February 01, 2013

I stood there for several minutes looking long and hard at the ice. It didn’t look good; dark, honeycombed and foreboding. The good thing was there was still ice along the edge of the lake so I wouldn’t have trouble getting on the ice. But the question was whether the ice was safe enough for a snowmobile.

Prime last–ice locations for Lake Mitchell crappies are off the mouths of Big and Little Coves, off Turnbolm Point and around structure on the north end of the lake.

I took the straps off the auger, walked a hundred yards out on the ice with it and fired it up. The Strike Master Lazer Mag auger bored though the ice like butter, but the ice seemed pretty hard. It was more than 10 inches thick. Convinced that the ice was safe, I lashed down the auger again, I made a little circle, got up a head of steam and pointed the snowmobile towards the dunes.

Hamlin Lake Walleyes and Perch

The March sun was warm and I turned my Fish Trap to face it. It was the last day of the walleye season and a great day to end it. I leaned back in my seat, lit my cigar and sat back to await the evening walleye bite.

I was nodding off when I looked over and saw my slip bobber pop, like when a walleye first inhales your minnow. The bobber shuddered briefly and then began to slowly sink. I leaned forward, gave the fish a little slack and then came up hard. The hook set was met with solid resistance. The fish put up a pretty good tussle and I was sure I had a bonus walleye on, but as it neared the surface I could see the bright orange fins and olive stripes of a jumbo perch. With the skunk out, I again went back to enjoying my cigar, but not for long. I looked over to see my other slip bobber disappearing under the ice and a few seconds later an even bigger perch joined his brethren on the ice.

The afternoon went quickly as I slowly added jumbo perch to my growing pile. The perch shut off as the sun got closer to the horizon, but a school of marauding walleyes moved in. I traded one of my slip bobber rigs for a Swedish Pimple and a minnow head. The action was frantic for an hour before the sun set. Three eatin’-sized walleyes joined the perch on the ice before the sun disappeared.

Ice–anglers know about Hamlin Lake’s fantastic bluegill fishing, but few realize the Mason County lake is also a great walleye and perch destination. The best walleye and perch action occurs on the deeper Lower Lake. Lower Hamlin Lake has depths to 80 feet and is blessed with structure, weed lines and contours that attract both species. It’s well into January before the lower lake has safe ice. Fishing is good through the winter, but really heats up on last ice, usually just before the walleye season ends. Some years good ice persists until April or later and although walleyes are off limits, the perch fishing remains hot. Pre-spawn jumbos move into as little as 6 feet of water on the south end of the lake and provide great sport and great eating.

For more information contact, Pere Marquette Sports Center at 231-843-8676.

Pere Marquette Lake Steelheads

The drowned river mouth lakes on the west side of Michigan host runs of steelheads during the fall, winter and spring, Many of the rainbows that come in the fall and winter stay before staging and running upstream in the spring. Fishing on bodies of water like Mason County’s Pere Marquette Lake can get frantic on last ice when fresh-run rainbows join holdover fish. The steelies mill around near the river mouth for several weeks offering ice-anglers plenty of targets.

Ice-anglers spot Slammer Tip-ups along the drop-off where the river enters the lake in 4 to 10 feet of water. The rods are baited with spawn bags made with floaters in them or wigglers suspended just off the bottom. Going toe–to-toe with a frantic rainbow under the ice on a light 5–foot spinning rod and 6–pound–test line is the most fun you can have with both feet on the ice. Double-digit steelies are common along with the occasional lake–run brown trout.

Access to Pere Marquette Lake can be gained at Buttersville Park on the south side of the lake. Ice conditions can be good one day and perilous the next so anglers need to use caution. A life jacket, a length of rope and some common sense are necessities. For more details, contact Captain Chuck’s at 231–843–4458.

