Ice Fishing With Kids in Northern Michigan

A passionate fan of ice fishing shares his fatherly tips and advice for passing along the love of winter angling to the next generation. (Bucket of barbies and snow angels noted.)

This story is featured in the February 2018 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!

– How to Go Ice Fishing with Kids – 

Cutting through wispy gray clouds, a rare February sun flashes off a scrim of fresh snow on Walloon Lake and lights up the red hair peeking from my daughters’ hoods as they roll and giggle in a snow bank. Grateful for the radiant warmth ebbing into my gloves, I slide our vintage snowmobile off its trailer and set to work loading way too much gear for a five-hour ice fishing trip. A bucket of Barbie dolls is nested between tip-ups, tackle bags and a sloshing minnow bucket. A small barbecue grill is secured with a bungee cord. The ice auger, bright blue and red in the fierce winter light, clips into its rack on the back of the sled. As the truck bed empties, I tick down the mental checklist of provisions: portable shanty, propane heater, drinks, snacks, a hand winch in case we get stuck in slush. Captain Cook made it to the Bering Strait carting half this much stuff. With the sled loaded and our snow machine idling smoothly, the girls jam helmets over their pink balaclavas, and we motor toward a distant weed edge for an afternoon of fresh air and, with luck, a bucket of yellow perch.

Jim Harrison famously titled ice fishing “the moronic sport,” and, hard water enthusiast though I am, I’ll readily admit it’s not for everyone. Harrison’s hilariously chilling account recalls the frost-bitten traumas of trailing other bored sportsmen onto the wind-whipped moonscape of Lake Michigan bays to gruntingly hand chisel through two feet of ice, get drunk on an upturned bucket and trundle home frostbitten and fishless. While various iterations of Harrison’s experience are certainly still possible, advances in gear and technology over the last 50 years have stepped in to mediate the suffering. Ice fishing can be comfortable and offer an opportunity for families to spend time outdoors while, if the fishgods smile, catching dinner.

Stopping to check our position relative to the drop-off on my iPhone’s chart plotting app, I turn to see the girls grinning expectantly through their visors. We drive another hundred yards and they immediately set to work making snow angels while I begin to unpack. As someone who spends warmer months casting a fly on crystalline trout streams or trolling the blue depths of Little Traverse Bay, I find that walking on frozen water in the stillness of deep winter is a singular thrill that never gets old. Absurdly provisioned though I am, ice fishing feels like a wild and self-reliant pursuit: man with electronics and internal combustion engines against the forces of nature. Popping out the sides on our red Eskimo shanty, I get the propane heater humming inside so the girls can warm up après snow angels, and I set to work drilling a grid of holes extending from shallow weeds out over a steep drop into deeper water.

The same maxims of location and presentation that make for successful summertime fishing hold equally true on the ice. Mobility is key but constantly moving around the lake with kids in tow is near impossible, so it’s best to set up in a spot that gives you access to various depths and underwater structures to improve your chances of intercepting fish. While a snow machine certainly helps getting to these spots on bigger bodies of water, smaller lakes and ponds offer plenty of spots that can be accessed via snowshoes or a short walk from the car. Smartphone apps like Navionics have bathymetric contour maps of the lake bottom and real-time GPS that help take the guesswork out of where to drill your holes. Failing that, look for clusters of other fishermen and set up nearby at a respectful distance.

For short trips we’ll usually pack light and set out on foot or snowshoes, pulling gear in a sled by hand. I always keep a shovel and the girls’ skates in the truck so if there’s smooth ice under the snow we can make a small impromptu skating rink. For longer excursions or really cold days, we’ll employ portable ice shelters and heaters to keep everyone comfortable. A thermos of hot cocoa and a small barbecue to grill sausages makes for an easy hot lunch. I’ve found a clandestine candy stash useful for buying an extra half-hour of fishing time when the “can we go now” refrain first begins.

Just as most kids quickly disengage from sitting still and waiting for a bobber to dunk, boredom and its dreaded bedfellow, whining, will quickly take effect when children are told to park on a bucket in freezing weather. To this end, it pays to head out on days that aren’t too brutally cold or windy and make provisions to keep kids warm and busy.

With a pattern of holes extending in a 50-yard perimeter from our gear, I hand Elise, my 9-year-old, a bright orange scoop, and she happily gets to work flinging slush from the holes while Sadie, 6, and I follow behind baiting tip-ups with wriggling shiner minnows. She personally selects each one for its potential perch appeal.

The girls head into the shanty with Barbies, juice boxes and a bag of trail mix, while I rotate through the open holes with a sonar flasher and a jigging lure, looking for signs of life. Clear, cold skies and a high barometer rarely portend a hot bite, but after bouncing my bright silver Swedish Pimple off the bottom for a few minutes the rod twitches, and I reel in an eight-inch perch—not a trophy but definitely a candidate for the pan.

