleyes, panfish and more. (Dec 2006)
The problem with ice-fishing here in Michigan in recent years is you never know exactly what kind of winter we're going to get.
The winter of 2005-2006 started off cold and blustery. Anglers were excited and hit the ice earlier than any time in recent memory. And then January hit. It was mild, almost spring-like, and with little snow. Some anglers in southern Michigan never even got on the ice the entire winter. In the Upper Peninsula, deep snow on the ice typically brings ice-fishing to a halt in most places by early January. Fortunately for ice-angling diehards, northern Michigan lakes can usually be counted on to provide safe ice and consistent success in all but the most unusual winters.
Following is a sampling of northern Michigan lakes where you'll be able to try out that new ice auger and shanty this winter.
Mason County's Hamlin Lake has had a reputation for producing big bluegills and other panfish for ice-anglers, and the last few winters have been fantastic.
"The guys were on the ice by mid-December, and if you couldn't catch a limit of bluegills, there was something wrong," said Hamlin Lake regular Tom "Tuna" Copenhaver. "Usually, the fishing is really good on first ice and then tapers off, but last year the fishing remained good all winter."
Hamlin Lake, at 5,000 acres, hosts a variety of species, from pike to walleyes to panfish.
The best panfish area is on the upper lake off Wilson Park. Weekends find 100 vehicles at the parking area and hundreds of anglers on the ice. Everyone catches fish on first ice, but as winter deepens, fishing gets tougher. That's when anglers equipped with flashers, light line and delicate spring bobbers continue to do well. The biggest bluegills need to be enticed and teased into biting then, and a flasher allows anglers to monitor their attitude. Limits of 7 1/2- to 9-inch 'gills were common for anglers in the know throughout the winter on Hamlin.
Recent no-size limit regulations for pike in Hamlin Lake seemed to be paying big dividends last winter.
"There were a lot of pike in the 28- to 36-inch range taken last winter," Copenhaver said.
Most anglers would drill a hole to fish panfish out of, and then spot a tip-up a short distance away. They were often rewarded with a mixed bag. Walleyes were common during the early portion of the season.
For bait, tackle and fishing reports, contact Hamlin Grocery at (231) 843-2058. For lodging and accommodations in the Ludington area, contact the Ludington Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-542-4600 or online at www.ludingtoncvb.com.
Lake Missaukee has made a big comeback in recent years.
"It's got a really good population of nice bluegills and sunfish in it, the walleye fishing is getting better and better, and the lake has some pretty decent perch in it if you can find them," said Department of Natural Resources Cadillac District fisheries biologist Mark Tonello.
Located in west-central Missaukee County, Lake Missaukee covers some 1,985 acres, but it's relatively shallow, with few spots over 25 feet. Locating subtle contours, weed edges and changes in depth is key to finding fish. A good starting point is off the public access of Green Road on the south side. Ice-anglers do well on crappies, bluegills and sunfish off humps and dropoffs in the area between 5 and 20 feet. The usual teardrops and larva produce.
Just to the east of Green Road is some of the deepest water in the basin, and that's where you're most likely to find winter perch, walleyes and pike. All three species have been making a good comeback in recent years. An aggressive program for removing white suckers from the lake seems to be paying dividends, because game fish are making a comeback. Alternate-year stocking of walleyes has been very successful, and winter anglers take plenty of 'eyes in the 16- to 24-inch range. Spotting a lively shiner minnow on a tip-up or Slammer -- or jigging with a spoon -- along the 15- to 25-foot contours can be very productive. Some decent-sized northern pike can be found cruising the same vicinity. The pike find it hard to resist a golden shiner below a tip-up.
For live bait, tackle and licenses, contact Lake City Sport Shop at (231) 839-4875. For accommodations and lodging in the area, contact the Lake City Chamber of Commerce at (231) 839-4969, or visit their Web site at www.lakecitymich.com.
LAKES MITCHELL & CADILLAC
Two of Michigan's premier winter fishing destinations are Wexford County's lakes Mitchell and Cadillac. Both lakes offer safe ice conditions well before Christmas, and a variety of species, some of which reach trophy proportions.
"Last winter was strange," offered Steve Knaisel of Pilgrim's Village & Resort. "We didn't have the good first-ice bite on the panfish like we normally have. Everyone was wondering where the crappies and bluegills were. Then about mid-February, people started finding fish, and the fishing was outstanding right up until ice-out."
