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Michigan's Best Bets For Ice-Fishing

Michigan's Best Bets For Ice-Fishing

Last winter, with its brutally cold temperatures and seemingly constant snowfall, was a banner season for ice-anglers, most of whom wouldn't mind a repeat performance this year. (December 2008)

The author with a silvery winter steelhead taken through the ice on Pere Marquette Lake.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

If you like winter, last year was one for the record books. It started snowing about the first day of the firearms deer season and didn't quit until sometime in April. On top of that, brutally cold temperatures arrived in early December and lasted throughout the winter for the most part. Many lakes still had ice on them come April Fool's Day. It was a banner winter for ice-anglers and most of them wouldn't mind a repeat performance this year.

Depending on the whims of Mother Nature, look for these ice-fishing venues to produce great action again this winter.

Mason County
You can't write a best-bets ice-fishing story about Michigan and not mention Hamlin Lake. The 5,000-acre lake has to be considered the best location for winter bluegills in the state. From ice-out until well into the winter, it produces limit after limit of 'gills for anglers in the know. How can it sustain such a fishery? Hamlin has a tremendous forage base that supports a variety of species, not only bluegills. Healthy populations of pike, walleyes and less desirable predator species keep panfish numbers in check. Big water also produces big fish and Hamlin has plenty of good habitat.

"The bluegill fishing on first ice the last few years has been ridiculous," said Ludington resident Mike Smith. "I mean just about anyone can go out there and catch a limit of good-sized bluegills on first ice. It's a no-brainer."

The hot fishing begins as soon as safe ice forms. There'll be brave souls out there when the ice is only 2 inches thick, but most anglers wait until there's at least 4 inches, which typically occurs by Christmas. Most of the first ice action takes place on the upper lake off Wilson Park, but several of the bayous produce excellent fishing too.

The fishing on first ice isn't complicated, but as winter deepens, the fish get more finicky and serious ice-anglers resort to lighter lines, smaller baits and make full use of electronics to locate schools of panfish.


For live baits, tackle and reports on fishing and ice conditions, contact Pere Marquette Sports Center at (231) 843-8676.

Mason County
Getting a little bored with your typical ice-fishing? Why not try steelhead through the ice? I'll guarantee you've never experienced ice-fishing like this, and Mason County's Pere Marquette Lake is a great place to try it.

All of Michigan's west side drowned river mouth lakes host steelhead populations that spend winter in the lakes. Rainbows filter in during the fall followed by more steelhead during the winter, and their numbers build until they run upstream in the spring. The steelies just mill around throughout the winter offering ice-anglers plenty of targets.

Access to the lake may be gained near Buttersville on the south shore. Steelhead patrol the shallows near the mouth of the Pere Marquette River, so getting there can be quite a jaunt. Anglers place tip-ups along the dropoffs in 4 to 10 feet of water. The rods are baited with spawn bags made with floaters in them or wigglers suspended just off the bottom. Battling a berserk rainbow under the ice with a 5-foot spinning rod and 6-pound-test line is more fun than you can imagine. Rainbows topping 12 pounds are common.

For more details, contact Pere Marquette Sports Center.

Muskegon County
Muskegon Lake is one of those lakes where you really don't know what you're going to catch.

"Like most of the west Michigan drowned river mouth lakes, there were a lot of small perch caught in Muskegon Lake last winter," said Matt Schalk of Shoreline Services in Muskegon. "I would think that given another year to grow that perch fishing is going to be outstanding this winter."

While slab bluegills aren't as common as they once were on South Lake Leelanau, there are still enough around to produce a nice fish fry.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

Most of the better perch action on this 4,150-acre lake takes place in deeper water, so it's well into winter before the ice is safe. Before that, though, there are plenty of other options on Muskegon Lake.

"Bluegill fishing can be very good on first ice off the Conservation Club on the northeast end of the lake and off Snug Harbor on the northwest end," Schalk said. "They're not as big as the ones you'll get on some lakes, but there's usually good numbers."

Opportunities for big game abound on Muskegon Lake.

"There are some good pike caught every winter off First and Second streets on the north side of the lake," Schalk said.

