Ice-fishing for panfish can be a lot of fun, especially on these lakes. Give one a try this winter!
Many anglers don't realize it, but Kalamazoo County's Austin Lake is an excellent winter panfish lake. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski
By Matt Driftman
Residents down south pity us poor northerners for having to endure long, cold Michigan winters. Sure, it would be nice to get away to a warm, sunny climate for a few months, but for those of us who have jobs and commitments that prevent us from pulling up stakes, we need to make the most of winter. One way is to go ice-fishing for panfish. Somehow, catching a bunch of slab bluegills or crappies and then gorging on a platter of golden filets seems to make winter pass all that much quicker. And in some ways I feel sorry for those snowbirds who don't get to experience how much fun ice-fishing for panfish can be.
Following is a selection of lakes that are sure to produce great winter panfish action and make lying in the hot sun on a sweltering beach just a distant memory.
& LAKE CADILLAC
"The sunfish have been kind of stealing the show on Mitchell the last couple of winters," said Steve Knaisel of Pilgrim's Village Resort. "The sunfish seem to be getting bigger and bigger. Last winter 9- and 10-inch sunfish weren't uncommon. On the other hand, the bluegills seem to be getting smaller. Most of the keepers are in the 7- to 8- inch range. Crappies continue to do well on both lakes, but Lake Cadillac was probably better last winter. We had documented catches of 17-inch crappies from Cadillac last winter."
The two lakes provide a winter plethora for panfish.
The best winter panfishing on Lake Mitchell is closely tied to finding green aquatic vegetation.
"We have a lot of milfoil in the lake now and that gets yucky in the winter," said Knaisel. "Key is to find the nice, green cabbage weeds. Find that and you'll find panfish."
The green weeds are home to the menagerie of aquatic insects that the panfish feed on. Knaisel said the best place to find those on 2,580-acre Lake Mitchell is off the mouth of Big Cove and Little Cove, and near Blind Island on the lake's west side in 6 to 8 feet of water. Knaisel's advice was to punch holes, look for green weeds and keep moving.
Some of the hottest winter crappie action on 1,150-acre Lake Cadillac takes place on the lake's east side.
"The specks suspend in 8 to 9 feet of water over the old slab piles that you find on the east side of the lake," offered Knaisel. "The wood is a food factory and the crappies don't stray far from it until spring."
Knaisel advised opening up the first fish you catch to see what it has been eating and then match the hatch. Minnows are pretty hard to beat for the crappies that will average 12 inches.
Lake Cadillac is very good for winter bluegills, too. "Anywhere along the northeast side of the lake out from the high school and off the Clam River is excellent," said Knaisel. Access is excellent and anglers will have little difficulty finding a place to park and get on the ice.
For live bait, fishing reports and cabin rentals, contact Pilgrim's Village and Resort at (231) 775-5412. For more details on lodging and other amenities, contact the Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau at 1-800-225-2537 or online at www.cadillacmichigan.com.
Kalamazoo County's Austin Lake has a reputation for giving up big largemouth bass during the open-water season, but what many people don't realize is that the lake is excellent for winter panfish, too.
"Most people don't realize it, but Austin Lake is really good for both bluegills and crappies through the ice," said Jeff Davis, who works at the Gander Mountain store in Kalamazoo. "The lake is kind of tough to fish because it's relatively shallow and doesn't have much in the way of structure, but if you move around and punch lots of holes you can find some fish."
Austin Lake, at 1,090 acres, has few spots over 10 feet, so the panfish can be found just about anywhere. Because it is so shallow, Austin Lake would probably be devoid of fish during the winter if it weren't for the influx of water from Wood and Long lakes and the outflow from Portage Creek. The exchange of water keeps Austin Lake well oxygenated. A good starting point is a hole in the center of the lake that reaches 11 feet. Then work the perimeter where the bottom drops from 5 to 10 feet.
Most of the better bluegills and sunfish on Austin Lake are taken on larva and teardrops. Look for live weeds and work the entire water column. The lake's biggest crappies prefer meat, like lively shiner minnows. Evenings and right after dark are the best times for the specks. Look for them to be hovering right under the ice down to about 3 feet. The bluegills will routinely top 8 inches, and 12-inch specks on Austin Lake are no big deal.
