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Locked Up And Loaded!

Locked Up And Loaded!

A traditional Michigan winter brings ice-fishing back to par this season. (December 2007)

Walleyes in Lake Independence are structure-oriented and can be found on the dropoffs near the mouth of the Yellow Dog River, the outflow of the Iron River, and the contours straight out from the public access on the west end of the lake.

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

Come December, about all Michigan's army of ice-fishing fanatics can do is nervously wring their hands and pray that cold weather will lock up their favorite lake with a thick covering of ice. Some years, their prayers are answered early. Other years, all they can do is sit idly by and wait.

Last year was one of those years. It was almost February before many Michigan lakes had enough safe ice on them to fish. Some anglers in southern Michigan never did get into any ice-fishing.

Chances are, global warming or not, this year will be different. Moreover, if we have a more traditional Michigan winter this year, look for the venues outlined below to provide outstanding ice-fishing opportunities.

Saginaw Bay

No two Michigan winters are ever alike. One necessary ingredient for great winter fishing on Saginaw Bay is prolonged cold. Last year, that didn't happen until fairly late in the season, but when it did, fishing was incredible.

"It was February before we had any safe ice on the bay," said Andy Gorske of Frank's Great Outdoors in Linwood. "Once we got on the ice, fishing was hot."


The Saginaw Bay walleye population has been booming the last few years, riding several strong year-classes. Many of those fish were under-sized last summer and made it to 17 or 18 inches long by winter; also, there were plenty of bigger fish carried over from previous years. If you could make it out onto the ice, catching a limit wasn't too difficult.

One problem winter anglers don't have on Saginaw Bay is access. Once the shallows freeze solid, anglers can get on the ice at public-access sites and road endings around the bay, Bay City State Park and Linwood Beach Marina & Campground on the west side of the bay. How good the ice is and how far out it freezes depends on the winter. Even though portions of the bay may be frozen solid, there might be other spots where open water still exists. Several anglers died on the bay last winter. Use caution.

First-ice action usually starts in as little as 6 feet of water and then becomes progressively deeper as the winter wears on. Once the bay is locked up solid, the 15- to 24-foot depths are usually hot some 3 to 5 miles offshore. Some form of transportation is necessary, and most anglers use portable shelters and GPS units to find productive locations. Once there, anglers either jig or use a dead rod with minnows. Hot lures include Do Jiggers, Swedish Pimples, Rattlin' Buckshot spoons and Jigging Rapalas. You can either tip the lures with a whole minnow or just the head. Dead rods often produce when the bite slows and walleyes are less aggressive.

For information on ice conditions, bait and tackle, contact Frank's Great Outdoors at (989) 697-5341 or online at

Pere Marquette Lake

Landon McIntosh works at a marina during the summer months, which leaves him plenty of free time in the winter. If there's safe ice, most days you'll find him watching tip-ups on Pere Marquette Lake in search of monster pike. Last year, his best catch was an 18.3-pound monster.

Near Ludington, 1,000-acre Pere Marquette Lake has all the ingredients for producing big northerns. The lake features great structure and cover, holds an abundance of forage species, and has both a resident and transient population of pike.

"First-ice is usually real good," said McIntosh, but last year he didn't get on the ice until late January. "Ships regularly come through P.M. Lake, breaking up the ice, so anglers need to use caution."

McIntosh said the "big-lure-big-fish" theory doesn't always apply to Pere Marquette pike. "Sometimes the smaller baits take the bigger fish," he claimed. His giant northern last winter came on a standard-sized golden shiner. McIntosh said he prefers live bait versus dead, although, he said, there are times when dead bait works, too. He said he suspends the shiners under conventional tip-ups set along dropoffs from 10 to 22 feet that big pike funnel along. On a good day, McIntosh said, he'd have 15 flags or more. Prime locations are off Copeyan Park, the Ludington Yacht Club, in Parlor B and the old sand dock. McIntosh said giant pike are rare, but he takes plenty each winter in the 8- to 10-pound range.

For information on Pere Marquette Lake northern pike, contact Pere Marquette Sports Center at (231) 843-8676.

Portage Lake

Manistee County's Portage Lake is one of those lakes where you really don't know what you're going to catch. The 2,110-acre lake has been producing excellent walleye action for the past several years. Pike topping 20 pounds are taken through the ice every winter from Portage. In addition, Portage holds a good population of panfish.

The east end of Portage Lake is relatively shallow and weedy. That's where you're likely to find some hot first-ice panfish action. Bluegills up to 9 inches and crappies that will stretch from 10 to 12 inches are taken in water as shallow as 3 feet early in the season and gradually move to the 7- to 11-foot dropoff as winter deepens. Teardrops baited with wax worms and spikes excel for the bluegills. The specks prefer small, lively minnows.

Portage is home to some pretty decent yellow perch, too, and winter is the best time to target them. Perch school in the 20- to 50-foot hole near the center of the lake and along the south shore, off Camp Tosebo all the way to the Covenant Bible Camp. Put in your time and you can take a bucket of 8- to 10-inch yellowbellies. Go armed with wigglers, minnows and wax worms.

Both walleyes and some very respectable northerns can be found cruising the 15- to 40-foot depths either side of North Point. Another hotspot is southwest of the public access on the northeast side of the lake. Anglers who suspend big suckers or smelt below tip-ups take the biggest pike. The northerns average 24 to 30 inches, but pike topping 40 inches are taken every winter. Anglers concentrate on the 20- to 30-foot contours for walleyes and use jigging spoons or lures during low-light conditions or after dark. Don't be afraid to try as deep as 60 feet if the shallows don't pan out.

