February 07, 2022
- Note: This article appeared in the Midwest edition of the December/January Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to subscribe
Ice fishing’s popularity shows no signs of slowing. According to the most recent National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, U.S. anglers spent approximately $181 million on ice-fishing equipment in 2016.
Anecdotally, one only has to look at the proliferation of new ice gear or the crowds of anglers on frozen lakes to know that ice fishing is alive and quite well. Perhaps nowhere in the country is this clearer than in the Midwest. Our region is loaded with avid ice anglers, ice-fishing companies and hardwater outfitters and retailers.
It also contains many of the nation’s finest ice-fishing destinations. In fact, we’re blessed with so many great hardwater fisheries that determining the Midwest’s best waters proves challenging. Yet, that’s exactly what we mean to do here. Before that, though, let’s set a few ground rules.
To be an elite ice-fishing destination, a location must offer exceptional fishing for a particular species or, better yet, a mix of species. Prime locations should be large enough for anglers to spread out and withstand the inevitable angling pressure accompanying such top billing.
And, key for any great hardwater fishery, of course, is ice. Good candidates should ice up reliably enough for a solid window of safe ice angling annually. The 10 ice-fishing destinations here meet these qualifications and are exceptional choices this season.
1. LAKE OF THE WOODS, MN
- The Draw: Ridiculous walleye and sauger fishing, giant northern pike, big burbot and more.
- The Window: December’s early ice is the peak, but the bite is solid all season.
When I describe Lake of the Woods to new ice anglers I often say, “Your worst day walleye fishing on Lake of the Woods is usually better than your best day walleye fishing elsewhere.” Walleyes and saugers are the main event here, but giant northern pike, state-record burbot, jumbo yellow perch and ciscoes for the smoker are present, too. The lake’s also noteworthy because it heats up fairly early in the season.
“Early ice is some of the best ice,” says Joe Henry, an avid ice angler and the executive director of Lake of the Woods tourism. “Those fish get a little break in late fall, and by early December are primed to chow down. There are resort houses going out by the first weekend most years. You can catch fish year-round, but it’s hard to beat first ice in December.”
He adds that accesses and resorts dot the lake’s south shore, providing ample opportunities to get out quickly and easily on maintained road systems. These help anglers connect to the myriad structures fish frequent around the lake, like specific reefs or humps, as well as deep-water mud flats. Henry says the key is staying on fish as they move over or adjacent to structure because of forage or fishing pressure.
Tactics-wise, Henry loves the one-two punch. Drop a setline or deadstick with a plain hook or glow jig minnow near the bottom. The second line should have a jigging spoon in gold or pink with glow—preferably with a rattle to attract fish in the lake’s stained waters.
Check out the Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau web site (lakeofthewoodsmn.com) or Facebook page for fishing reports, how-to videos, lake maps, snowmobile trails and a resort and lodging list. There’s something for everyone here, whether you embark on a freelance seek-and-destroy walleye mission or rent a fish house from an outfitter. Most resorts also offer "you-catch-we-cook" fish fry services.
2. CHEQUAMEGON BAY AND THE APOSTLE ISLANDS, WI
- The Draw: Trophy lake trout, big browns, whitefish, walleyes and many others.
- The Window: Varies, but ice starts forming in the bay in December and reaches the islands in late January or early February.
Most Great Lakes get unreliable ice cover through winter, but Chequamegon Bay and the Apostle Islands on Wisconsin’s share of Lake Superior are an exception. Relative to the rest of Superior, this bay, the islands and the areas around Bayfield and Ashland, Wis., are quite shallow. Ice usually starts forming in December and extends to the outer islands by mid-winter.
This area’s species diversity is without equal among ice-angling destinations. Local guide Josh Teigen (joshteigen.com) says walleyes, bass, perch, northern pike, lakers, splake, browns, brookies, whitefish, burbot, herring, salmon and even lake sturgeon are all possible targets in the bay. Because these fish utilize the same areas in winter, anglers might catch seven or eight species on a given day. In the Apostles, big lakers, browns, splake, whitefish and herring are the main attractions.
Teigen always follows the ice progression from Chequamegon Bay north to the Apostle Islands. He likes to hit new ice and unpressured fish and escape crowds. He says the islands usually start freezing in late January and early February, but it all depends on weather conditions.
