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Michigan's Best Bets for Ice-Fishing

Michigan's Best Bets for Ice-Fishing

Our state is loaded with places where you can catch everything from walleyes to panfish to trout through the ice. These waters should be hot this winter.

By Mike Gnatkowski

Avid Michigan ice-anglers got their wish during the winter of 2002-2003.

Cold temperatures set in during early December and most bodies of water had a thick coating of ice by the middle of December. A lack of snow produced a clear, hard ice pack that lasted through the winter months and brought a smile to the faces of hardy ice-anglers. Although wind and severe cold were often a problem last winter, the die-hards who were equipped with shelters and the proper gear didn't seem to mind. In fact, many ice-anglers are hoping for a repeat performance this winter.

When Mother Nature cooperates, ice-anglers have a lot of options in Michigan. But that's one of the problems, too. When our whole state has good ice conditions, it's tough to decide which opportunities you want to take advantage of. There's walleyes on Saginaw Bay, winter trout on Higgins, more walleyes on Little Bay de Noc, bluegill lakes by the score, big perch on Hamlin, Hubbard and Portage lakes, and a lot more options.

Hopefully, the following sampling of great ice-fishing destinations will make it a little easier to decide which direction to point your vehicle in this winter.

Cold weather is a pre-requisite for good walleye fishing on Saginaw Bay, and last winter, anglers got their wish.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"There was good ice on the bay by early January," said avid ice-fisherman Denny Keysor. "The bay froze completely across, which makes it a lot safer. You don't have to worry about the ice blowing out every time the wind blows."


Two good access spots on Saginaw Bay are off the end of Linwood Road at the Department of Natural Resources public access near Linwood and off Bay City State Park. The Linwood access tends to be a better access when walleyes are frequenting deeper water during midwinter.

"The best fishing was usually on an east or southeast heading about 2 1/2 to three miles out of Linwood," said Keysor.

Keysor said there are usually several pressure cracks that you need to cross to reach the good fishing, but that wasn't a problem last winter. Early-morning hotspots were in 14 feet of water and the walleyes gradually moved deeper as the morning progressed. Some of the best action, according to Keysor, was from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Limits were common. Key was to stay on the fringe of packs of anglers.

"A graph or flasher is a big help on the bay," said Keysor. "The fish bite so light that it helps to be able to spot them so you can tease them into striking."

Keysor said he uses a "dead rod" with a lively shiner minnow as an indicator of fish in the vicinity. Jiggling, twitching or slowly reeling the bait up is techniques Keysor uses to trigger strikes. And while he said he has boxes and boxes of ice-fishing baits, it's pretty hard to beat a 2- to 2 1/2-inch Swedish Pimple with green prism tape on it for Saginaw Bay's winter walleyes.

For more information on ice conditions, access and hot baits on Saginaw Bay, contact Frank's Great Outdoors in Linwood at (989) 697-5341 or on the Web at

Michigan's largest inland lake at over 20,000 acres, Houghton is one of those "catch-everything" lakes. And last winter was a phenomenal one for everything on Houghton Lake.

A treatment to kill milfoil on Houghton Lake during the summer of 2002 left winter panfish and predator species with nowhere to hide. Normally, game fish hide in the thick weedbeds that exemplify Houghton Lake. But without the weeds to provide cover and food, winter panfish, pike and walleyes were exposed and hungry last winter - and ice-anglers had a field day.

"Ice-fishing for 'gills has been gradually getting better the last few winters, but last year was phenomenal," claimed Lenny Kauffman of Lenny's Sporting Goods in Houghton Lake. "Along the south shore off The Heights was hot, especially on last ice. The best action was in 4 feet of water." Master Angler-sized bluegills were common.

Kauffman said the same area was very good for pike.

"Find the panfish and you'll usually find pike, too, on Houghton," offered Kauffman.

Kauffman said that the pike run on the small side, but what they lack in size is more than made up for in numbers. Setting a spread of tip-ups can provide a lot of family fun. Every once in awhile ice-anglers take northerns topping 20 pounds from Houghton, too.

Houghton Lake gives up some giant crappies through the ice. Specks topping 14 inches are common. The crappies tend to frequent the same areas as the bluegills on Houghton, but in a little deeper water. Kauffman said 10 to 11 feet is a good depth off The Heights. Minnow are a hands-down favorite for the bigger crappies. Kauffman indicated that all along Houghton's south shore is a good area for winter panfish.