Lake Missaukee Bluegills

“Missaukee Lake usually has good ice well into April and that’s one of the best times to catch some nice bluegills,” said MDNR Cadillac District fisheries biologist Mark Tonello. “You’ll have to hunt for them, but once you find them you usually can catch a nice mess.” A burgeoning walleye population and years of rough fish controls has Missaukee’s panfish on the rebound.

Key is locating subtle structure that holds panfish schools. “You’re going to be fishing 9 to 14 feet of water generally, but there are holes from 15 to 22 feet that will hold schools of pretty decent-size bluegills,” said Tonello. Tonello said that 1,880-acre Missaukee Lake has a lot of humps and ridges that game fish relate to. It pays to punch lots of holes and keep moving until you find fish.

Look for last-ice panfish to move into the coves and off the points on the north side of the lake. There is a public access off of North Shore Drive, off M. 55 and at the end of Green Road. A hump that rises to 5 feet straight out from Green Road and then tapers into 20 feet of water can be a good place to begin your search. Also try the structure in the southeast corner of the lake.

For more information on Missaukee Lake contact, the MDNR Cadillac District Office at 231–775–9727.

Lake Mitchell Crappies

Wexford County’s Lake Mitchell was a lot like Missaukee Lake in that it’s a good-sized lake, shallow and a great bet for last-ice panfish, particularly crappies. Ice on Lake Mitchell comes early and stays late, usually well into April. That’s when the hot crappy bite occurs. Sometimes the fishing is so–so during the winter, but you can count on the specks to get active as spring approaches.

Saginaw Bay walleyes really heat up during late ice time. Mike Gnatkowski photo

“Last year we had some pretty decent crappie fishing on last ice on Mitchell,” said Tonello. “It was funny because we were only fishing 5 to 10 feet of water and the crappies were right under the ice. You could stand up and sight fish and watch them inhale your jig.”

Mitchell’s crappies are not your typical crappies. There are times when they will ignore a minnow. “Last year on last ice the crappies wouldn’t touch a minnow,” clamed Tonello. “You had to use a jig in a waxworm.” The reason might be that Mitchell crappies key in on scuds or freshwater shrimp that are prevalent in the lake.” Most times larva will outfish minnows. You won’t find many huge crappies on Lake Mitchell. 15-inch slabs are not unheard of, but the majority of the specs will run 8 to 12 inches. Prime last–ice locations are off the mouths of Big and Little Coves, off Turnbolm Point and around structure on the north end of the lake.

For maps, tackle and information on ice conditions contact, Schafer’s Sports at 231-775-7085.

Higgins Lake Lake Trout

It takes a while for safe ice to form on Higgins Lake, but the ice lasts well into April. The best last-ice fishing takes place long after most anglers have given up for the season.

“The lake trout fishing is hot right after first ice for a few weeks and then picks up again on last ice,” offered Bill Klosky of Higgins Lake Sport and Tackle. “The lakers are still in deep water, but they get a lot more active as spring approaches.”

The lake trout can be caught along breaks on the northeast and northwest corners of the lake that lead from 70 feet to 135 feet of water. A good plan is to work shallow early and move deeper as the day progresses. Several deep-water humps on the south and west ends in 80 to 100 feet of water produce last-ice trout, too. The lakers average 2 to 5 pounds, but trophies topping 20 pounds are caught every winter. Use tip-ups and shiner minnows or live smelt or jig with heavy spoons.

A unique last-ice fishery for rainbow trout exists on Higgins, too. Big Creek and another no-name creek on the northwest corner of the lake attracts spring rainbows. Anglers spot Slammer tip-ups in water as shallow as one foot for ‘bows that will top five pounds. Fish early and late in the day and during the week to avoid snowmobile traffic.

For bait, tackle and fishing reports contact Higgins Lake Sport and Tackle at 989-821-9517.

Saginaw Bay Walleyes

Saginaw Bay produces hot ice fishing for walleyes all winter long, but the action really heats up on last ice. “Typically, the south part of the bay is really good on last ice,” said ice-fishing expert Ernie Plant. “It’s good from Linwood all the way to the state park and off the river mouths.” Plant said that hawg walleyes will move into as little as 4 feet of water in preparation for spawning. Usually the 6- to 8-foot depths are good.