For more information, live bait and lake maps, contact the Kalamazoo Gander Mountain store at (269) 388-9770. Details on amenities, restaurants and lodging in the area can be found by contacting the Kalamazoo County Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-222-6363 or online at www.discoverkalamazoo.com.
"Pine Lake in Barry County is a really good crappie lake," said Southern Lake Michigan Management Unit supervisor Jay Wesley. "I know some of the dedicated crappie anglers take some slabs out of the lake."
Wesley said that the winter crappies fishery on Pine Lake is a nighttime affair and anglers that go equipped with shelters, lanterns and shiner minnows take buckets of specks that will average 10 to 12 inches.
The irregular shoreline and myriad coves, points and bays provide plenty of crappie holes on 660-acre Pine Lake. Anglers can access the lake on the northwest corner. Pine Lake is made up of four separate basins. All are good for winter crappies. The farther you get from the access, the more solitude you will have. Hotspots include between Swimming Point and Boniface Point in First Lake, either side of Twin Island in Second Lake, off Long Point in Third Lake and just about everywhere in between.
For lake maps, live bait and reports on ice conditions, contact D&R Sports Center in Kalamazoo at 1-800-992-1520 or online at www.dandrsports.com.
"There really aren't a lot of lakes in Calhoun County," said Jay Wesley. "If you go south toward Coldwater or east towa
rd Jackson you'll find more lakes. But for the area, both the Braces Lakes and Duck Lake are very good for winter panfish, and are popular with ice-anglers from the Lansing area.
"Duck Lake is a very good lake for redear sunfish," continued Wesley. Wesley said that the redears are well suited to southern Michigan lakes, and wherever they have been introduced they have produced good fishing, although you'll find that they are tougher to catch than bluegills. "The redears tend to be more finicky than bluegills," said Wesley. Wesley said he's done best where he can actually watch the redears bite the lure, like in a darkened shanty. The giant sunfish feed heavily on snails, thus the name shellcracker down South, but the redear sunfish will eat wax worms and other larva. The redears routinely reach 12 inches in Duck Lake, and 9- to 10-inch fish are average.
Anglers can access 628-acre Duck Lake on the northwest corner. Some of the best winter action takes place on the south end of the lake where the bottom shelves from 5 to 20 feet. Work up and down the contours to locate active schools of both bluegills and sunfish. Duck Lake is also home to some good-sized black crappies.
The Braces Lakes are made up of two basins, 115-acre Lower Brace Lake and 70-acre Upper Brace Lake. Both produce quality ice-fishing for bluegills and redear sunfish. Right off the access on the east side of Upper Brace Lake is one of the hotspots for panfish. Work the dropoff where it goes from 5 to 20 feet. The west side of a small island in the middle of the lake is another good location. On Lower Brace Lake try along the south shore and on the east side of a hole on the north end that drops to 32 feet. Concentrate on the edges of the weedline. Try mayfly wigglers if the panfish shun your normal offerings.
For more information on ice-fishing opportunities on Brace, Duck and other Calhoun County lakes, contact the Southern Lake Michigan Management Unit of the DNR at (269) 685-6851. For information on lodging and other amenities in the area, contact the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-877-5163 or online at www.marshallmi.org.
"People don't realize how good the bluegill and crappie fishing is on Lake Fenton," said avid ice-fisherman Steve Blakemore. Even during the summer you don't see many anglers on Lake Fenton. The personal watercraft and powerboats run off most. But during the winter, there's hardly anyone out there. That makes it all the better for ice-anglers in the know.
Lake Fenton is located in southwest Genesee County and covers more than 845 acres. The lake features plenty of coves and bays, an irregular shoreline, islands and contours that concentrate winter panfish. "One of the better spots is right off Case Island in 8 to 12 feet of water," said Blakemore. Another hotspot for panfish is either side of Log Cabin Point on the east side. Try in Crane Cove on the west side, too, where the bottom drops from 5 to 20 feet.
Like most places, Lake Fenton's bigger bluegills like larva-like wax worms, mousies and spikes. Change jig colors to find the preferred color of the day. Usually, chartreuse, orange and red are good choices. The lake's crappies prefer minnows, and suspending them under a bobber just before and just after dark is a proven tactic. The specks generally run 10 to 12 inches, and bluegills topping 8 inches are common. The best action usually occurs on first ice sometime in January. Crappie fishing heats up again just before ice-out.