Houghton Lake has very good access, but you'll need some form of transportation to get to the best spots on the ice. You can get on the lake at East Bay, Prudenville, at the state park on the north side of the lake and off Old U.S. Highway 27.

For information on accommodations and restaurants in the Houghton Lake area, contact the Houghton Lake Area Tourist & Convention Bureau at (800) 676-5330 or on the Web at For bait, tackle and fishing reports, contact Lenny's Sporting Goods at (989) 422-3845.

Although 9,600-acre Higgins Lake is only a short drive from Houghton Lake, it offers ice-anglers a totally different ice-fishing experience.

While Houghton Lake is shallow and outstanding for warmwater species, Higgins Lake it deep, cold and supports great ice-fishing for a variety of trout species and yellow perch. With depths over 130 feet, Higgins Lake is slow to freeze and usually doesn't allow safe ice-fishing until late January. Once anglers can venture on to it, Higgins Lake produces some of the most consistent ice-angling in the state.

One big draw in Higgins Lake is winter perch. Upwards of 100 shanties can be seen on Higgins on winter weekends, and many anglers are after tas

ty yellow perch. Higgins's perch don't run large. Most will be 8 to 10 inches. Most anglers will tell you that those are perfect "eaters." What they lack in size they more than make up for in numbers. Fifty-fish limits are common.

Hot first-ice perch action takes place on both the north and south shores of Higgins in 20 to 40 feet of water, according to Higgins Lake regular Jack Murlick. Murlick said that a standard two-hook perch rig baited with spikes or wax worms works well on perch. Minnows and wigglers are good bets, too. Around the sunken islands in the lake are some good perch locations.

Lake trout inhabit the deeper depths in Higgins. Look for forktails in 70 to 135 feet of water. Start shallow early in the day and then work deeper. Most anglers use Slammers or tip-ups baited with live smelt, blue shiners or gray shiners right on the bottom. The trout will range from 4 to 8 pounds on the average, but lakers topping 20 pounds are caught every winter. Jigging with spoons can be deadly, too.

Higgins Lake has a healthy population of rainbows and brown trout, too, but few ice-anglers target them. The 'bows and browns usually frequent shallower water and can be taken in the top 20 feet. Light line, bobbers and wigglers, spawn or minnows are the ticket. Off the west shore public access is a good area. Late in the winter, anglers take rainbows is water as shallow as 3 feet where some creeks enter the lake along the west shore.

For more information on accommodations, bait shops and fishing reports, contact the Roscommon/Higgins Lake Chamber of Commerce at (989) 275-8760 or on the Web at

Kalamazoo County's Gull Lake is another lake that offers ice-anglers a variety of species. Everything from rainbow trout to giant northerns to yellow perch can be caught once the lake freezes sometime in January. One of its most consistent fisheries is for winter bluegills.

"The winter fishery for bluegills is unique because we're fishing them in 32 to 42 feet of water generally," said Gull Lake expert Dave Ellis. "I don't know anywhere where you consistently fish for bluegills that deep. A flasher is a necessity when you're fishing that deep. If you don't have one or cannot fish near someone who does, you might as well stay home."

Ellis said the flasher could help you locate schools of bluegills and then allow you to pick fish from the top of the school without scattering the remaining fish. He said it's better to use a heavy jig rather than add split shot to your line because it takes away from your ability to feel bites.

Gull Lake bluegill aficionados either a tight-line with a high-visibility 2- to 4-pound-test line or an ultralight line and sensitive spring bobbers. Last winter, Ellis said that he caught a good number of bluegills on Gull Lake, but they ran 7 to 8 inches. Usually, the lake produces plenty of 9-inch 'gills. With a bumper crop from last year, this winter should be outstanding.

Ellis said that the first-ice action begins off M-89 in bays on the south end of the lake, which is the first to freeze. As more of the lake becomes safe, anglers concentrate off the Bible Conference Center and then midlake humps that rise to 30 feet near the center of the lake that locals refer to as the "Hogs Backs."

For details on lodging, public access and bait shops on Gull Lake, contact the Kalamazoo County Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 222-6363 or on the Web at

When not chasing walleyes on Saginaw Bay, Denny Keysor of Flushing can often be found on the wide expanses of Little Bay de Noc.

"The ice conditions up there are a lot more predictable," said Keysor. "Usually there's good ice by Christmas. There's lots of access, but you need to be mobile. The walleyes move around a lot on Little Bay de Noc and you need to move a lot to be successful. Locate the reefs and dropoffs off the river mouths on the north end of the bay. Start shallow at first light and then move deeper as the day goes on. Reverse the process in the evenings."

