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Ice fishing

Fishing doesn't stop when the snow starts to fly

Many anglers actually prefer fishing through the ice to open-water fishing. Anglers can get just about anywhere on a lake during the ice fishing season, something they can't do without a boat during the warmer months. Virtually every fish that's available to anglers in the summer can be caught through the ice - some more frequently in winter. 

Before heading out for a day of ice fishing, it's wise to check with local bait shops to make certain the spot you've chosen is adequately ice covered and at the thickness needed.

Two children ice fishing, a boy holding two fish and a girl holding one fish
  • Clothing

    • Dress in layers – moisture-wicking base layer, an insulated middle layer, and a breathable outer shell are recommended.
    • Waterproof boots are a must and a pair of moisture-wicking socks under wool socks will help to keep feet warm and dry. 
    • Scarf, hat and gloves – bring an extra pair of gloves in case you get the other pair wet.
    • Ice cleats
    • Ice safety picks – short plastic rods with metal picks to wear around your neck in case of an emergency.

    Tools

    There are two common tools used to make holes in the ice:

    • Spud - a long-shank with a chisel-like end that's used to chip a hole in the ice.
    • Auger - a corkscrew-like device with a cutting blade that operates like a hand drill to make a hole in the ice.

    Once the hole is created it needs to be cleared of ice chips or slush:

    • Skimmer (slush scoop) - a small cup with holes in it on a long handle.

    Rods and tackle

    • Hook-and-line - short, limber rods with reels or simple spring-tension spools to hold the line. Use live bait (wax worms, spikes, wigglers, minnows), artificial lures or both to catch many different species of fish. 
    • Tip-ups - devices set on the ice above the hole that dangle the bait (most often minnows) beneath them. When a fish takes the bait, the reel turns and releases not only line, but a flag as well.
  • Rules to follow:

    • Steer clear of dark spots or places where the snow looks discolored
    • Never fish alone
    • Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return
    • Always test the ice with a spud
    • Take the appropriate emergency items, such as a lifejacket and ice picks
    • Take a cell phone with you in case you need to call for help
    • Dress in your warmest winter clothes; fill a thermos with hot coffee, chocolate or tea; and bring an empty bucket or old lawn chair to sit on.
    • Keep an eye out for dock bubblers or de-icers as the ice near these mechanisms will be unsafe. Always check the ice and be aware of your surroundings.

    Be familiar with all winter ice safety information.

  • Drilling holes

    There are two basic tools used to make holes in the ice: spuds and augers. A spud has a long shank with a chisel-like end that's used to chip a hole in the ice - used when the ice isn't too thick. An auger is a corkscrew device with a cutting blade that operates like a hand drill to make a hole in the ice. For extremely thick ice, power augers that run on batteries or small gasoline engines make creating holes much easier.

    Once the hole is created it needs to be cleared of slush. A skimmer (slush scoop) is a small cup with holes in it on a long handle - used to clear the hole right after it's made and throughout the day if additional ice forms.

    The size of the hole is important. It must be big enough that you can get a fish out, but not too large that it may endanger someone's life. Keep the hole at eight to ten inches in diameter to accommodate the size of most fish species. When leaving fishing, mark holes with a sticks or chunks of ice to alert others.

    Hook-and-line

    Most hook-and-line anglers use short, limber rods with reels or simple spring-tension spools to hold the line. Sometimes they may use something as simple as a couple of pegs on the rod handle used to wrap the line around. Limber rods allow the use of light line, which usually results in better fishing and absorbs more of the shock when fighting fish.

    Use live bait, artificial lures or both. Anglers often use small lures, such as teardrops or flies, with live bait - such as wax worms, spikes, wigglers or minnows - attached to the hook for better action. The bait can be fished without movement, or jigging can be used to attract the fish. Jigging is most successful if a lure is used.

    You can use a bobber on the line, and may also fish with a tight line and use a spring bobber - a small strip of metal or wire that extends off the rod tip. Any motion alerts you to the bite, a bonus for small fish or light-biters. Begin by fishing near the bottom and work your way up in the water column until you locate the fish, then continue to fish at that depth. You can use bobbers to set your baits at a preferred depth or fish a tight line, either fishing without movement or jigging.

    For bigger fish, you can use heavier gear with larger lures or bigger hooks which allows you to use larger baits - minnows, smelt, salmon eggs or spawn bags. Start at the bottom and gradually move up in the water column when jigging, while those fishing with live bait, spawn bags or salmon eggs generally fish right off the bottom.

    Tip-ups

    Some people prefer use tip-ups - devices set on the ice above the hole that dangle the bait (most often minnows) beneath them. Tip-ups, which feature small reels submerged in the water, get their name from a flag that's bent over and attached to the reel. When a fish takes the bait, the reel turns and releases not only line, but the flag as well. The flag's "tip up" action alerts you to the fish taking out line. Tip-ups are usually spooled with heavy, braided line. Often an angler who is fishing with a rod will also set a tip-up in a different hole, giving them two ways to catch a fish.

  • Time of day

    A basic tip for all ice fishing methods is that the most success is seen around dawn until mid-morning and again from late afternoon until sundown. This is especially true for panfish and walleye. Some species can be more aggressive at other times during the day, such as northern pike. It's also important to understand that fish are more sluggish during the winter and move around less, especially during the middle of winter when ice thickness and snow cover is the heaviest. The more holes anglers cut and try, the better their chances are for locating fish.