Much of Teigen’s fishing happens on big flats, but Lake Superior always has some current to attract fish. He also recommends checking out available structure, like inside turns where depths change rapidly, prominent rock bars, points that stick out and river mouths. Teigen starts his season fishing in 5 to 40 feet of water to determine the depth fish are cruising at, then moves out from there.
The guide prefers being aggressive. Jigging often outproduces setlines. He likes calling fish in with an Acme V-Rod blade bait but also throws Kastmasters, flutter spoons and flashy spoons tipped with minnow heads. He fishes some tip-ups with shiner minnows throughout the water column, too.
Satisfy all bait-and-tackle and lodging needs in one place at River Rock Inn and Bait Shop in Ashland (riverrockinn.net). Then, head downtown to grab a bite at The Deepwater Grille (deepwatergrille.com).
3. OTTER TAIL LAKES COUNTRY, MN
- The Draw: Super-sized sunfish, slab crappies and other northern goodness.
- The Window: Prime time for panfish is late February and March, but safe ice often forms in mid-December, depending on weather conditions.
This may surprise some, but it shouldn’t— especially panfish fans. Recently, the Otter Tail Lakes region has become known for serious trophy sunfish.
"Our sunfish are older and slower growing, but they tend to live longer and reach some giant proportions," says local fishing guide Garett Svir (slabseekerfishing.com). "You have an honest chance with every hole drilled in the ice to catch an 11-inch bluegill."
If that isn’t enough, the region is filled with productive, mesotrophic lakes sustaining excellent crappie populations, including large fish. And Otter Tail County’s more than 1,000 lakes offer ample shots at walleyes, perch, northern pike and bass, too. A major plus of the ice here is it grants access to lakes where you can’t launch a boat during the open-water season. This gets ice anglers on prime water that’s less pressured the rest of the year.
Panfishing can be good in December and January, but Svir says the bite explodes in late February and March. Panfish move shallow, and on warm days the shallow-water action heats up.
Svir feels finding green weeds is key to finding fish. He suggests inside turns hold the best cabbage and coontail beds with remaining green vegetation.
His go-to lures are 3- to 5-millimeter tungsten jigs tipped with euro larvae or plastics. On less-pressured lakes, Svir says anglers can use slightly bigger jigs; on pressured waters, he likes the opposite. Jigging spoons and hardbaits also produce, especially if anglers encounter lots of tiny perch and wish to reach bigger fish. He really likes a 1/8-ounce Eurotackle Z-Viber fished a few feet off the bottom.
Book a room at East Silent Lake Resort (eastsilentresort.com). Or, if you want to go no-frills, Grand Stay Hotel (grandstayhospitality.com) in Parkers Prairie offers rooms and a continental breakfast. Enjoy a fantastic cheeseburger at The Rusty Nail in Battle Lake.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Rounding out the region’s remaining top destinations
4. MILWAUKEE HARBORS, WI
Catch giant Seeforellen brown trout and steelhead on the Milwaukee lakefront’s iced-over harbors. These gorgeous giants are some of the biggest trout in the Midwest.
5. DEVILS LAKE, ND
Devils Lake has prospered during 30 years of mostly wet cycles and the expansion of the lake. Its abundant and large walleyes, northern pike, yellow perch and white bass offer incredible fishing.
6. LAKE GOGEBIC, MI
Lake Gogebic yellow perch will give any perch angler a run for his money. They’re fussy and discriminating, carefully inspecting lures and keying in not on minnows but wigglers, the larval form of the giant mayfly.
7. IOWA GREAT LAKES, IA
Sight-fish for big ’gills on Lake Okoboji’s clear waters, or hit Spirit Lake for numbers and size on perch and walleyes. White and yellow bass are fun if you find a school or two, and big pike, muskies and bass offer even more action.
8. SANDHILLS LAKES COUNTRY, NE
The Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Pelican Lake and many other small basins in the Sandhills offer ice anglers huge panfish and bass. Filled with vegetation and insect life, these productive systems are good places to find a bluegill, crappie, perch or bass for the wall.
9. GREEN BAY, WI
Green Bay has the best lake whitefish angling around, with fish feeding heavily on abundant and invasive round gobies. Fill your whitefish limit, then fish structures early and late for walleyes, including some huge ones.
10. GLACIAL LAKES, SD
Perch, walleyes, pike, bluegills and black crappies are abundant in South Dakota’s northeastern corner, famous for its glacial lakes. Fish the hot bite or chase down a wall mounter.