For a state with very few natural lakes, Ohio ice fishing is great, especially along the northern counties.
Mighty cold winters blast across the northern half of Ohio. Cold enough, luckily, to ice-over several very nice lakes. This is one of the blessings of winter, one that is most appreciated by those crazy folks who like to drill holes through the ice to get at some very tasty fish.
Ice fishing in Ohio is mostly limited to lakes that lie north from U.S. Route 30. Depending on the severity of the winter, lakes considerably farther south may freeze over, but we will stick to the primary ice fishing area.
Marginally safe ice is not the place for ice fishing. The Division of Wildlife suggests a minimum ice thickness of 4 inches for an individual ice fisher, and 7 inches for groups of ice fishers.
Walleye, saugeye, perch, crappie and sunfish all are popular in the northwest. Most lakes here are upland lakes, built above the surrounding landscape. Bottoms tend to be almost featureless. Many have considerable aquatic weed growth.
But besides checking for safe ice, anglers should also check the regulations before they head out.
"A lot of our lakes don't allow ice fishing," said District 2 Fisheries Biologist Brian Kinter.
Some upground reservoirs are owned by local municipalities. Local regulations can vary in significant ways.
Best Bets in NW Ohio
Kinter suggested Findlay Reservoir 2 as one of the better bets for ice fishing in northwestern Ohio, with perch and walleye keeping ice fishers busy. Walleye are clearly most popular among ice fishers. Channel catfish, crappie and some bluegill also inhabit this lake.
Try a jigging spoon tipped with a minnow. To concentrate on panfish, rig a teardrop jig about 18 inches up the line from a small jigging spoon. Tip with grubs.
This reservoir covers 664 surface acres, the largest upground reservoir in Ohio. The smaller Findlay Reservoir 1, which is 186 acres, is separated by just a small border path. Depths range from 16 feet to 33 feet, averaging 24 feet.
Findlay Reservoir 2 has quite a bit of bottom structure for an upland lake. Away from the steep banks depths generally range from 18 feet to 26 feet. Underwater drop-offs run just about every direction somewhere in the water.
Findlay Reservoir is located in Hancock County, just east from Findlay and about 46 miles south from Toledo. Take State Route 37 to County Road 25, then to County Road 234. Turn North onto Township Road 207 and east to the Boat Ramp on Findlay Reservoir 2.
Before ice fishing at any of the upland lakes, Kinter said, "It's a good idea to call and see if regulations have changed."
Walleyes at Bressler
Another upground reservoir that offers good walleye fishing is Bressler Reservoir. This 582-acre lake is in western Allen County, 4 miles west from Lima. It is about a mile south from State Route 81 and about a mile north from State Route 117 on Kemp Road and Grubb Road.
Average depth is 27 feet. The maximum depth — 44 feet — is in the northeast corner of the lake. Three holes that drop past 40 feet lie near the northern dike. All of the deeper water is fairly close to the dikes. Three sunken islands, especially one which comes within 10 feet of the surface near the southern end of the lake, can be key to finding fish.
Pleasant Hill Saugeyes
Straddling the border between Richland County and Ashland County, Pleasant Hill Reservoir is one of the better places to ice fish for saugeye, according to Kinter. It also holds good numbers of bluegill and crappie, and some yellow perch.
This lake is toward the southern end of the county border, at the northern end of Mohican State Park. Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District operates facilities on the north shore. This is a traditional reservoir, damming the Clark Fork Branch of the Mohican River in Ashland County. It is situated just off State Route 95 southwest from Perrysville, accessible from State Route 95 and State Route 603.
The surface area is 783 acres. From the marshy head of the lake, it extends eastward into Ashland County, slowly sloping to a depth of about 20 feet. Then it turns sharply south. This lower north-to-south section of the lake is in a steep-sided gorge with a maximum depth of about 35 feet. Water color tends to be turbid.
Try vertical jigging with a jigging spoon with a loud color pattern, including fluorescent red or glow colors.
Get more information about the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District from the web site mwcd.org.
East Harbor State Park
You may catch a variety of panfish at East Harbor State Park. Fishing for crappie and bluegill is excellent. Yellow perch also reside here.
"It's a nice, protected harbor," Kinter said.
This is harbor off Lake Erie on Catawba Island. It is located east from Port Clinton and north from Sandusky. From State Route 163, turn north on State Route 269 to the park entrance.
Be sure to wear a wind-proof outer layer of clothing and good insulation beneath it. Wind off Lake Erie can be bitter.
Ice fishing on Lake Erie can also be treacherous. The DCNR Division of Wildlife recommends hiring a licensed guide who finds the fish, provides transportation on the ice and provides ice shelters. A list of these guides is available on the Division of Wildlife web site. In the left column on the home page click on Fishing, then click on Fishing Lake Erie.
Walleye are the main attraction for Lake Erie ice fishing. Equip for walleye with a variety of jigs and blade baits in a variety of color patterns.
One of the more reliable places to find safe ice is Green Island and Rattlesnake Island just west from South Bass Island.
Portage Lakes, just south from Akron in Summit County, is one of the more reliable lakes in Ohio for ice fishing. The main detraction here is a shortage of public access. Residential sections extend right to the lakes.
But the few public access sites provide enough access to any part of the lakes. Major roads near the lakes are State Route 93 to the north, and State Route 93 to the west. Numerous roads are close to the water.
