October 04, 2010
Big northerns are getting harder and harder to find in Michigan. You just have to know where to look!
There are many Michigan lakes where you can catch northern pike through the ice, but that number becomes a lot smaller if you narrow your search to lakes that contain big pike.
Gargantuan northerns need a lot of food to get big. It's especially good if that food source is oily high-protein fodder like trout, whitefish, alewives or smelt. Most times that means lakes that are connected to one of the Great Lakes, Great Lakes bays and estuaries or lakes that receive annual plants of fat trout.
It helps if the lake has only a modest pike population. You can have a lot of pike in a lake or you can have big pike in a lake, but usually you can't have a lot of big pike. Trophy northerns need a lot of shoulder room and get somewhat territorial. It's their competitive nature and sheer orneriness that ice-anglers can take advantage of.
Of course, if you're going after big game, you need big bait. Even a small pike can swallow a 6-inch sucker. So if you're targeting trophy pike, you need to use magnum-sized bait, up to 18 inches, that smaller pike aren't going to fool with. Many serious winter pike anglers secure their own bait such as suckers, alewives, smelt or herring and use quick-strike rigs with the dead bait. Others swear that live bait is the best way to draw the wrath of a big 'gator. Either way, once you go toe-to-toe with a monster northern through the ice you'll be hooked on winter pike fishing.
The following is an assortment of big-pike venues that are sure to produce their share of trophies this winter.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
HIGGINS LAKE "Higgins Lake is one lake that I would have to consider a real trophy-pike lake," said Northern Lake Michigan Management Unit supervisor Tom Rozich. "There's not many pike in the lake, but the ones that are in Higgins get big. Every winter there are several pike that push 25 pounds that come out of Higgins."
Higgins Lake, at 9,600 acres, isn't planted with pike but they find their way into the lake via the Cut River that joins Higgins with Houghton Lake. Once they get into Higgins, they find a pike nirvana.
"The pike in Higgins have an unlimited food base," said Rozich. "They've got trout, ciscoes, whitefish and smelt, and they need those oily high-protein types of food to grow big."
Spear-fishermen harvest many of the biggest northerns taken from Higgins Lake during the winter, but a good number of leg-long pike are taken on tip-ups, too. The big northerns cruise the dropoffs in 10 to 50 feet of water and around the perimeter of the sunken islands that characterize each of Higgins Lake's two basins. Pike may be few and far between in Higgins, but chances are good that when you catch one it will be of trophy proportions.
Access to Higgins Lake is good, but because of its size it's wise to have some form of transportation. Anglers can access the ice at both Higgins Lake State Park North and South, and at a DNR access located on the lake's west shore.
For information on bait shops, lodging and other amenities in the area, contact the Roscommon/Higgins Lake Chamber of Commerce at (989) 275-8760 or on the Web at www.hlrcc.com.
PORTAGE LAKE "Portage Lake is another one of those lakes that has the potential for producing some big pike," DNR fisheries biologist Tom Rozich said of the Portage Lake in Manistee County. "Portage is connected to Lake Michigan, so there's seasonal abundances of alewives and smelt, and Portage is planted with trout. Pike have everything they need in Portage to grow fat and sassy." Rozich said that northerns topping 20 pounds are taken from Portage Lake every winter, and pike over 10 pounds are common.
The village of Onekama maintains an access just off M-22 that is close to some of the better pike hotspots on Portage Lake. The shallow East Bay is very good for pike on first ice. The bay averages 8 feet, and pike prowl the shallows shadowing schools of panfish. Later in the winter, the pike retreat to deeper water off Eagle Point and along the dropoff between Camp Tosebo and the Covenant Bible Camp. Another pike hangout is along the dropoff that parallels North Point off Portage Point Drive.
"Most of the guys fishing Portage during the winter are after perch or walleyes," said Portage Lake regular Paul Boyd. "Every once in a while someone jiggin' for walleyes will get torn up by a big northern, so you know they are there."
Boyd said the best medicine for Portage pike is a jumbo golden shiner below a Slammer tip-up. Others prefer a big, dead herring impaled on a traditional Swedish pike hook. Jigging with a flashy spoon sweetened with a minnow head or strip of sucker meat can bring bone-jarring strikes, too.
