When we speak of Michigan’s ice fishing opportunities, anglers think of bluegills, perch, crappies, walleyes, and northern pike. A few “in-the-know” ice anglers have thoughts of steelheads and, perhaps, brown trout fishing on the drowned river mouth lakes that flow into Lake Michigan. Because of the limited number of lakes that have a smelt population the vast majority of the state’s ice fishermen generally don’t think of going after these silvery, tasty tidbits.
Fishing for smelt is not a specialized angling adventure needing a lot of oddball gear. Anglers wishing to give smelt fishing a try must first determine where to go.
Michigan’s Smelt Lakes
The list of smelt lakes is short and most are quite large with depths running down to over 200 ft. in some cases.
Thumb Lake, in Charlevoix County and east of Boyne Falls is the smallest lake that hold smelt.
Access is gained on the east shore at a township park and on the southwestern shore at the public boat launch.
Lake Charlevoix also located in Charlevoix County is big water. Back in the 1950s it was gaining a large following of smelt anglers from all over Michigan and the Midwest. Highlighted many times in the early years of Mort Neff’s television show “Michigan Outdoors,” it hosted several large villages of ice shanties on the north and largest arm of the lake. Today only local anglers go out in the evening for smelt on a regular basis. The fishery and smelt are still there for those who know about it.
Crystal Lake, Green Lake, and Higgins make up what might be called Michigan’s Big Three when it comes to smelt fishing. Crystal is located in Benzie County, Green in Grand Traverse.
County and Higgins Lake, the only smelt lake that sets well inland from any Great Lake, is found in Roscommon County. The large and deep lakes offer the state’s premier smelt fishery. Each winter, when these lakes freeze over, large “shantytowns” form on the best areas for smelt fishing.
Smelt become active during darkness, so it is a nocturnal fishery. It is best to be set up on the ice at about 5:30 p.m. and the fish will remain on the move looking for food throughout the entire night. If the fishing is good, and it usually is, an angler with the skill can have enough fish for a meal, or more, before 10p.m.
Keep in mind that these are deep lakes. They won’t have first ice in December and fishing ice is to be had in mid-January in the coldest of winters, and normally not until February in most winters.
A portable ice fishing shanty is needed especially on the larger lakes. Protection from cold, frigid winds is a must. One that can be easily towed out onto the ice and quickly set up is required. Of course a gas lantern is needed to shed some light inside any shanty and especially so at night.
A good auger is needed and one that is powered is even better. Ice depths can range from 6 to 24″ or more. A shovel for snow removal comes in very handy and makes quick work of getting rid of any covering of the white stuff.
Having a good quality depth/fish finder also makes bringing in a mess of smelt easier. Any reliable portable unit will work well and as you fish watching the movement of smelt into the area as well as from the bottom up towards the surface can be fascinating. With a good fish finder you’ll be able to follow your hook/lure/bait down and stop it at the depth where the fish are located. Any short, limber ice rod with a small spinning reel spooled with 2-4 lb test line is adequate. You won’t be using a bobber so a rod with a flexible tip is needed in order to detect the strike of a fish.
The best lure for smelt is a Hali jig with silver, green, white, and blue being the favored choice of colors. An effective setup is found with a two-hook rig with a Hali jig on the bottom and a single hook about a foot above it.
Bait is simple and consists of a choice between very small minnows and waxworms or other such grubs. Minnows small enough for smelt can be found at local bait shops. Smelt have a very toothed mouth and are very aggressive feeders. Using minnows usually require rebaiting.
One more piece of equipment needs mentioning and that is an underwater light with a good marine battery. The light will attract various tiny food items that draws in small bait fish which, in turn brings in schools of smelt. Suspend this light under your shanty and down to a depth ranging from 5 to 20 ft.
Looking over the above list it seems pertinent that one have a snowmobile or quad runner to haul the equipment out onto the ice with a sled full of gear in tow. Indeed this makes it much easier, but for the young and stout of body and heart pulling a gear laden sled works well especially when the fishing is found within a hundred yards of shore as it is on Green and Crystal lakes.
Where To Fish
Look for depths ranging from 30 down to about 50 ft. Set up where the bottom contours rise onto a bit of a flat if you can, but in the Big Three….Crystal, Green, and Higgins….there are no real “magic” spots. Access on these lakes is limited to public boat launches, parks or areas where a public road parallels the lake right next to the shore and without intervening homes and cottages.
For the most part this allows public access to the water. On Green Lake there is a public boat launch on the southwest shore. Higgins Lake State Park South gives access as does its twin on the north shore. There is also a boat launch off Old US 27 on the northwest side of the lake.
Crystal Lake has a village boat launch on the east end as well as one at the end of Lobb Rd. on the south shore. Access onto this huge body of water might appear to be limited, but much of the lake is surrounded by public roads that give an angler plenty of places to legally get onto the ice.
Years ago one of the most popular smelt spots was found on the east end off the village of Beulah. It has been many years since this end of the lake saw a lot of shanties for some reason. I would suspect the smelt are still to be found in the broad expanse of 30-50 foot water jutting out from this easterly shore.
The Bite and Setting the Hook
Smelt are aggressive feeders and when a school moves in the action can be fast. There is a bit of a trick to hooking smelt. Keep an eye on your rod tip and when it begins to do its dance lift the rod and begin to reel all at the same time. A short, sharp hookset is not needed. It may take a bit for you to get the hang of this, but once you do it’s a breeze.
If you’ve never ice fished for smelt and the opportunity arises…or better yet make the opportunity…head for the waters mentioned above and give it a go. I’ve always thought that fresh caught smelt using hook and line tasted MUCH better than those I brought home when netting them in the spring was in its heyday.