Most of the pike measure 24 to 36 inches, but gargantuan northerns topping 20 pounds are taken every winter from Muskegon.

"A lot of guys fish right from their vehicles in the marinas on the south side of the lake," Schalk said. "Slammer tip-ups with jumbo golden shiners, dead smelt or suckers take the biggest northerns."

Muskegon Lake is famous for its open-water walleye fishery, but ice-fishing for walleyes can be pretty darn good too. The abundance of forage sometimes makes catching walleyes difficult, but anglers that fish the 10- to 30-foot depths off Second Street and Strawberry Island occasionally take limits of walleyes measuring from barely legal to double digit trophies.

For more details on Muskegon Lake's ice-fishing opportunities, contact Shoreline Services at (231) 759-7254.

Antrim County
Also known as Central Lake, 1,530-acre Intermediate Lake is considered one of the top ice fisheries in northwest Michigan for a variety of species.

"Intermediate Lake has some pretty good ice-fishing for perch, walleyes and there's a decent population of northerns in it," said outdoor writer and guide Dave Rose.

Intermediate Lake freezes fairly early in the season, so anglers c

an usually get on the ice by Christmas. Although it is part of the Elk River drainage, being the uppermost and one of the shallowest lakes in the chain, it freezes first.

"Fishing can be really good for both perch and walleyes on first ice," Rose said, adding that a good access point is off Openo Park. From there, anglers can target the shallow upper portion of the basin, which is hot early in the season. As winter progresses, anglers move to the main basin contours off Deepwater Point. Deepwater is a relative term since few spots in Intermediate Lake are deeper than 20 feet. There is another access near Deep Water Point south of the town of Central Lake. There are dropoffs between 5 and 15 feet off Perch Point and One Mile Point at the north end of the lake that are good places to prospect for early-season perch and walleyes too.

"The perch on Intermediate average 8 to 12 inches," Rose said. "The walleyes tend to run from about 15 to 24 inches, with a lot of fish in that 18- to 19-inch range. Perfect eaters."

Best locations for walleyes are along the contours on either end of the lake. Tip-ups, jigs and slip-bobber suspending minnows all take their share of 'eyes.

For more information on lodging and amenities in the Central Lake area, contact the Central Lake Chamber of Commerce at (231) 544-3322.

Leelanau County
Massive stockings of walleye fry years ago jump-started South Lake Leelanau's walleye fishery and it now supports several strong year-classes of walleyes making it a perfect destination for ice-anglers. Although walleyes are the main focus of ice-anglers on South Lake Leelanau, there are plenty of perch, pike and slab bluegills to catch too.

"Like most places, South Lake Leelanau's winter walleyes relate to weedlines, breaks, flats and the irregular contours found in the lake," Dave Rose said. Hot first-ice action usually takes place in Perrin's Bay and Weisler Bay on the lake's south end. Walleyes can also be found patrolling the weed edges and contours between Gordon's Point and the public access off CR-641. Pike up to 20 pounds are an added bonus.

South Lake Leelanau has a reputation for producing slab bluegills. The giant bluegills are not as common as they once were, but there are still enough around that if you work at it, you can catch a good mess. First ice produces the hottest bluegill bite in well-defined weed edges in 5 to 20 feet of water. Walleye-sized shiners take some impressive perch on South Lake Leelanau too. Perch up to 14 inches aren't uncommon, especially from the deeper south end of the lake.

For information on lodging and other amenities in the area, contact the Leelanau County Chamber of Commerce at (231) 271-9895.

Alpena County
If you like watching tip-ups and catching pike through the ice, there may not be a better venue than Alpena County's Fletcher Floodwaters or pond. Formed by the upper south branch of the Thunder Bay River, this 9,000-acre impoundment offers excellent pike habitat.

"The numbers of pike in Fletcher's might not be as high as they have been in the past, but there are some good-sized pike in the lake right now," said fisheries biologist Tim Cwalinski, noting that the most recent sampling indicated an abundance of 26- to 32-inch northerns, with fish up to 40 inches fairly common. One of the best times to target big pike is through the ice.

"Fletcher might be the best lake in the state for both numbers and size of pike," he said.