For information on accommodations and amenities in the area, contact the Manistee County Chamber of Commerce at (231) 723-2575 or visit them on the Web at www.manisteecounty.com. For live bait and lake maps contact Riley Tackle & Guns in Manistee at (231) 723-3354.
MANISTEE LAKE "All of the drowned river-mouth lakes on the west side of the state are excellent for big pike," stated Rozich. "Manistee Lake is no exception. It has a good minnow forage base, alewives and other soft-rayed prey and excellent habitat for growing big pike."
Most ice-anglers feel there are two distinct populations of northerns living in Manistee Lake at any given time. One population is resident fish that spend their entire lives in the lake and the others that move in and out of the lake via Lake Michigan. Because of this the lake not only supports good number of pike but also northerns that often top 20 pounds.
It was a few winters ago when friend Mike Cnudde and I ventured up to Manistee Lake in search of a good pike to photograph. Mike assured me that catching one would be no problem, and we didn't have to get up at the crack of dawn to do it. It was midmorning before we even hit the ice. We set a few Slammer tip-ups, and it wasn't long before I spied a couple of other anglers icing a nice pike. I scrambled over to get some photos of the action. As we admired the respectable pike I looked back to see one of my Slammer rods pointing skyward. As I strolled toward the rod, it doubled over and started stabbing down the hole. I took off on a dead run, skidded to a stop and grabbed the bucking rod. The battle was on. Several minutes passed before I could steer the pike's snout into the hole. Mike deftly grabbed the pike behind the head and flipped him on to the ice. A combination of the s
oft morning light and the glistening 32-inch northern made some great photos possible.
Three locations on 930-acre Manistee Lake produce the best winter pike action. On the north end of the lake try off the Arthur Street access or off the East Lake Village Park referred to as "Penny Park" by locals. Pike anglers also congregate off the mouth of the Little Manistee River at the access in Stronach. Anglers should use caution when fishing either area because of currents that make ice conditions unpredictable. Use caution.
Although some ice-anglers swear by dead baits for pike, I prefer lively golden shiners and Slammer tip-ups. There's no cat-and-mouse game when the rod goes off, I have a rod and reel to fight the pike with instead of a tip-up spool or bare hands and its rare to miss a strike. For more information on Slammer tip-ups, visit them on the Web at www.slamco.com.
For more information on Manistee Lake northerns and other west Michigan pike lakes, contact the Northern Lake Michigan Management Unit of the DNR at (231) 775-9727.
FLETCHER FLOODWATER "We really don't have much creel census data on the winter pike fishery on Fletcher Floodwater," said Gaylord District fisheries biologist Tim Cwalinski, "but surveys we've done during other times of the year don't lie. I'd have to say that Fletcher is far and away the best pike lake in our district. We found plenty of pike in the 28- to 32-inch range and a few up to 40 inches."
Dean Robinson of Jack's Landing on Fletcher Floodwater agrees with Cwalinski. "You'd be hard pressed to find a lake in Michigan that produces more or bigger pike consistently through the ice." One reason pike numbers and the size of the pike remains constant is the ban on spearing, which allows more pike to reach trophy proportions. Another reason is more constant water levels, which has helped pike spawning success on Fletcher Floodwater.
Hardly any of Fletcher's 9,000-acres is much over 7 feet deep. Because of this, winter pike can be found cruising just about anywhere. A good bet is to locate the old river channel and spot tip-ups along the adjacent flat. Lively gold shiners are the ticket.
For information on lodging and bait, contact Jack's Landing at (989) 742-4370.
HUBBARD LAKE "I would have to rate Hubbard Lake as one of the better big-pike lakes in the district, too," said Tim Cwalinski. "When we last surveyed the lake, we found northerns up to 44 inches and good numbers of them."
Located in north-central Alcona County, 8,850-acre Hubbard Lake is better known by ice-anglers for its jumbo perch and walleyes, but the lake harbors some giant northerns. Pike topping 10 pounds are common, and every winter someone ices a leviathan that breaks 20 pounds. The pike grow fast on a steady diet of suckers and panfish that are present.
