The best way to figure out where to drop a line when ice fishing big lakes is to change your mindset and think of them as small lakes with sonar, GPS and mapping


February 01, 2018

Massive-Immense- Overwhelming. Ice fishing the bays of the Great Lakes can be an exhilarating experience…

All five Great Lakes (six, if you decided to sneak Lake St. Clare into the mix) are vast, and if fish are far off shore it could be miles of travel by quad or snowmobile—traversing cracks and heaves all the way—to get to where you think the fish will be.

Once to a spot where shoreline is out of sight, you’ll soon comprehend this is as close to being on the surface of the moon as you’ll ever experience.

However, you want to go because you’ve heard rumor the bite’s hot and big fish have been pulled through the ice. You crave the action.

Narrowing down large expanses of water and fishing them like they are small will help you catch walleyes like this one the author is holding. David A. Rose photo

But where do you start your search for fish?

The biggest problem with ice fishing any huge expanse of water, no matter your target species, is narrowing down the minute places where the fish could be. After all, your time on the ice is limited and you want to be drilling holes over an area with the highest density of fish.

The best way to figure out where to drop a line when ice fishing big lakes is to change your mindset and think of them as small lakes, narrowing down the many possibilities to just a few.

And it’s easier than ever nowadays with modern-day electronics.

Have a Plan

One thing that has not changed for me over the years is pre-planning where, exactly, I plan on fishing the night before venturing out on the ice.

As an example, one of the first things we instructors do during the Ice-Fishing Vacation/School held on Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay (this year February 18 through 21, 2018), is to gather all who are fishing and strategize our next day.

Perusing large paper maps is still a way to scan the lay of the underwater land and pin-point structure likely to hold fish. But many of the hard copy maps available are not very detailed.

Navionics mapping programs, however, have changed the way we fish due to their ultra-detailed maps, which come pre-loaded on SD cards—which I link with my Lowrance GPS devices—as well downloadable apps for both smartphones and personal computers.

With a Navionics app running in my laptop, for instance, we as a large group are able to pre-plan our next day’s fishing right down to discovering the longitudes and latitudes of underwater humps, cuts, points and breaklines we want to fish, and can then program the spots into our GPS units. And with the aid of a digital projector, everyone in the group can see and get a firsthand understanding of the types of structure they will be fishing over.

And when Navionics maps are downloaded into your smartphone, the device not only turns into personal mapping for when on the ice, but is a back-up GPS in case the unforeseen becomes reality and you need assistance getting back to where you started. (Tip: Remember to always let others at home know where you are fishing and what time you’ll be home. And do not deviate from those plans.)


One of the best things about using electronic mapping is the direct path you’re able to make to your pre-planned spot, and then be able to immediately set up directly over structure. It’s a real time saver on the ice, for sure, as you can be in place before the sun rises. This allows the environment around you to settle down and fish to relax to their natural state for prime fishing time. The GPS I use nowadays for driving to and from fishing spots is a Lowrance Hook-5 Ice Machine—a portable sonar/GPS all-in-one unit. The 5-inch color screen is easy to see in both bright and dim light conditions, and the unit has a card reader for my Navionics SD cards.

In Place

The first thing I do when I get to where I want to fish is to start up my StrikeMaster power auger and drill all the holes I’ll need in the area. Once all are made I then walk hole to hole and check for depth, structure and fish with the Hook-5.

This unit is totally portable and even has space for two Plano tackle totes in which I stash a few Rapala Jigging Raps and Northland spoons, just in case I see fish and need to change lures while hole hopping.

Once I find the hole(s) I first want to drop a lure through, I’ll set up my Clam portable shanty, turn on my portable heater and lower the camera of my MarCum underwater camera.

My Marcum VS825SD has taught me much while on the water of the Great Lakes. Via its 8-inch flat-panel color screen, I’ve watched how fish react to the lure I’m using and can figure out whether I need to change styles or colors to get the fish to strike. This is another time saver when fishing waters where much of the day can be eaten up traveling to and from a spot.

Get There, See, and Get Back

Yes, modern electronics have changed the way we fish big water. We now have more accurate mapping and can get to spots likely to hold fish faster than ever. And as an added safety factor—being able to get back to shore right where

you left, no matter how severe the weather, today’s electronics can save the day.

Mark Martin is a tournament walleye fisherman and an instructor with the Ice-Fishing Vacation/School ( which class was held on the frozen waters of Michigan’s Houghton Lake, as well will be coming to Burt Lake and Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay the winter of 2018. For more nformation, check out Mark’s web site at