You don't want to push your luck, but first ice produces some of the hottest ice-fishing of the year in Michigan. Game fish are very active when the first safe ice forms. They're actively feeding, still chowing down during early winter preparing to bulk up for tougher times ahead. There's plenty of oxygen in the water, weeds are still green and a fish's metabolism is still in relatively high gear. Fish are generally shallow and highly accessible on first ice because that's where the food is. Schools of baitfish are in the shallows and aquatic insects haven't gone into a state of winter torpor quite yet.
Panfish in particular produce some hot fishing on first ice. In late fall, good bluegills and sunfish move into the shallows, and as soon as ice forms you can bet your last dollar that schools of panfish will be staged right off the shallow weedlines. If the panfish and baitfish are in the shallows, the predators are not going to be far behind. Both walleyes and pike will be shadowing the panfish. Savvy anglers hedge their bets and spot a few tip-ups while they're fishing panfish. If the panfish bite suddenly stops, keep a close eye on the tip-ups.
I've caught a lot of largemouth and smallmouth bass through the ice. Bass are legal targets until Dec. 31, and so if you're looking for a little variety in your catch, bass can fill the bill. They like the same teardrops that panfish do and will put a healthy bend in your light ice-fishing rod.
Truth is, just about everything is biting on first ice. Use your better judgment, but by all means get out on first ice and see for yourself. Following are some destinations that are sure to produce a hot first-ice bite this winter.
I lived near Hamlin Lake for 20 years and it still amazes me how it can continue to pump out thousands of hand-sized bluegills every year. Hamlin has a strong panfish population, good reproduction, excellent habitat and the right balance of predators.
5,000-acre Hamlin Lake is made up of two basins — the Upper and Lower Lakes. The Lower Lake can get down to 75 or 80 feet and has plenty of structure. The Upper Lake is relatively shallow and flat with the Big Sauble River entering at the east end. The river provides a steady flow of nutrients. The Upper Lake is the first to freeze and is where the hot first-ice action takes place.
Bluegills and slab sunfish cruise through the openings in the weeds hunting bugs. Some crappies up to 12 inches will be mixed in with the 'gills and sunnies. It's important to move until you find one of the paths in the weeds where the fish are traveling. A move of only 10 or 20 feet can be the difference between fish and no fish. The panfish are ravenous on first ice and aren't too particular. You can get away with 2- to 4-pound test and a fat wax worm on a teardrop and catch a limit. Later in the winter, the fish get a little more finicky and very light line, sensitive spring bobbers, minuscule teardrops and tiny larva are required to catch the bull bluegills.
A prime location is the 7- to 10-foot flats east off of Wilson Park. Once the ice gets to 4 inches some time around Christmas, it's a half-mile walk to the good fishing. Word gets out quick and it can be a busy place on weekends. Locals target weekdays and the morning and evening bites. Usually, that's more than enough time to catch a limit of panfish. Walleye and pike provide bonus action. Lively golden shiners will catch both. The walleyes will run up to 10 pounds, with 2- to 4-pound 'eyes common, and many of the northerns will top 30 inches.
For more information on ice conditions, fishing reports and bait and tackle, contact Hamlin Grocery at (231) 843-2058 or on line at www.hamlingrocery.com.
"One place I always look forward to fishing on first ice is Arbutus Lake," stated guide and outdoor writer Dave Rose. "It's really a string of five small lakes and they all have some good bluegills in them and in recent years the crappies have really taken off."
Rose said that four or five years ago they started catching an abundance of 2-inch crappies. "No one's sure exactly how they got in the lake, bucket biology most likely, but those crappies are now 10 inches and bigger."
Besides the bluegills and crappies, Rose said Arbutus Lake is unique because it has an overabundance of largemouth bass, so many that the MDNR has put a 10-inch size limit on bass in the lake. Those can be fun through the ice on light tackle, too. Add to that a reputation for producing some jumbo yellow perch and you have all the makings of a first-ice hotspot.
Grand Traverse County's Arbutus Lake is made up of five basins that range from 31 to 150 acres. Lake No. 5 is on the north end of the chain and shallowest with depths of up to 25 feet. One of the best access points is on Lake No. 5 and it's one of the best places on first ice. There are other access points on lakes No. 2 and No. 4.
Arbutus Lake panfish are like panfish everywhere. Try larva for hand-sized bluegills and minnows for the biggest crappies, although specks certainly will bite the larva too.
For information on lodging and amenities in the area, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-940-1120 or on line at www.traversecity.com.
"Intermediate Lake is another lake that can be hot on first ice," suggested Rose. "The south end of the lake is relatively shallow and freezes up pretty early. When it does, you'll find some good bluegills, perch and plenty of walleyes from 20 inches up."
The walleyes are the result of natural reproduction, as the lake has not been planted in a number of years. Anglers will find good access on 1,530-acre Intermediate Lake at Openo Park on the east side of the narrows. The narrows can be a good place to waylay a pike or walleye, too. On the south end, keep moving and punching holes until you locate weedlines and active schools of bluegills. Larva, in the form of wax worms, spikes or mousies, will interest 'gills that average 8 inches. Walleyes can be caught using tip-ups baited with a lively shiner or by jigging a spoon baited with a minnow head.
For information on bait shops that are open during the winter, lodging and accommodations, contact the Central Lake Chamber of Commerce at (231) 544-3322.
Northeast Lower Michigan has numerous impoundments and reservoirs that fish particularly well on first ice. Alpena County's Fletcher's Floodwater is one of them.
"The panfish weren't good on first ice last year, but the pike fishing was great," said Northern Lake Huron Fisheries Biologist Tim Cwalinski. "I just think the pike fishing was so good that the panfish weren't active. In fact, they were probably scared to death! The panfishing picked up later in February when the pike fishing died down."