Both lakes Mitchell and Cadillac produce outstanding catches of winter panfish. Both lakes are excellent for black crappies that will average 10 to 14 inches. Mitchell might get the edge when it comes to bluegills and sunfish, but winter perch action is better on Cadillac. A prime location on Cadillac for crappies is near the M-55 causeway where you'll find some of the deepest water on Lake Cadillac. The area referred to as Blind Island is always a hotspot for panfish on Lake Mitchell. Minnows usually take the biggest crappies, and spikes and maggots are tops for the 'gills, although the specks feed heavily on the abundant aquatic insect life found in the lake.
"We had kind of a normal season on pike," suggested Knaisel. "We had a few in the 38- to 40- inch range, and there were a lot of pike from 24 to 36 inches."
Knaisel said that as a general rule, Mitchell is best for numbers of pike, while Cadillac usually produces the bigger northerns. If you want to have some family fun, set some tip-ups on Mitchell. The action is usually non-stop. If you're looking for Master Angler-sized fish, use jumbo suckers and smelt rigs, and concentrate on Cadillac.
Both lakes Cadillac and Mitchell are very accessible, so they see plenty of fishing pressure, and the fish are no pushovers. Light line, delicate rods and spring bobbers -- and good electronics -- are often necessary to fool the lake's panfish on a consistent basis.
"Last year, we had good, clear ice at the beginning of the season with no snow on it and the fish were spooky," claimed Knaisel. "Some of the guys were spreading a tarp out to create some cover and then fishing around the edges of the tarp." Sometimes you need to think outside the box to catch fish on lakes Mitchell and Cadillac.
For more information on ice-fishing opportunities on lakes Mitchell and Cadillac, contact Pilgrim's Village & Resort at (231) 775-5412. For information on lodging and accommodations in Cadillac, contact the Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau at 1-800-225-2537 or online at www.cadillacmichigan.com.
Michigan's largest inland lake, 20,000-acre Houghton is shallow and is one of the first lakes in the Lower Peninsula to offer safe ice. During most years, there is plenty of ice by Christmas, and anglers are often still on the ice in early April.
"It can vary a lot with the weather," said avid ice-angler Jeff Dow, "but generally we have safe ice on Houghton by the second week in December."
A few years ago, the weeds in the lake were killed off, thus leaving the fish exposed. Ice-anglers made a killing, but now the weeds are back.
"Finding the weed edges is key to finding fish on first ice," Dow said. "First ice is great for everything."
Panfish go on a feeding binge on first ice on Houghton.
"The south shore weedbeds are usually good on first ice," suggested Dow. Hand-sized bluegills, sunfish and crappies can be found then in 6 to 8 feet of water. Work the entire water column because the panfish can be found top to bottom. "We sell a lot of chartreuse and gold teardrops for the panfish," Dow said. The jigs are usually tipped with wax worms or spikes. As ice conditions improve, anglers will find good panfish action around the Middle Grounds near the center of the lake.
"The walleye fishing is best early and late in the day on Houghton," Dow said. "Early in the season, the walleyes will be fairly shallow in 6 to 8 feet of water. As the season progresses, the walleyes move deeper to, say, 12 to 14 feet of water, and the bite gets tougher."
Dow said the local favorite is a Swedish Pimple sweetened with a minnow head.
"Winter is the best time for the bigger pike on Houghton," offered Dow. "You're going to catch a lot of smaller fish, but 30-inch pike aren't all that uncommon."
Tip-ups baited with suckers or golden shiners are the best medicine for Houghton Lake northerns. Pike can be found widely scattered.
For shanty rentals, live bait and fishing information, contact Lyman's Lakeside at (989) 422-3231 or online at www.houghtonlakefishing.com. For information on lodging and other amenities in the area, contact the Houghton Lake Area Tourist & Convention Bureau at 1-800-676-5330, or go online to www.roscommoncounty. com.
NORTH LAKE LEELANAU
"North Lake Leelanau probably produces some of the most consistent ice-fishing in the area," claimed guide and outdoor writer Dave Rose. "There aren't that many walleyes in the lake, but there are some good ones up to 9 pounds, and the lake has a good population of both trout and whitefish."