Walleyes in skinny water are extremely spooky. “You need to find places where the water is a little murky off the river mouths,” said Plant. “If I punch a hole in 5 feet of water and I can see the bottom, I move. There’s no way you’re going to catch fish in water like that. You need to look for dirty water because the walleyes use that to hide in.” Plant also stressed the need to finish early and late in the day. “Most days you need to be on the ice way before daylight and the fishing is over by eight or nine o’clock,” offered Plant. Lots of traffic exasperates the situation even more. “You need to get away from people if you can and keep your mouth shut,” Plant joked.

Plant said that lure selection doesn’t change much in the shallow, dirty water, but lures that make some noise, like the Rattlin’ Buckshot Spoon and Whistler jigs, can be hot. Anglers will find good access right off Bay City State Park and some of the biggest walleyes of the year within walking distance. Plant said that jumbo perch are an added bonus on last ice on the Bay.

For fishing reports, tackle and updates on ice conditions contact Frank’s Great Outdoors at 989-697-5341 or online at franksgreatoutdoors.com.

Copper Harbor Splake

In summer, tourists flock to the Keweenaw Peninsula to visit Ft. Wilkins State Park, stroll its boulder-strewn shorelines and sample it remote and isolated landscape. Few people are around to sample Copper Harbor’s outstanding fishing on last-ice for splake and lake trout. Those that partake wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We usually have very good fishing right in Copper Harbor for splake and the occasional lake trout right into April or later,” claimed Yooper Larry Smith. “How good the ice is and how long it stays depends on Lake Superior. If we get a good blow, it gets all busted up and it takes a while for it to freeze up again.”

When there’s good ice, ice anglers take limits of tasty splake, a cross between brook trout and a lake trout. “You’ll catch them anywhere from 10 or 12 inches all they way up to 12 pounds,” said Smith. The average will be 15 to 20 inches and sporting the white-edged fins typical of a brook trout. The harbor typically gets a plant of 30,000 splake each year and there are several strong year classes in the pipeline.

Smith said that the splake are caught on Jigging Rapalas and Swedish Pimple sweetened with a minnow head or bait. “We use about a four-foot rod in a holder and a circle hook and two-inch minnows fished anywhere from two to six feet off bottom. Spawn bags with floaters in them work, too.” Smith said prime locations are off the Isle Royal Queen dock, on the west end off the marina and off the township docks. The trout can be caught in water from 10 to 45 feet or more.

For information on lodging and accommodations in the area contact the Keweenaw CVB at 1-800-338-7982 or online at www.keweenaw.info.

Gratiot Lake Walleyes

If you have your heart set on catching a walleye through the ice in May Keweenaw Country’s Gratiot Lake might be the place. Lake ice can be measured in feet after a long U.P. winter and it takes a while for it to melt.

“There are a lot of undersized walleyes in Gratiot Lake right now, which is good because it means there’s some good natural reproduction taking place,” offered guide Larry Smith. “but there’s also a pretty good population of walleyes in the mid-20-inch size range. A lot of the keeper ‘eyes will measure right around 21 or 22 inches.” Smith said the walleyes are suckers for a Jiggin’ Rapala and a minnow head, but he said tip-ups produce plenty of fish, too. A sunken bar straight out from the public landing on the northwest side of the lake is a good starting point. The lake has little structure so subtle changes concentrates the walleyes. A drop-off along the north end of the lake that slopes from 10 to 40 feet also produces.

Gratiot Lake was once known for its big northern and the occasional muskie. A few of those gators still exist, but there are a lot of smaller pike in the lake now that will keep you busy. For bait, tackle and information contact Northwood Sporting Goods in Hancock at 906-482-5210.

As March approaches many anglers are cleaning their boats and readying tackle for the open-water season. But don’t forget about last ice. It can produce some of the best action of the hard-water season.