Because Fletcher Floodwaters is shallow, weedy and filled with stumps and logs, pike are found just about anywhere. A prime location is where the old river channel winds sinuously through the lake. Few spots in the lake are more than 7 feet deep, so the subtle structure afforded by the river channel represents structure. Otherwise, spot big shiners, suckers or smelt 2 or 3 feet off bottom and keep moving. Keep punching holes until you hit a productive area. And don't give up at midday. Often pike become active when the sun is highest.

For more information, contact Jack's Landing at (989) 742-4370 or online at

Roscommon County
Higgins Lake is a zoo during the summer months, but in winter, the place is a much different story. It's the perfect time to sample the lake's diverse fishery. At 9,600 acres, Higgins can be slow to freeze. Most years, it's well into January before there's safe ice on the lake. Access can be gained at either South or North Higgins Lake State Parks or via a DNR public access located on the west side of the lake. There are also numerous road ends, which lead to the lake.

Higgins Lake perch populations seem to be boom or bust. A few years ago, there was an abundance of small perch. Last year, there were signs that the perch might be finally reaching decent size. First ice is a hot time for perch on Higgins. The perch will be in fairly shallow water, between 25 and 40 feet and they're hungry. You can either try staying with the schools or use a more passive approach. Either way you're likely to end up with a mess of perch that will range from 7 to 9 inches, with a few topping 10 inches. The perch love wigglers, minnows and wax worms. The simplest rig is often the best, a bell sinker and two snelled hooks. Hot perch action can be found at both state parks and near the sunken islands in the center of both basins.

Higgins receives regular stockings of lake, brown and rainbow trout. All provide an excellent ice fishery, with lake trout being the most sought after. Ice-anglers spot tip-ups or jig for the lakers in 70 to 130 feet of water off the west side public access and on the east side of the south basin. Browns and rainbows frequent shallower water and can be found patrolling the 10- to 50-foot dropoffs. Live smelt is the top bait for lakers. Many anglers fish for smelt at night, then use some of their catch to entice lakers the following day. The lake surface resembles a city as shantytowns develop and word gets out that smelt are biting.

For more information on tackle shops, motels and amenities in the area, contact the Higgins Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce at (989) 275-8760 or online at

Mackinaw County
"I wouldn't say that there are a lot of walleyes in Brevoort Lake," said USFS fisheries biologist Chuck Bassett, "but there are some very nice walleyes in the lake. If it's a trophy walleye you're looking for, Brevoort might be the place."

The 4,230-acre lake is located in Mackinaw County and is one of those lakes where you really don't know what you're going to catch. Brevoort has a healthy walleye population, is home to some big northerns and serves up some nice catches of panfish for winter anglers.

Winter walleyes gravitate to humps, reefs and rocks in the central portion of the lake. Concentrate on the surrounding 10- to 20-foot contours. Y

ou can expect your catch to include walleyes 28 to 30 inches. During midday, try slip-bobbers or tip-ups. Actively jigging with Swedish Pimples or Jigging Rapalas during low-light periods produces then.

Early-season panfish can be found right off the public access in Boedne Bay. Look for weed edges that concentrate panfish schools. Expect the 'gills to average 7 to 9 inches and crappies that will top a foot.

For more details, contact the St. Ignace Area Chamber of Commerce at (800) 338-6660 or online at

Houghton County
Like catching plenty of pike? You won't find too many places with more pike than Rice Lake. For years, the lake had so many pike that there was no size restriction on the lake. There are more legal-sized northerns in the lake now and it still has good numbers. It's a great place to take the family, set out a bunch of tip-ups, roast some hot dogs and enjoy a winter day.

"You won't find a lot of big pike in Rice Lake," said fisheries biologist Brian Gunderman, noting that during the last survey only 10 percent of the pike were of legal size, but that number should be better now that no size limit restrictions have been in place for several years. Gunderman said pike in the 28- to 36-inch size range were not uncommon.

Because Rice Lake is relatively shallow, you can find pike just about anywhere. A good starting point is right off the public access where a couple of creeks enter the lake. First ice produces the best fishing, and some years, that's before Thanksgiving.

Given safe ice, there are plenty of Michigan ice-fishing venues to keep you busy this year.

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