Ice Fishing During A Pure Michigan Winter

Michigan’s four Great Lakes, more than 11,000 inland lakes and hundreds of rivers and streams provide anglers with great fresh water fishing.  As we head into the winter months and the water freezes ever, Michigan offers the perfect location to ice fish for bluegill, perch, pike and walleye.  In fact, some experienced anglers say that winter is the best time to fish, because with the warm weather gone, so are the weeds. An ice fishing excursion can be as simple as drilling a hole in the ice and dropping in a line while perched on an overturned bucket. Or it can be an all-day outing complete with an elaborate ice shanty boasting all the comforts of home. With proper clothing and equipment, knowing the condition of the ice and following safety precautions, ice fishing can be a fun and rewarding experience.

With ice fishing being one of the many activities featured in A Pure Michigan Winter, we asked lifelong Michigan resident and experienced angler Lindy Mueller to tell us what she loves about Michigan ice fishing.  

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
A: A country girl at heart, I’m definitely someone who enjoys the simplest pleasures in life and I LOVE the water. You can find me enjoying family time on the weekends, boating and of course, when time permits, fishing. I’m married to a wonderful husband who was born and raised here in Michigan. We live on Lake Orion and have loads of fun with friends, family and our sweet little Bernese mountain dog, Monty. During the week, you’ll find me working in public relations for a Michigan-based work wear manufacturer. Life is good.

Q: What are some of your favorite winter activities?
A: In winter, one of my all-time favorite sports is ice fishing. Luckily, there are many fantastic lakes to choose from in this Great Lakes state. When the weather gets cold, I get happy…time to drag out the shanty and play!

Q: What do you love about the Michigan outdoors in the winter?
A: Not only is Michigan just absolutely beautiful after a snowfall, there is so much you can do in it! Michigan has four seasons, so every season has a fun activity. What’s also quite convenient is that you can fish year-round in Michigan. Whether your jigging for walleye in spring, to fly fishing in Northern Michigan’s holy waters in the summer and fall, to ice fishing in the winter, if you love being on the water and enjoying its fruitful benefits, this is a perfect state to live in.

Q: When and how did you first start ice fishing?
A: My first ice fishing trip more than 10 years ago really “hooked” me on the sport. I learned many techniques of the trade from a good friend who passed on his childhood knowledge of the sport from years of ice fishing with his grandpa in Northern Michigan. I learned a lot of basics like baiting techniques, rigging, ice hole cutting, shanty set-up, but I also learned some special techniques, like learning how to read the water to find the most appropriate set-up spot, how to catch your first perch to use as a decoy and how to stealthily spear pike and perch that find their way into my ice hole. It can be an exciting sport when the fish are biting, but also very calming when the action is slow.

Q: What is your favorite thing about ice fishing?
A: I absolutely love spear fishing. There’s nothing like catching your first decent sized perch during the first part of your day and using it as your decoy to create some natural flash in your spearing hole. Now that you have one line in the water holding your decoy, you have one other hand free to hold a spear. Sometimes when the fish aren’t biting, but are coming in and out of your spearing hole in droves, spearing is a great alternative to making sure you bring home a few for dinner. You must be absolutely quiet when approaching with your spear as even the slightest motion can spook your potential prize out of the hole. I have plenty of techniques that I have learned that work for me when it comes to spearing perch or pike but will only share with those who plan to spend their entire weekend with me perched on a stool over an ice hole in my portable home.

Q: Do you have a favorite place to ice fish?
A: Yes. My favorite location is a secret, but I can tell you that Lake St. Clair is one of my favorite lakes to frequent for perch, walleye and pike. If you find a good shelf to sit on just before a drop off, you’re in good shape to set up your shanty shop. Lake St. Clair does allow ice spearing, but not all Michigan lakes allow ice spearing, so be sure to check out the DNR website and read their posted guidelines on the sport. Part of our job as fisherman is to also be conservationists. Always play by the rules and you will have good luck. I also like the idea that this winter now that my husband and I live on Lake Orion, I can drag my shanty out of the garage onto the lake and enjoy some ice fishing right in my backyard. How sweet is that?