For information on bait shops, accommodations and amenities in the area, contact the

Manistee Convention & Visitors Bureau at (888) 584-9860 or online at

Lakes Cadillac & Mitchell

Lakes Cadillac and Mitchell are a great place to hedge your ice-fishing bet. The lakes are located across from each other on Michigan Highway 55/115 in Wexford County, allowing easy access to either lake. Each has its own special brand of ice-fishing, though.

Lake Mitchell is home to plenty of northerns. Lake Cadillac has fewer northerns than Lake Mitchell, but they tend to run a little larger. Both lakes have some really nice bluegills in them, but Lake Mitchell might get the vote for numbers. Lake Cadillac has more yellow perch. Lake Mitchell has more crappies. How can you go wrong?

During a normal winter, anglers are on Lake Mitchell well before Christmas. Not last year.

"We really didn't have good ice until the middle of January," reported Steve Knaisel of Pilgrim's Resort and Village on Lake Mitchell. "Things started out kind of slow, but the fishing really picked up in February."

At 1,150 acres big, Lake Mitchell serves up nice catches of winter bluegills for those in the know. Hotspots lie off the mouths of Big Cove and Little Cove. The lake is fairly shallow and weedy, and panfish can be found throughout the water column. Ice-anglers need to work from top to bottom, and vice versa, and drill plenty of holes. Cover ground, find some hot holes, revisit those holes periodically, and you can end up with a nice bucketful of 'gills and sunfish. Crappies will be found in the weeds, too, and often can be caught right under the ice toward dark. Specks topping 12 inches don't raise any eyebrows from Lake Mitchell regulars. Often the crappies of Lake Mitchell can be taken on larva because of their propensity to feed on aquatic insects.

Lake Cadillac produces similar fishing for bluegills as Mitchell, but also gives up some excellent catches of perch. The perch tend to hang in the deeper holes near the center and east ends of the 2,580-acre lake. Most of the perch will run 8 to 10 inches, but 12-inch jumbos aren't uncommon.

Walleyes can usually be found along a dropoff that runs from 5 to 20 feet on the south side of Lake Cadillac. The walleyes can be caught jigging with Swedish Pimples or with tip-ups and shiners. There are times when staying after dark can pay big dividends. Most of the 'eyes will be 16 to 18 inches long, but 5-pounders are common.

For a complete selection of ice-fishing tackle and live bait, accommodations and fishing reports, contact Pilgrim's Village & Resort at (231) 775-5412.

Crystal Lake

Benzie County's Crystal Lake is deep and slow to freeze. Some winters, anglers can't even get on most of the lake. However, when Michigan has one of those old-fashioned winters and Crystal Lake freezes up solid, ice-fishing can be spectacular!

Crystal Lake offers ice-fishing variety. The 9,771-acre lake is home to several trout species. Steelhead-sized rainbows can be caught in the shallows where small creeks enter the lake. Brown trout cruise the dropoffs. The rainbows prefer spawn, and the browns like shiner minnows. Lake trout take refuge in the deeper waters from 70 to 140 feet in the winter. Lakers up to 20 pounds are taken every winter on tip-ups with live shiners or smelt or with jigging spoons. Try off Warren Road, Herdman's Point, Lobb Road and Railroad Point.

Crystal Lake produces a pretty decent perch fishery, too. The rich weedbeds in 25 to 40 feet of water right out from Beulah produce some of the most consistent fishing. The perch will average 8 to 10 inches and can be caught on wigglers, minnows and wax worms on teardrops. The stray brown or rainbow trout in this area often surprises anglers targeting perch.

Smelt provide fodder for trout in Crystal, but they also produce a fun winter fishery themselves. Anglers target the 40- to 70-foot depths and use crappie lights to attract microorganisms that, in turn, attract the smelt. You can use conventional spinning reels with multiple hooks baited with larva, or Speed reels designed specifically for smelt fishing. Whitefish that average 4 or 5 pounds can be caught along the dropoffs all around the lake.

For information on bait shops, shanty rentals and accommodations in the area, contact the Benzie County Chamber of Commerce at (800) 882-5801 or online at

Burt Lake

Up until a few years ago, I'd never fished Cheboygan County's 17,260-acre Burt Lake. I'd heard about its reputation for producing excellent catches of both perch and walleyes through the ice but never had the chance to experience it first-hand. The rumors were true.

Part-time fishing guide and full-time golf pro Dave Trudell led our group out of Maple Bay on the west side of the lake to an area where they'd been doing well on walleyes. We stopped on a spot that shelved from 28 to 32 feet.

Fishing was slow for the first few hours, producing only a couple of decent perch. I decided to move out to where a tip-up had sprung to life a couple of times, but no one was home. The slip-bobber I plopped in the hole barely stood up before it started sinking slowly under the ice.

"Walleye," I told myself. I set the hook and there was solid resistance. I could feel the fish twisting and shaking its head below. After a minute or two, a fat 14-inch perch was flopping on the ice -- not a walleye, but I wasn't complaining. Before I could unhook the fish, my other bobber shot down under the ice. After a short tussle, a twin to the first perch was on the ice.

It's not uncommon to catch jumbo perch and walleyes on the same outing on Burt Lake. The fish inhabit the same areas. Look for dropoffs or humps in 20 to 40 feet of water off Colonial Point, out from Burt Lake State Park, and off Greenman and Kings points. Both walleyes and big perch are suckers for 2- to 4-inch shiners fished under slip-bobbers, or jigging spoons sweetened with minnows. However, perch seem to bite during the daylight hours, whereas the walleye action is best at dusk and dawn.

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