Scouting before the ice fishing season for access points will give an ice fishing outing here a pretty good chance of success.
"Portage Lakes is one that always gets hit quickly because it freezes up fast," said District 3 Fisheries Biologist Matt Wolf.
Wolf said that this is primarily a panfish lake. It has good fisheries for bluegill, black crappie, white crappie and red-eared sunfish. It rates as one of the best lakes for redear sunfish in the state.
Portage Lakes also holds yellow perch, channel catfish, pumpkinseed and warmouth, making Portage a panfish angler's delight. Fishing for crappie and bluegill is rated good to excellent in all of the major connected lakes.
The same terminal rig and tackle can be used for all of the panfish. Tie a teardrop jig about 18 inches up the line from a small jigging spoon. Tip each with a grub, or to concentrate on larger panfish try a minnow on the jigging spoon. In addition to being very effective, the jigging spoon at the end of the line helps to feel bottom and control depth of the rig.
Portage Lakes consists of several connecting lakes including Long Lake, North Reservoir, East Reservoir, Miller Lake, Hower Lake, West Reservoir, Mud Lake, Turkeyfoot Lake and Rex Lake. The entire complex of connecting lakes is sometimes simply referred to as "Portage Lake."
"It's a nice, shallow, weedy lake. Water level doesn't vary much," Wolf said.
Depths of less than 20 feet dominate the lakes and the panfish action. However, there is some structure. Turkeyfoot Lake drops below 50 feet and Long Lake reaches a depth of more than 40 feet. All of the lakes are small, but together surface area is 1,190 acres.
Portage Lakes State Park provides the largest section of shoreline access. It is located on the west side of Turkeyfoot Lake. A park map and additional information can be found at the state park web site.
Portage Lakes are a relic of the building of canals. The canal system was approved by state government in 1825, before railroads eliminated the need for canals. Canals did not last for long in Ohio. Canals stopped being used for transportation in the early 20th Century, years after there was any real need for them. Part of the lakes system is of glacial origin.
Pymatuning Lake lies along a north to south axis straddling the Ohio/Pennsylvania border. The Ohio part of the reservoir is in Ashtabula County. It is located a few miles east from Andover by way of State Route 85. State Route 11 runs about 10 miles to the west. U.S. Route 6 curves from the north to the west.
With a surface area of 16,349 acres, Pymatuning Lake is the largest inland lake in Ohio. This is a fairly shallow lake. Depth drops to about 30 feet near the dam at Jamestown, Pennsylvania. Very little Ohio water reaches a depth of 20 feet.
Wolf recommends that ice fishers look for bottom structure. Drop-offs, humps and flooded creek channels tend to attract fish. Ice fishers who drill many holes generally fare best. Use a portable sonar fish finder at each hole to locate the best structure.
Among all Ohio inland lakes, Pymatuning Lake probably has the broadest national reputation. Walleye, muskellunge and crappie draw most ice fishers. Ice fishing also can be very good for yellow perch, bluegill and pumpkinseed. All of these sport fish grow to exceptionally good size. Anglers will travel far to ice fish here.
Fishing here last summer was disappointing. But do not be fooled. This was not due to a lack of sport fish. Last year the winter was mild, and more shad than usual survived winter, leaving an abundance of natural food last summer.
Jigging blade baits is a very popular fishing method among ice fishers who target walleye. Teardrop jigs and small jigging spoons are effective on all of the panfish.
New special regulations apply at Pymatuning Lake, a cooperative effort between Ohio and Pennsylvania to improve fishing — primarily crappie fishing. The daily limit is 20 crappie, and the minimum size is 9 inches. Another lake-specific regulation is a daily limit of six walleye and a minimum size of 15 inches.
Access to Pymatuning Lake is outstanding, since Pymatuning State Park covers most of the Ohio shoreline. Another Pymatuning State Park includes most of the eastern shoreline. The Ohio State Route 85 and Pennsylvania State Route 285 causeway also provides access to one of the most popular fishing areas. Fish attractors have been placed on both sides of the state border. These can be key to crappie locations.
Atwood Lake is the only lake in eastern counties that usually gets good ice and has a saugeye fishery. This lake also holds numerous crappie, but they tend to be small. Bluegill are abundant.
"Atwood Lake has the points and bars where saugeye hang around. If there's a lake that's going to freeze up with saugeye, it would be Atwood," Wolf said.
Maximum depth of this 1,562-acre manmade lake is 30 feet to 35 feet. Though not terribly deep, banks drop steeply into the main channel. Fish attracting structures have been placed at various locations. Exact location of these structures can be found with the Atwood Lake map on the Division of Wildlife web site.
Shoreline access is quite good. Land surrounding the lake is owned by the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District. The dam that creates the lake is just off State Route 212 in Tuscarawas County; however, most of the lake lies in Carroll County. State Route 542 runs near the southern shoreline.
A very versatile ice fishing rig for most panfish consists of two jigs tipped with bait. The lower lure is a jigging spoon, and the upper lure is a teardrop jig about 18 inches up the line. The reason for using a jigging spoon at the end of the line is weight. Jigging spoons are relatively heavy so they simplify feeling bottom. The teardrop jig is there to provide a different look, and to cover more of the water column. The fishing line should be no heavier than 4-pound-test.