Q: What’s your “biggest catch”?
A: I’ve speared some decent sized pike in my day who have darted into my ice holes to go nose-to-nose with my decoys, the largest nearing 12 pounds, but I have to say when you’re out on the ice, it’s super exciting when you are able to fool that one rogue jumbo perch to bite the end of your line! What fun!

Q: Does one particular ice fishing trip stand out to you as your favorite? Why?
A: Yes. I remember the first time I took my sister Jenny ice fishing. We were actually sitting in a canal in Algonac, MI. I’d been out there all morning and before she arrived, it was pretty slow. Three hours later, my sister arrives, climbs into my shanty and sits down just in time to see a pretty large pike come in and take a whack at my decoy dragging it out under the ice. I had to explain to my sister that this didn’t obviously happen all the time, it was just beginners luck for her. After I reeled the decoy back into the hole, the eager pike returned staring my defenseless decoy down. I asked my sister to quietly hand me the pike spear that was leaning up against the wall of the shanty. I eased the spear into the water slowly tucking it a few inches just behind the pike’s neckline lining up the shot perfectly before giving the instrument a swift jolt into the fish. Of course, the pike spears have barbs on the end of them, so I didn’t forget to “chug” my fish after the initial poke. This action ensures that you pull the body of the fish up above the barbs so there’s no chance you can lose your conquest. This pike thrashed and pretty much ruined the visibility of my ice hole for some time. When the pike weakened, it was time to pull him out of the spearing hole. When I began pulling him out, my sister began to scream. It was so funny because I started screaming too in the moment of all the excitement – he was a big guy! It was a pretty good sized pike, so when I dragged it out of the spearing whole, its mouth brushed past my sister’s knee cap a bit and made her scream even more. Ha! Ha! Ha! Before I know it, we were out of the shanty, chugging the pike off the spear onto the ice and looking around at a few very concerned residents who had come out of their houses to see what the racket was, but quickly smiled when they saw our prize rolling out on the ice. It’s one of my favorite ice fishing memories. My sister was sold on ice fishing from that day forward.

Q: What is your perfect ice fishing trip like?
A: Clear day, sunny with a little overcast, NO wind, clear visibility, my husband or sisters, a Stanley filled with dark black coffee, schools of fish by the droves moving in all day long.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who may be interested in starting to ice fish?
A: I would suggest going with a knowledgeable friend first who already has gear you can borrow, experience on the ice and knowledge of the sports rules and guidelines. They should also have all the equipment you need to enjoy/understand your first ice fishing experience. If you become fond of the sport, my advice is to do some research online by checking out rules/regulations on the DNR’s website. You can also read local fish reports, but sometimes just getting out there and trying a few different things on your own will help you learn what works best for you. Just enjoy the sport safely, responsibly and legally. Ice fishing can be dangerous, so keep your head about you, but have fun!

Q: Is there equipment, clothing, gear that you recommend?�
A: First off, dress for the occasion. Make sure you have some warm layers of clothing on. Start with some base layers that wick moisture, next thermals and then top those layers off with thermal-lined bibs and jacket. I’m a huge fan of Michigan-brand, Carhartt, a company that offers super warm, durable and rugged products that will last forever and will provide great value to your hobby. You want to make sure your warm, because if you are catching fish, you don’t want to leave because you didn’t dress warm enough, you can always peel your layers off if need be. The great thing about the sport of ice fishing is that you can enjoy it on any budget. Regarding gear, it just depends on how much you want to invest into the sport. You can go all out and buy a shanty, gas auger, ice spud, rods and spears, or you can also travel out to the ice light with a small sled containing a bucket to sit on, a manual auger to cut a few small holes and some ice rods with strike indicators baited with minnows. No matter what technique and budget that you decide works best for you, you’ll need to definitely invest in a decent set of filet knives so you can clean your fish at the end of the day!