Two more keeper perch and some smaller ‘dinks’ show up over the next hour before we break to grill Plath’s hot dogs and drink hot chocolate. Friend James McCullough shows up with his English setter, Layla, and the girls take turns chasing her in circles through the snow while we drill new holes trying to find a pod of active fish.

Snow covered kids and dog head into the shanty where giggling is punctuated by a yell of “Dad! Flag!” and I turn to see that one of our tip-ups has popped, its upright orange flag signaling that a sh has grabbed the bait. The braided line is limp, however, by the time we get there, its shiny red treble hook bearing a lifeless, lacerated minnow: sure sign of a missed walleye. “I guess he didn’t like the taste,” Sadie yells indignantly, heading off to rummage for candy bars in the sled.

As afternoon wears on, thick snow clouds roll in on a Northwest wind and the temperature starts to drop. A fat 10 1/2-inch perch grabs one of our set-lines and joins our small but well-earned pile of fish. The edge of an incoming weather front usually precipitates fast action, and evening is prime time for walleye, but the girls are signaling that they’re cold and ready to head home.

We pull the tip-ups, repack the sled and motor our way back to the truck through the fading light and falling snow with our cabin fever relieved and enough perch for an appetizer.

Traverse food and drinks editor Tim Tebeau writes from Petoskey. [email protected] // Melisa McKolay is an award-winning photographer specializing in lifestyle portraiture and wedding photojournalism. 

Gearing Up for Ice Fishing with Kids

The minimalist or beginning ice fisherman can get completely outfitted for about two hundred bucks. For enthusiasts gear geeks, the range of upgrades is limited only by their liquid assets. Websites like YouTube, iceshanty.com and michigan-sportsman.com are full of useful how-to videos, articles and message boards.

ICE FISHING ESSENTIALS
  • Navionics: $15 / Smartphone app with inland lake contour maps and real-time GPS shows you where you are and where the fish are likely to be.
  • Manual Ice Auger: $40–$125 / A 6-to-8-inch auger with sharp blades and a little elbow grease will get you to fish. Premium Scandinavian-style drills from makers like Nils USA do it in half the time of cheaper brands.
  • Ice Spud: $40 / Essential for checking ice thickness and reopening holes.
  • Ice Scoop: $10 / A fancy slotted spoon to clean slush from your holes.
  • Sled: $40–$100 / Buy the deepest sturdiest sled you can afford to haul your kit onto the ice.
  • Rod & Reel Combos: $20–$60 each / Light-and medium-action rods spooled with 2– 6-pound test line will cover most ice fishing situations. Specialty braided ice line is best for deeper water.
  • Tip-Ups: $10–$30each / Great for fishing with kids as they’re hands-free until it’s time to pull up a fish.
  • Insulated Bait Bucket: $10 / Styrofoam-line pails keep your minnows from becoming a frozen chum block.
  • Tackle: $40+ / A selection of teardrop jigs, vertical jigging lures, light wire hooks, sinkers and foam slip bobbers will get the ice fishing party started.

Fish Species to Target

Smelt, sunfish, perch, walleye and northern pike make up the core quarry for ice fishermen and their kids. Check out the Michigan DNR’s online Fish Stocking Database to see which ones are swimming in your local waters.

SMELT

Smelt travel in huge schools suspended in deep water and can provide fun, fast action for kids as well as delicious eating afterward. Light line and smelt spoons or multi-hook rigs tipped with spikes or small minnows will catch them.

SUNFISH

Bluegills, crappie and pumpkinseeds are plentiful and relatively easy to catch, especially in small to medium-sized inland lakes. Find them near bottom on weed beds and mud flats in 6 to 12 feet of water. Light, 2-to-4-pound test line and small jigs tipped with wax worms, spikes or soft plastics will do the trick.

YELLOW PERCH

Probably the North’s most prevalent panfish, yellow perch are ubiquitous in local waters. Stalk them on mud flats and near weed beds in 7 to 40 feet of water. Pull up a pile of perch fishing just off bottom with light line and small jigging spoons tipped with bait or a simple slip bobber rig with a hook and minnow.

WALLEYE

Ice fishing’s most highly sought piscine prize, walleyes can be found along weed edges, drop-offs and on underwater structure like points or sunken islands. Jig for them with spoons or swimming lures tipped with a minnow head and set tip-ups baited with shiners 2–6 feet above bottom.

NORTHERN PIKE

Wherever there are panfish there are sure to be pike nearby. Set tip-ups baited with 15+-pound test leaders and large shiners or sucker minnows a few feet off bottom near weed beds.

Get the February issue of Traverse Magazine for more winter fun!


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