Growing numbers of kayak anglers are leaving behind the notion that kayak fishing in Michigan is a fair-weather sport.
The fact is, an ice angler’s loss is a kayaker’s gain. As winters (especially in the lower tier of The Mitten) produce less ice, fishing the open water can last into January. Not only can you catch fish, but all the wakeboard boats and infernal jet skis are gone. Plus, you can post pictures on social media of fishing from a kayak in a snowstorm—friends, and followers will be awestruck! That said, fishing from a small plastic boat over dangerously cold water calls for common sense and preparation. Let’s preach about safety stuff, talk about staying warm and functional and then discuss a couple of simple tactics to catch some fish before ice-up.
Here are some safety-related bullet points:
• Fishing over cold water is about as dangerous as fishing over boiling oil. If you capsize or fall out into super cold water, you can be in big trouble. So don’t fish alone. Go back to that summer camp “buddy system” and fish with at least one other person in a separate kayak. That companion can help you get back into your boat or at least tow you to shore if you can’t get back in.
• Pick waters where you can stay close to shore and, ideally, fairly close to the ramp. If you get immersed in cold water, and the air temps are in the 20s, you need to get in your vehicle with the heat running.
• Of course, wear your PFD. If you forget it at home, go back and get it.
• Get a dry suit. They cost more than some new kayaks, but they’re worth every penny.
Having been around kayak fishing for nearly a decade, I’ve observed that most people who tip over have been kayaking for several years and get overconfident and careless. A drysuit will let you keep on fishing after you get out of the water—if you didn’t lose all your rods and tackle.
I have had a Kokatat dry suit for several years and hated it at first. It was tough to get into and tougher to get out. But then I lost 60 pounds on a rigid health plan, and the suit became a lot more user-friendly. These suits are basically some sort of thin Tyvek kind of material with rubber gaskets at the wrists and neck and rubber booties for your feet. You’ll need some roomy footgear such as wading shoes. I’ve been using a pair of neoprene knee-high boots I got from NRS, and they do the job.
Because of the thin material used in the main part of the suit, they offer no insulation, so you need to layer up as if you were going ice fishing. I start with good thermal long johns, put a layer of thin acrylic “sun shirt” on my upper body. Then I put on a top and bottom of Clam Sub Zero Base Layers. These are fluffy and warm—and not cheap, but worth it. A down vest goes over that, and my core stays warm.
This might seem like an ad for Clam, but only because that company makes great clothing for ice fishing, and that’s basically what you’re dressing to do. They have some great gloves that don’t rob your dexterity. I also use a pair of big mittens with air-activated hand warmers inside to warm up while I’m moving from one spot to another. They’re big enough that I can slide in my hands without removing the gloves. I also have some wristbands that hold these hand warmers. These keep that little heater right on your wrist, warming the blood going to your fingers. If your feet tend to get cold, you can get air-activated foot warmers that go on the soles of your feet.
Clam also makes some great socks for ice fishing. I wear thin socks under wool ones and haven’t needed extra foot warmers.
I bet you’ve heard that most of your body’s heat radiates out of your head? A good, warm hat is essential, too.
Let’s talk about catching fish.
Where I live in southwest Michigan, we have a couple of lakes with deep channels that seem to attract a lot of fish in the winter. It’s safe to say that all those channels that attract ice anglers at first ice have fish in them before the surface freezes, and they’re good places to find fish.
If you’re going after panfish, this sort of area is a great place to anchor your kayak and take an ice-fishing approach. You can hang a flasher transducer over the side of your boat and use it as if you were sitting in an ice shanty. Drop your line right over the side under the transducer, and you can see your bait and the fish that come in to look at it. I just use ice jigs and wax worms and an ice rod.
If you’re going after bass in this sort of area, you can limit yourself to two rods and have a good shot at catching a bunch. The first rod is a medium-light spinning set-up with a Ned rig, just a 2 3/4-inch Z-Man TRD on a 1/16-ounce mushroom jighead. You can cast and swim the Ned, but it seems like most of the time, a slow drag-pause-drag on the bottom gets the most bites.
The other rod is a medium-heavy baitcaster with 12-pound test fluorocarbon (I’m a huge fan of Seaguar AbrazX line) for a metal blade bait—Silver Buddies, Heddon Sonars, and Reef Runner Cicadas are all proven catchers. My favorite is a 1/4-ounce Silver Buddy. It has taken some big bass and walleyes this time of year and is small enough that even bluegills and perch will eat it.
Blade bait fishing is easy. Cast it out, let it settle to the bottom, and pull just hard enough to feel it briefly vibrate. Let it settle to the bottom again and be ready for a fish to just “be there” when you lift your rod again. You might be amazed by how many fish—bass in particular—slurp the metal blade right off the bottom.
So this winter, don’t fret if your lakes aren’t freezing up like they used to do. Dress right, use extreme caution, and launch your little plastic boat for a fun time on the water.