Planting records indicate that North Lake Leelanau has received regular plants of both brown trout and lake trout over the years. The lake was even planted with whitefish back in the mid-1990s. Because North Lake Leelanau and South Lake Leelanau are connected by a channel, fish move freely from lake to lake -- although by nature, deeper and colder North Lake Leelanau supports more of a coldwater fishery.
North Lake Leelanau is a sleeper, though, for trophy winter walleyes.
"Right around Cemetery Point is a good spot for walleyes," Rose said.
Because 2,950-acre North Lake Leelanau is very clear and lacks many weeds, walleyes relate to the points and structure. Rose said tip-ups or Slammers baited with lively shiner minnows take some of the biggest 'eyes. Jigging with spoons and Rapalas can be good, too.
The deep water located straight out from the access at the county park on the northeast end of the lake is a good hole for trout and whitefish. Look for the lakers and whitefish to be relating to bottom there, and brown trout to be cruising the drops or suspended. Ice-anglers usually chum an area with spawn or macaroni to draw the whitefish in, and then jig for them. Lake trout can be caught by jigging also, or with tip-ups.
"North Lake Leelanau has the odd pike in it, and when you catch one, it's usually pretty good-sized," Rose said.
For information on accommodations, bait shops and amenities, contact the Leelanau County Chamber of Commerce at (231) 271-9895 or online at www.leelanauchamber.com.
SOUTH LAKE LEELANAU
Although North Lake Leelanau and South Lake Leelanau are connected, they offer vastly different ice-fisheries.
"North Lake Leelanau is more of a trout fishery, whereas South Lake Leelanau is much shallower and supports a good winter fishery for walleyes, perch, pike and some huge bluegills," claimed Rose.
South Lake Leelanau also offers more surface area, covering more than 5,370 acres.
Massive alternate-year plants of tiny walleye fry jump-started the fishery on South Lake Leelanau years ago, and now it contains several strong year-classes of walleyes. Most of the walleyes will be perfect eaters in the 15- to 19- inch size range, but 'eyes approaching 30 inches are pulled through the ice each winter.
Experts indicate that South Lake Leelanau's winter walleyes relate to flats, weedlines, and irregular points and contours. Look for hot first-ice action in the shallows of Perrin's Bay and Weisler Bay on the south end. Check out the contours from a line between the west-side public access to Gordon's Point and to the north early in the season, too. Look for weedlines along the dropoff in 5 to 20 feet of water. South Lake Leelanau's walleyes can be caught by jigging and with tip-ups. Most anglers hedge their bets by trying both.
The slab bluegills that South Lake Leelanau is famous for can be caught in the same areas. The big 'gills aren't as common in South Lake Leelanau as they once were, but anglers who work at it can usually find enough for a meal. Key is to locate well-defined weed edges.
The lake still has some very respectable perch in it, up to 14 inches, and limits aren't uncommon. The perch frequent the deep water near the south end of the lake in winter. Most of the biggest yellowbellies are taken on walleye-sized minnows or wigglers.
Pike are an added bonus and can reach trophy proportions.
For bait, tackle and fishing reports, contact Na
rrows Passage Bait & Tackle at (231) 256-2547.
"I would have to say that Intermediate Lake is another lake that provides one of our more consistent winter fisheries," suggested Rose. "Intermediate has some good perch, walleyes and a pretty good population of pike."
Intermediate Lake -- also known as Central Lake -- is long and narrow, has 1,530 acres and tends to freeze up fairly early in the season. Usually there's good ice by Christmas.
"The fishing can be really good on first ice for both perch and walleyes," Rose said. A hotspot is on the south end off Openo Park, which provides good access. Rose said the main-lake basin heats up during midwinter. A good location for perch is off Deepwater Point in 20 to 25 feet of water, according to Rose. The perch will average 8 to 12 inches. Try wigglers or minnows for the perch.
"The walleyes in Intermediate run from 15 to 24 inches, with a lot of those good eaters in the 18- to 19-inch range," claimed Rose.
The walleyes can be found in the shallows on either end of the lake on first ice. They gradually migrate to the lake's deeper confines as winter progresses. Slip-bobbers suspending a lively minnow, jigging spoons and tip-ups all are productive tactics for Intermediate's walleyes.
For more information on bait shops, amenities and lodging in the area, contact the Central Lake Chamber of Commerce at (231) 544-3322.
Don't let a lack of ice or too much snow keep you from getting in on some hot ice-fishing action this winter!
Find more about Michigan fishing and hunting at: MichiganSportsmanMag.com