Michigan Bucket List: Ice Fishing

Shandra Martinez

| 6 min read

Michigan is known for its world-class ice fishing. When the water freezes over, anglers can test their skills on more than 11,000 inland lakes and tens of thousands of miles of rivers and streams.
The state boasts more than 150 species of fish, and almost all of them can be caught through the ice. Popular species include panfish such as bluegill and perch, as well as northern pike, walleye and various trout species. 
This cold-weather pursuit can range from a simple experience, involving nothing more than drilling a hole in the ice and casting a line while seated on an upside-down bucket, to a full setup in an ice shanty that rivals the comforts of home. Regardless of the approach, navigating frozen waterways gives anglers access to remote sections of lakes that are out of reach during the open water season without a boat.
February is an ideal time to try this sport because the state will host its Free Fishing Weekend on Feb. 17-18, during which state licenses are not required.

Ice safety

Be sure to pack a floatation device and ice picks, short plastic rods with metal picks, to wear around your neck in case of an emergency. Ice should be at least 3 inches before walking on it, and avoid areas with slush on the surface. Guides, bait shops and resorts usually have ice conditions available, so call ahead. Taking the right gear and an ice shanty, if possible, create the optimum opportunity to experience the best ice fishing in Michigan and possibly the entire country.
When it comes to clothing, dress in layers. A moisture-wicking base layer, an insulated middle layer, and a breathable outer shell are recommended. A pair of waterproof boots is also a must, along with moisture-wicking socks under-wool socks to help to keep feet warm and dry. Scarf, hat and gloves are also must-haves. Bring an extra pair of gloves in case the other pair gets wet.
When making holes in the ice, the two most common tools are a spud, a long- shank with a chisel-like end that's used to chip a hole in the ice, and an auger, a corkscrew-like device with a cutting blade that operates like a hand drill to make a hole in the ice.
Once the hole is created, it needs to be cleared of ice chips or slush. A skimmer, a slush scoop, or a small cup with holes in it on a long handle can do the job.
Learn more about ice safety with these tips from the Department of Natural Resources.

West Michigan

Muskegon Lake
This lake offers the best crappie fishing in the state right after the first ice. Bluegill, perch, walleye and pike are some of the most common catches. The area near the lake's “sand docks” is known for being a hot spot for perch, while the walleye and pike will be found a bit deeper on the northeast side, according to Visit Muskegon.

Southeast Michigan

Cass Lake
This lake, about 30 miles northwest of Detroit, is known for its panfish, especially crappie and bluegill. Much of the 243-acre lake is shallow and gently sloping, creating a habitat that feeds better-than-average crappie. It's also a good spot in the state to chase a record-setting bluegill. But be prepared with good electronic fish finders; you’ll need them to follow the panfish as they move throughout the day, according to USAngler.
Lake St. Clair
Connecting Lake Huron with Lake Erie, this 430-square-mile lake is about six miles northeast of downtown Detroit. It’s a popular destination for ice fishing because of its walleye, perch, northern pike, and muskie. The latter tend to average 15 pounds here, with 30-pounders caught regularly. The lake offers some of the best muskie fishing in the country, according to Best Fishing in America.

Northern Michigan

Crystal Lake
This lake's nearly 10,000 acres of exceptionally clear water holds legions of yellow perch, whitefish, burbot and lake trout. Known as an exceptional yellow perch fishery, Crystal Lake’s clear water encourages the growth of vegetative cover that grounds a rich food chain, particularly off Onkeonwe Beach, according to USAngler. The online guide suggests ice anglers will likely find yellow perch congregating on the steep slope of the lake’s northern side, along Crystal Drive.
Hamlin Lake
This man-made lake, created by a dam on the Big Sable River, covers 5,350 acres. Narrows separate it into two halves. The larger southern section features a long, relatively deep channel, while much of the western side is shallow. The state’s most recent fishing surveys for the lake reveal healthy populations of bluegill, crappies, yellow perch, largemouth bass, pike, rock bass, freshwater drum and muskies.
Houghton Lake
With 20,000 acres of fishable ice, this is one of Michigan’s largest inland lakes. It's also among the shallowest, with a maximum depth of just more than 20 feet, so it tends to freeze faster than most Lower Peninsula waters. Resorts and cabins surround the lake, providing lots of ice cabins and shanties for rent. There are many species of gamefish, including walleyes, black bass, northern pike, and panfish. The most successful anglers at Houghton Lake tend to be adept at fishing the weeds, according to Northland Fishing Tackle.
Lakes Cadillac and Mitchell
These two lakes in Wexford County are joined by the Clam Lake Canal, creating 3,730 acres of superb ice fishing. Crappie and bluegill draw big crowds to Lake Mitchell, while Lake Cadillac fishes well for perch, walleye, and pike in the winter, according to Best Fishing in America. 

Upper Peninsula

Munising Bay
On the southern shore of Lake Superior, Munising Bay offers sheltered waters for splake, whitefish, burbot, and lake trout. Ice fishing at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Michigan is done mostly in the frozen nearshore areas of Munising Bay just off Sand Point Beach. The park recommends that anglers ensure safe ice conditions before venturing out. Currents and wave action can affect ice formation, and the thickness of the ice can vary dramatically from one area to another.
Lake Gogebic
During the winter, this frozen body covering 13,380 acres is prime walleye and yellow perch territory. The lake has a well-earned reputation as one of Michigan's best locations to catch jumbo perch through the ice. USAngler suggests exploring the frozen lake right off Lake Gogebic State Park, Bergland Bay and Ice House Bay earlier in the season for perch. Later in the winter, look for holes on the eastern shore near Montgomery Bay and north from there, because walleye and perch will be holding deep along these drop-offs.
Looking for more information about one of Michigan’s favorite outdoor sports?
Check out our fishing guide to Michigan lakes.
Photo credit: @lilmismatched

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