Q: Any tips for finding the best spot or catching the fish?
A: Most of the time, it’s just getting out there and trying all the techniques you have before you come upon the “best spot.” I’m not one to set up in an already congested spot. I tend to drill a few small holes in areas where there is less traffic and throw a few baited lines down to see if anything wants to play. If I’m pulling a few fish out of the same area pretty consistently, I might decide to set up shop with my shanty and call it my spot for the day. You’re going to have good days and bad days, but any day is good when you are fishing and enjoying the wonderful outdoor splendor that Michigan has to offer. Good luck fellow ice fisherman!

Q: To you, what is “Pure Michigan?”
A: The people of Michigan make this state “pure” to me. Michiganders are strong and resilient and take great pride in their home. I’m proud to be a part of this community of true conservationists, outdoorsmen and hardworking men and women. Michigan’s natural beauty is pure, but the people who build it and nurture it day-to-day make it “Pure Michigan.”

Learn more about ice fishing in Michigan in Ice Fishing | A Pure Michigan Winter, from the Pure Michigan winter video series.

For more on ice fishing in Pure Michigan, visit michigan.org or the fishing tab on the Pure Michigan Facebook page.

Ice Fishing in Pure Michigan

Bob Fisher is a lifelong avid Michigan sportsman. In addition to his love of the outdoors, Bob Fisher was also co-founder and co-owner of Baldwin Bait and Tackle, located in Baldwin. He answered a few of our questions about ice fishing. You can also check out this ice fishing article on michigan.org for more.

Q: Besides the ice, how is ice fishing different from regular fishing?

A: Ice fishing offers many different positive aspects compared to “regular” or conventional open water fishing. First, everyone has access to an entire lake. With open water fishing, one needs access to a boat to access the entire lake. Once ice forms a hard surface, anyone can simply walk to any part of the lake they desire to fish. Large lakes will require an ATV or snowmobile to access far reaches, if the ice thickness is safe enough to accommodate the weight of the machines.

Ice fishing is typically inexpensive compared to other styles of fishing. While fly fishing or big lake trolling can be more expensive endeavors, with ice fishing all one needs is some basic gear that can be purchased for less than $30 all together and a bucket to sit upon.

Q: Are there different types of fish you can catch in Michigan when you are ice fishing vs. regular fishing?

A. There are numerous fish species that ice fishermen target. The list varies from large northern pike and lake trout to the tiny smelt. Typically, ice fishermen target fish for table fare. The most common fish that ice fishermen seek are pan fish such as bluegill, perch and crappie. Northern pike are often sought using tip-up’s and jigging for walleye is very common and popular. One should check the fishing regulations since several species of fish have closed seasons during certain times of the year.

Q: Is there any special equipment you need?

A: For starting out with basic ice fishing, one would need a small rod and reel, designed specifically for ice fishing. These can be very economical setups that can be purchased for less than $10 and they typically come with the fishing line already spooled on. One will also need either an ice auger to drill a hole through the ice or an ice spud to chip open an existing hole, an ice skimmer to remove ice that forms once the hole is open, some bait, some small jig “lures” and a five gallon bucket to carry your gear in and to sit upon while fishing. Warm clothing and boots are also typically needed.

If on the more serious side, some ice fishermen design elaborate ice shantys, complete with heaters, furniture, stoves to cook fish on, and even TV’s.

Q: Where are some good areas to ice fish in Michigan?

A: The beauty of ice fishing is that nearly every lake that offers good fishing in the Summer months can offer good fishing during the Winter months. A notable event is Tip Up Town USA, among the top 10 winter events in the nation, which is a large ice fishing carnival attracting 10,000′s of people to the Houghton Lake area every winter.

Q: Where can people get more information about ice fishing?

A: Local fishing stores usually offer the best local advice. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has very good information on ice fishing and also has weekly fishing reports. The Department of Natural Resources also offers a free fishing weekend, where no fishing license is required, so anyone can try their hand at ice fishing without buying a license.

Please note-while ice fishing is a fun Winter activity, one must always use caution and common sense whenever venturing out on any ice.