An impoundment of the Thunder Bay River, Fletcher's pike have been the benefactor of high water levels in recent years that have provided excellent spawning habitat for northerns. The bumper crops of northerns are beginning to mature and ice-anglers that like watching tip-ups are having a ball. There's an abundance of northerns in the 26- to 32-inch size range, and every winter someone ices a 40-inch leviathan or two.
"Fletcher might be the best lake in the state for both numbers and size of pike," claimed Cwalinski.
The 9,000-acre Fletcher Floodwater is relatively shallow, weedy and filled with stumps and logs that provide outstanding pike habitat. Pike can be found just about anywhere in the lake. Subtle structure, like where the old river channel weaves through the lake, can be a hotspot. The trick is to punch holes and keep moving regularly until you find your quarry. Spot big suckers or shiners 2 or 3 feet off the bottom. Don't give up at midday because that's when sight-feeders, like pike, are the most active.
For more information, contact Jack's Landing at (989) 742-4370 or on line at www.jackslanding.com.
CORNWALL CREEK FLOWAGE
"Cornwall Creek Flowage can be really good for bluegill on first ice," shared Cwalinski, "but you need to be careful getting on and off the ice."
Located in the Pigeon River State Forest, 171-acre Cornwall Creek Flowage is a manmade lake formed by a small creek. The flowing water and organic bottom makes ice conditions iffy, especially early in the winter. By the time good ice forms, access via snowmobile may be the only way to get to the lake.
The best location on first ice is on the south end of the lake off the end of Cornwall Creek Road. Bluegills averaging 7 to 8 inches and bigger, along with some chunky pumpkinseed sunfish, can be found in the 4- to 8-foot depths off weedlines there. You'll find some good-sized perch, up to 14 inches, in the deeper 12- to 20-foot depths. Teardrops and larva work best for the bluegills and sunfish. Minnows are preferred for the jumbo perch. It might be worthwhile to spot a tip-up or two for the remnant tiger muskies in the lake.
For information on amenities and bait shops in the area, contact the Cheboygan Area Chamber of Commerce at (231) 637-7183.
TOMAHAWK CREEK FLOODING
"Tomahawk Creek Flooding definitely fishes best on first ice," said Cwalinski. "The bottoms on these floodings are very organic and the dissolved oxygen levels go down as winter progresses, so the best fishing is on first ice."
Because of its shallow and organic nature, 557-acre Tomahawk Creek Flooding endures periodic winter-kills and post-spawn die-offs, but because the lake is so fertile, the fish populations bounce back quickly, particularly the panfish. Past surveys have revealed that the flooding has excellent populations of warmwater game fish.
"Tomahawk has an excellent population of crappies, bluegills and sunfish," shared Cwalinski. "The whole lake is pretty shallow so the fish can be about anywhere. Try around the islands and the flooded timber and keep moving until you find fish."
When you find them, you can expect bluegills to 10 inches, foot-long crappies, and chunky pumpkinseed sunfish. Pike in the flooding range from hammer handles to leviathans approaching 40 inches.
Tomahawk Creek Flooding is located between Atlanta and Onaway in Presque Isle County. For more information, contact the Northern Lake Huron Management Unit of the MDNR at (989) 732-3541. For information on lodging and accommodations in the area, contact the Presque Isle County Visitor Information Service at (989) 734-8446 or on line at http://presqueislemi.org.
It may take awhile for winter to harden southern Michigan lakes, but when it does, first-ice action for panfish can be incredible. One spot worth checking out is Washtenaw County's Silver Lake.
"Silver Lake has some really nice crappies and bluegills in it," claimed Jim Balzer who fishes the lake regularly through the ice. "There are some weedlines and breaks on the north side of the lake in 5 to 10 feet of water that can be really hot on first ice."
Two other first-ice hotspots on the 201-acre lake are in the coves on the northwest corner of the lake. Silver Lake is located in the Pinckney Recreation Area. There is public access on the southwest corner of the lake.
When you can find safe ice in southern Michigan can vary greatly. Usually, lakes are starting to ice up by early December. If it's cold and there's not too much snow, expect to get on the ice by Christmas or right after the first of the year.
"You can catch some really nice bluegills and crappies on first ice on Silver Lake," offered Balzer. "The bluegills like spikes or wax worms on chartreuse or orange teardrops, and will run from 7 1/2 to 9 inches, but I've caught bigger ones. Little, tiny shiner minnows work best for the crappies. They seem to really turn on the last hour of light. Most of those will be between 10 and 12 inches. There are times when you have to beat the pike off with a stick. I can't begin to tell you how many times I've lost jigs to pike."
To locate accommodations, amenities and bait shops in the area, contact the Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce at (734) 475-1145 or on line at http://chelseamichamber.org.
Another lake in the Pinckney Recreation Area offers excellent first-ice opportunities, too. The 197-acre South Lake lies only a short distance from Silver Lake. South Lake is known for it hand-sized bluegills, large black crappies, and pugnacious redear sunfish. Although South Lake has depths exceeding 80 feet, look to the shallows for first-ice panfish. Try along the dropoff on the east side of the lake between 5 and 15 feet, or directly off the public access located off Joslin Lake Road on the northeast corner of the lake. Two other good locations are Snyder and Eagle lakes that connect to South Lake.
For more details, contact the Lake Erie Management Unit of the MDNR at (248) 359-9040.
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First ice can be counted on to produce some of the hottest ice-fishing of the year in Michigan. Use your best judgment, wear a lifejacket, and get in on the action this winter.