Prime winter walleyes haunts are off the Days River, and off the oil tank out from Kipling and Butlers Island.

Keysor said the most productive depths for winter walleyes on Little Bay de Noc range from 14 to 20 feet. Look for humps that rise up to 10 or 12 feet, and then work down the slopes. While the locally made Swedish Pimple is an old standby on Little Bay de Noc, Keysor said he does equally well with a jigging shad lure in purple, especially when the fish are aggressive. Occasionally, Keysor said he'll catch a walleye or two on a dead rod, but jigging accounts for 75 percent of his 'eyes on the bay.

Special size limits for walleyes are in effect on Little Bay de Noc, so be sure to check your Michigan Fishing Guide before venturing out.

If the walleyes aren't cooperating on the bay, there's always perch. Schools of perch roam the 20- to 30-foot depths during the winter and can be counted on for consistent action. Small minnows are a top choice, but wigglers and wax worms are a close second. Most perch will run 9 to 12 inches, but bigger ones are common. Try the same areas where the walleyes are except in slightly deeper water.

For information on public access, live bait, and lodging, contact Bay Shore Resort at (906) 428-9687 or on the Web at Additional information on restaurants and accommodations in the area can be had by contacting the Delta County Chamber of Commerce at (906) 786-2192 or on the Web at

Mackinac County's Big Manistique Lake is among our state's best lakes for pike, smallmouths and muskies, but it's the lake's walleyes and perch that draw the winter anglers.

"The guys do very well on the walleyes and perch during the winter on Big Manistique," said Bonnie Orlando of the Fish & Hunt Shop in Curtis. "Out near the islands is a good place for both perch and walleyes."

Orlando said to try 12 to 18 feet of water. The perch will run from 8 to 12 inches. Walleyes will mainly be 15- to 17-inchers that are perfect for the skillet, but there are fish over 6 pounds caught every winter.

The perchin' is fairly simple, according to Orlando. Use a slip-bobber to position a minnow a foot to a foot-and-a-half off bottom for the perch. Walleyes are taken with the same rig, in addition to using tip-ups and by jigging.

Big Manistique Lake is just that, covering over 10,000 acres, but offers excellent access. You can get on the ice on the east side off H-33, on the north side off CR-98, on the southwest corner off Curtis Road or H-42, and in Cooks Bay.

Contact the Hunt & Fish Shop at (906) 586-9531 or on the Web at for maps and information on ice-fishing opportunities on Big Manistique Lake. For details on lodging facilities and restaurants in the area, contact the Curtis Chamber of Commerce at (906) 586-3700 or on the Web at


Iron County's Peavy Reservoir gets a lot of attention in the winter for a variety of species.

"I know that Peavy is a good lake during the winter for panfish," said DNR fisheries biologist Vern Nurenburg. "Most of the people that ice-fish on Peavy are after pike or walleyes. Not too many people target the panfish."

An impoundment of the Michigammee River, Peavy Reservoir covers some 640 acres. The lakes yields some big pike to tip-up anglers who concentrate near the islands located directly off the public access at the end of Lake Mary Road. Northerns topping 30 inches are fairly common. Off the mouth of the Paint River is another hotspot for walleyes that will run up to 5 or 6 pounds. Panfish can be found in the same areas. A flasher or graph is a big help in locating the old river channel and other fish-holding structure. Peavy has a healthy population of good-sized bluegills and crappies that most anglers ignore. Perch are also abundant.

For more information on Peavy Reservoir, contact the Crystal Falls DNR office at (906) 875-6622.

Located in southern Iron County, 1,100-acre Chicagon Lake has a diverse ice-fishery. A two-story lake, Chicagon Lake offers a deep-water fishery for lake trout and whitefish and a shallow fishery for walleyes and perch.

"One of the lake's strong suits is its diversity," said DNR fisheries biologist Bill Ziegler.

Good winter locations for walleyes and perch are off Midsummer's Point and on the south end of the lake off the golf course. Concentrate your efforts near remnant weedbeds. Try slip-bobbers for the perch and jigging or tip-ups for walleyes. Lake trout and whitefish frequent the deep water near the center portion of the lake.

Access can be gained at Pentoga County Park on the south end of the lake. For information on bait shops, lodging and restaurants in the area, contact the Iron County Tourism Council at (906) 265-3822 or on the Web at

* * *
So here's hoping Mother Nature cooperates with us outdoor lovers this winter and we have another ice-fishing season with good, solid ice.

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