The best location for winter pike on Hubbard is in one of the three bays that characterize the lake. East Bay can be easily reached off Hubbard Lake Road four miles southeast of Spruce. Another access is available on the south end of the lake eight miles from the town of Lincoln on the edge of South Bay. An extensive flat here is a good spot to search for big pike in the 10- to 20-foot depths. Ice-anglers also do well on pike in North Bay just south of the village of Hubbard Lake.
Tip-ups suspending golden shiners or suckers are a proven tactic on Hubbard Lake northerns. Jigging can also be effective when pike are aggressive. Some ice-anglers hedge their bet by keeping one eye on a tip-up while fluttering a spoon. Flashy baits, like Do Jiggers or Swedish Pimples, seem to interest pike most. Strikes can be arm wrenching. One key is to be mobile until you find the active fish.
For details on lodging, bait shops and restaurants in the Hubbard Lake area, contact the Alpena Chamber of Commerce at (989) 354-4181 or on the Web at www.alpenacvb.com.
SKEGEMOG LAKE Kalkaska County's Skegemog Lake is most famous for giving up huge Great Lakes muskies to winter anglers, but Jack's Sport Shop's Dan Doherty said you're missing a good bet if you don't try the lake for northern pike. "Every winter there are a lot of 12- and 13-pound pike that come out of Skegemog," declared Doherty. "I'm sure there are bigger pike in there, too."
Doherty said a prime area for winter northerns on 2,561-acre Skegemog Lake is right off the public access on the south side of the lake. Head northeast of the landing and locate an expansive weedbed that flourishes in 15 feet of water. Big pike cruise the edge of the weeds and the adjacent flats in search of the panfish. Anglers after pike are often surprised by one of the giant muskies that reside there, too. Oversized suckers, herring and smelt are necessary to interest the biggest pike. People with spears in darkened shacks take some of the biggest pike.
For live bait, lake maps and reports on fishing success and ice conditions, contact Jack's Sport Shop in Kalkaska at (231) 258-8892. For information on lodging and other amenities in the area, contact the Elk Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce at (231) 264-8202 or at www.elkrapidschamber.org.
LITTLE BAY DE NOC Little Bay de Noc draws thousands of ice-anglers in search of big walleyes and jumbo perch, but few take advantage of the fantastic winter pike.
"There's really not much interest in pike. People just don't target pike," said fisheries biologist George Madison. "People who do get to enjoy phenomenal action. There are a lot of trophy pike in the bay in the 12- to 20-pound range."
Madison said that just about anywhere in 4 to 12 feet of water is potential pike territory. He said one hotspot is the weedbeds in front of Kipling. Others are south of the Gladstone Yacht Harbor, off the mouth of the Rapid River and off Hunter's Point. Madison pointed out that the pike in Little Bay de Noc are always on the move and anglers need to move too in order to find them. Fortunately, that's not difficult. Madison said some of the best pike fishing on the bay is less than a one-half mile from shore.
For more information on ice conditions and hot pike action, contact Bayshore Resort at (906) 428-9687, or visit them on the Web at www.bay-shore-resort.com.
AU TRAIN LAKE "Au Train Lake gives up some very nice pike," claimed Brad Petzke of Carpenter's Great Outdoors in Marquette. "They might not be as big as the ones that come from Lake Independence, but there are good number of them and they're better-than-average size."
Alger County's 830-acre Au Train Lake has been one of the premier winter pike lakes in the U.P. for decades. The lake has a reputation for producing numbers of big pike. One reason is that the lake is full of suckers and ciscoes that offer perfect pike fodder. There also is a steady influx of new pike from Lake Superior that enter the lake via the Au Train River. The lake also has p
erfect pike habitat. The deepest spot in the lake is 30 feet and most of the lake is 10 to 20 feet, featuring subtle contours, humps and weed edges.
Located nine miles west of Munising, ice-anglers can access the lake via a national forest campground on the lake's south side, although winter access might be difficult. Another possibility is off County Road H03. Best winter pike locations are off the mouth of Buck Bay, near the inlet and outlet of the Au Train River and off Cole Creek.
Petzke said that tip-ups work well, but some anglers like to feel the jolt of the strike when jigging with a Swedish Pimple.
For more information on Au Train Lake's winter pike, contact Carpenter's Great Outdoors at (906) 228-6380 or on the Web at www.carpentersoutdoors.com.
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Michigan has dozens of great winter pike lakes. Pick one of these and you can't miss.
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