    Fish finders

    One common piece of equipment nearly all types of anglers who ice fish utilize are electronic fish finders. These help locate both aggressive and non-aggressive fish and make it easier to determine if your holes will be active and how present fish are reacting to your fishing methods.

    Be prepared

    Ice fishing can be a fairly cold activity, especially on those windy days when it doesn't seem fit to be outdoors. On such days, a shanty is almost a requirement. Many portable shanties are available at your local sporting goods store, although some anglers, especially in northern Michigan where the ice fishing season can last for many months build elaborate but removable shanties on the ice. These may have insulated walls and many of the comforts of home. Propane heaters can keep them warm and help keep the fishing holes from freezing. But even a simple windbreak, made of plywood or particle board, can help. A sheet of plywood, cut in half and hinged, makes a simple windbreak. If skis or runners are added to one side, then it can easily be pulled across the ice.

    It's important to note that all shanties must be removed from the ice by a certain date, appropriate to the zone in which you are fishing. When removing a shanty, anglers must also remove any and all garbage affiliated with the structure, including plywood and propane tanks. 

    On less harsh days, many anglers can be seen on the ice on portable folding stools or overturned five-gallon plastic buckets. Buckets often double as gear carriers. Anglers can fit their rods, lures and baits into a bucket and easily carry them out on the ice with them. In many cases, anglers build gear boxes, often on sleds or skis, which they can pull behind them. The creativity of Michigan anglers can regularly be seen on the ice as many have built sophisticated devices to transport their gear and to insure their comfort.

  • You can get just about anywhere on the lake when its frozen, something you can't do without a boat during the open water season. Virtually every fish available in the summer can be caught through the ice - some even more frequently in winter.

    Useful maps 

    Spots to try

    Upper Peninsula

    • Keweenaw Bay (Baraga County) - brown trout, lake whitefish, lake trout, coho salmon, splake, smelt, burbot
    • Little Bay De Noc (Delta County) - walleye, yellow perch
    • Munuscong Bay (Chippewa County) - yellow perch, walleye
    • Munising Bay (Alger County) - splake, lake whitefish, Menominee (round whitefish), coho salmon, burbot
    • Lake Gogebic (Gogebic County) - yellow perch, walleye
    • Les Cheneaux Islands (Mackinac County) - yellow perch, northern pike, splake

    Northeast Lower Peninsula

    • Burt Lake (Cheboygan County) - yellow perch, walleye
    • Higgins Lake (Roscommon County) - lake trout, smelt, lake whitefish, northern pike
    • Houghton Lake (Roscommon County) - walleye, bluegill, crappie, sunfish
    • Black Lake (Cheboygan/Presque Isle counties) - walleye, yellow perch, lake sturgeon
    • Fletcher’s Pond (Montmorency/Alpena counties) - northern pike, yellow perch
    • Mullett Lake (Cheboygan County) - yellow perch, walleye
    • Otsego Lake (Otsego County) - walleye, panfish, lake sturgeon

    Northwest Lower Peninsula

    • Thumb Lake (Charlevoix County) - yellow perch, splake
    • Lakes Cadillac and Mitchell (Wexford County) - yellow perch, crappie, northern pike
    • Fife Lake (Grand Traverse County) - yellow perch, walleye, northern pike
    • Long Lake (Grand Traverse County) - yellow perch
    • Green Lake (Grand Traverse County) - smelt
    • South Lake Leelanau (Leelanau County ) - yellow perch, walleye
    • Crystal Lake (Benzie County) - yellow perch, rainbow trout, lake trout

    Southwest Lower Peninsula

    • Reeds Lake (Kent County) - northern pike, bluegill
    • Bruce's Bayou (Ottawa County) - northern pike, bluegill, yellow perch
    • Sessions Lake (Ionia County) - bluegill, walleye
    • Long Lake (Kalamazoo County) - northern pike
    • Corey and Harwood Lakes (Cass County) - bluegill, yellow perch
    • Gun Lake (Barry County) - bluegill, northern pike, walleye

    Southeast Lower Peninsula

    • Lake St. Clair (St. Clair/Macomb Counties) - yellow perch, bluegill, crappie
    • Devils Lake (Lenawee County) - yellow perch, walleye, bluegill
    • Bear Lake (Hillsdale County) - yellow perch, rainbow trout
    • Crescent and Oakland Lakes (Oakland County) - bluegill
    • Cass, Union and Lakeville Lakes (Oakland County) - walleye
    • Stony Creek Impoundment (Macomb/Oakland counties) - walleye, crappie
    • Lake Orion, White Lake, Big Lake (Oakland County) - northern pike
    • Cass and Wolverine Lakes (Oakland County) - crappie
    • Halfmoon and South Lakes (Washtenaw County) - bluegill
    • Maceday Lake (Oakland County) - bluegill, lake trout, splake
    • Wampler’s Lake (Jackson/Lenawee counties) - bluegill, redear sunfish, crappie

How To Videos

DNR: Ice Fishing Basics

Take Me Fishing: Ice Fishing Safety

Take Me Fishing: Drilling your Hole

Take Me Fishing: Rods and Reels

Take Me Fishing: Bait and Lures

Take Me Fishing: What to Wear