For information on bait shops, amenities and lodging in the area, contact the Fenton Area Chamber of Commerce at (810) 629-5447 or online at www.fentonchamber.org.
"Manistee Lake has been really hot for bluegills the last couple of winters," said Brian Tessmer. "You're probably not going to catch a bunch of really big 'gills, but Manistee Lake has been giving up good catch of hand-sized bluegills in the 7- to 9-inch range."
Manistee Lake, at 860 acres, is located in Kalkaska County northeast of the town of Kalkaska. The lake is relatively shallow, but exhibits good water quality and oxygen content due to inflowing creeks and the outflowing North Branch of the Manistee River.
Bluegills, according to Tessmer, tend to concentrate in the 8- to 12-foot depths in Manistee Lake. One hotspot is a channel on the south end that dips from 10 to 16 feet. Bluegills can be found around the perimeter of the dropoff. Anywhere along the south shoreline where you find a dropoff and a weedline can be good. The hottest action takes place on first ice, which is usually sometime in December.
Ice-anglers can access Manistee Lake off a public launch on the southwest side at the end of Darke Road. For information on lodging, amenities and attractions in the area, contact the Kalkaska Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-487-6880 or online at www.kalkaskami.com.
Crawford County's Lake Margrethe is considered one of the area's better lakes for bluegills through the ice.
"Lake Margrethe has been giving up some really nice bluegills," claimed Brian Tessmer. "The great thing about fishing Lake Margrethe is that you don't have to go too far. Walk straight out from the state park about 300 yards and you'll find 5 to 8 feet of water and a good weedline. You normally can catch plenty of bluegills right there."
Other known winter hotspots for panfish on Lake Margrethe include the 10- to 20-foot flats in South Bay off Camp Grayling and off Eagle Point in 5 to 15 feet of water.
Lake Margrethe bluegills can be picky. "I like to use spikes and horizontal jigs when the fishing gets tough," advised Tessmer. "It seems that if you hook two spikes on the jig it gives the lure a swimming action that the 'gills can't resist." Tessmer said that super light line is also key. "I wouldn't think of going bluegill fishing without a flasher, either."
Details on motels, hotels and cabin rentals in the area can be had by contacting the Grayling Visitors Council at 1-800-937-8837 or online at www.grayling-mi.com. For live bait, lake maps and fishing information, contact Jay's Sporting Goods in Gaylord at (989) 705-1339 or online at www.jaysoutdoors.com.
Mason County's Hamlin Lake was once considered the premier bluegill lake in Michigan. The bluegill numbers started to suffer right about the time the local walleye club began dumping thousands of walleye fingerlings into the lake. The walleye population flourished, and the bluegills crashed. Now, the walleye population has dwindled and ice-anglers are enjoying bluegill fishing like the good ol' days on Hamlin.
"Last winter the bluegill fishing was about as good as it gets on Hamlin," said Greg Ellison, whose company, Weapon Outdoors, markets a variety of ice-fishing gear. "On first ice, you could take a limit in 45 minutes and they would all be right around that 8-inch mark. Nice bluegills anywhere you fish for them."
The action slowed as heavy snow blanketed the ice in January, but anglers in the know who were equipped with a flasher and knew how to use the electronics caught good panfish right through the winter.
Just about anything you put down the hole caught bluegills last year on Hamlin, but as fishing got tougher, using electronics and hair-thin monofilament line was needed to fool the finicky bluegills. The best fishing on first ice is generally on the upper lake off Wilson Park and in the bayous on the east side of the lower lake. Midlake weedbeds are productive later in the winter.
Bluegills aren't the only panfish that Hamlin is famous for. Hamlin Lake has a respectable population of black crappies that routinely top a foot long. The specks can be caught right along with the bluegills on first ice, but action for specks heats up in midwinter and on last ice.
"Some of the best crappie fishing on Hamlin is right around the full moons in January and February," said local angler Dave Luke. Ice-anglers gather at night off Grace Road just east of the area referred to as "The Narrows" and suspend minnows near the old river channel. Limits of specks aren't uncommon.
For more information on ice-fishing on Hamlin Lake, contact Pere Marquette Sport Center at (231) 843-8676. For lodging information, contact Country Haven Resort at (231) 845-5882 or online at www.countryhavenresort.com.
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Even if winter isn't one of your favorite seasons, cashing in on some hot ice-fishing for panfish will make spring seem a whole lot closer.
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