DNR talks Northern Michigan ice fishing and how to pick up the hobby if you haven’t already.
Northern Michigan anglers didn’t have a lot choice about how they practiced their sport in early 2014. With arctic weather leaving most of the state’s lakes – as well as many of its rivers – frozen, it’s been fish through the ice or stay home and think about fishing.
Fortunately, getting started ice fishing is relatively simple. Northern Michigan anglers need just three basic pieces of equipment – something to make a hole with, something to clear the slush from the hole, and something to fish with – and they’re in business.
The first two are simple. Either an auger (a corkscrew-like cutting device) or a spud (an over-sized chisel) will get you through the ice. And a simple slush scoop – something that looks like a ladle with holes in the cup – will get that job done.
That leaves a beginner short just one item: fishing tackle. Anglers can fish through the ice either with hooks and lines or spears. Ignoring the latter, the options are myriad, ranging from high-tech graphite rods and top-of-line spinning reels to simple fiberglass poles jammed into wooden-dowel handles and outfitted with a simple plastic, spring- tension spool to hold line.
Anglers can fish through the ice virtually anywhere they can fish during soft-water season except on designated trout streams – please consult the 2013 Michigan Fishing Guide for exceptions – and can fish for virtually all species of fish except largemouth and smallmouth bass (the season on which closes Jan. 1). And in at least one case – spearing for sturgeon on Black Lake – there is fishing opportunity through the ice that is not available the rest of the Northern Michigan season.
As with open-water season, opportunities are extensive and range from fishing for mere minnows (smelt) to muskies.
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Division Chief Jim Dexter prefers to fish for panfish, bluegills and perch.
“Ice fishing to me is about reducing your catch to possession, and those are the species I like to eat,” Dexter said. “There aren’t too many guys out practicing catch-and-release fishing through the ice.”
DNR fisheries managers think most Michigan anglers are like Dexter: panfish anglers.
“I would say most guys fish for bluegills,” said Todd Grischke, the Lake Huron Basin coordinator. “After that, I would think it’s perch and walleye.”
Bluegills are almost ubiquitous. Perch and walleye are a little less widespread.
Generally, with bluegills, the key is to “pound the bottom,” said Christian LeSage, a recreational fishing specialist with the Fisheries Division. “You have to maintain contact with the bottom so you know where your bait is in the water column.”
Olen Gannon, a fisheries technician out of the Plainwell office and a bluegill aficionado, said it’s important not to get locked into the bottom, though.
“Pay attention to the line as your bait’s dropping,” Gannon said. “If the fish are active they may hit it on the fall. And if they’re real active they may be just a foot or two under the ice – that happens quite a bit when you’re in deeper water.”
Assuming your bait makes it to the bottom, fish there and work your way up in the water column, Gannon said.
“If the fish aren’t there, move up one crank of the reel at a time,” he added. “If that doesn’t work, cut more holes and keep moving. Stay mobile.”
Walleyes and perch are typically bottom feeders that are less likely to be found up in the water column. Jim Baker, Southern Lake Huron Fisheries Unit supervisor, likes to fish for walleyes on the Saginaw River.
“I like to fish two rods,” Baker said. “One with jigging lure like a spoon or jigging Rapala, typically baited with the head of a minnow, and a still rod with a walleye-sized minnow hooked through the lips. Fish near the bottom; the depth can be anywhere from 10 feet to out in the middle of the shipping channel. Sometimes they’ll hit the spoon or Rapala and sometimes they’ll hit the minnows.”
Vince Balcer, a fisheries technician out of the Bay City office who often fishes for perch on Saginaw Bay, also likes to use two rods.
“We use lightweight gear – light action rods – and I like to use one with a live minnow hooked through the back to swim around and another with a small spoon with a single hook and a bead on it to jig with,” Balcer said. “When you get on a school with that spoon, you don’t have to mess around with re-baiting.”
Balcer said one of the keys to catching perch is finding them in the first place.
“You’ve got to keep moving,” he said. “If you don’t find fish in the first half-hour, keep moving until you find them. I’ll move 12 times a day if I have to.”
Chris Freiburger, a DNR habitat biologist and experienced perch angler, says anglers should be willing to experiment.
“If you’re catching small fish, go with a bigger bait – it might change what you’re catching,” he said. “Go to a bigger spoon or a Rapala and you might start catching bigger fish.”
Not all fish are as bottom-oriented as perch and walleye. Fisheries biologist Kregg Smith, who works out of Plainwell, says fish such as black crappie and smelt – two of his favorites – are often found suspended in the water column. Smith said smelt, which are typically pursued after dark, start biting as soon as the sun sets.
“Any small jig that you have baited with a spike will work,” he said. “With a depth finder, you can see where the fish are and know where to fish. It’s similar with crappie, too; just use a slightly larger jig, tipped with a wax worm or minnow head.”
One of the toughest parts of ice fishing is enduring the elements. Good outerwear, boots, hats, etc., will help you stay out on the ice. Says fisheries biologist Scott Hanshue, “To make it enjoyable, go out when the weather’s nice.”
But some guys pooh-pooh the idea that ice fishing is harsh.
Says DNR Fisheries Chief Dexter: “When the fish are biting, you don’t even notice that it’s cold.”
Michigan is home to plenty of fishing opportunities in winter and year-round – including the upcoming Winter Free Fishing Weekend Feb. 15-16. Learn more at michigan.gov/fishing.