From getting licensed and knowing the species, to testing the ice and finding the best spots to hook the biggest fish—there are a few things you should know about wintertime fishing in Michigan.
At one time, ice fishing was a means of survival for the indigenous people of North America and Canada—and today, it’s still a cherished pastime that’s deeply ingrained in our Great Lakes culture. But before you head out on the ice this winter, there are a few key things that you probably ought to know.
When is Michigan’s ice fishing season?
Each year is a little different, but most of the time, anglers can get out on the ice for at least four months—December through March. Sometimes the ice is safe in November, and lasts into April. There is no exact thickness to dictate when ice is safe; fishermen need to test the ice to make sure it’s safe. Clear ice with a bluish tint is safest. Newbies are best served by learning alongside those with experience.
Do I need a license?
You don’t need a special ice fishing license in Michigan—but if you’re 17 or older, you do need to buy a standard fishing license. Michigan’s annual fishing license is valid from March 1 of a given year through March 31 of the following year. The charge for Michigan residents is $26. Non-residents pay $76. Single-day passes are available for $10. Seniors only pay $11.
What species are out there?
Generally speaking, any fish you can catch in Michigan during the spring, summer, and fall, you can also catch through the ice in the winter. Most fishing guides say panfish tend to account for most of their haul—but bluegills, crappies, perch, walleye, pike and some varieties of trout are also relatively common.
All told, Michigan boasts 150 species of fish—so you never know what might show up on your hook.
Where are the best spots?
Michigan has thousands of lakes and rivers to choose from—so there’s no shortage of great fishing spots. Never underestimate advice from local residents. Their wisdom is often the best guidebook. But if you’re looking for some quick recommendations, the DNR publishes an annual guide with recommendations.
Here are a few of Michigan’s most popular species, and some of the best places to find them:
- Coho Salmon: Keweenaw Bay, Munising Bay
- Lake Sturgeon: Black Lake, Otsego Lake
- Lake Trout: Higgins Lake, Crystal Lake, Maceday Lake
- Sunfish: Houghton Lake, Wampler’s Lake
- Smelt: Keweenaw Bay, Higgins Lake, Green Lake
- Northern Pike: Les Cheneaux Islands, Fletcher’s Pond, Lakes Cadillac, Fife Lake, Reeds Lake, Long Lake, Bruce’s Bayou, Gun Lake, Lake Orion, White Lake, Big Lake
What should I wear?
Ice fishing newbies are always worried about getting cold. But you’ll find that most modern-day ice shanties will keep you comfortable—even without fancy heaters. Still, always dress in layers, so you have the chance to adjust based on the environment. Cotton tends to lock in sweat, making your feet and the rest of your body cold. Instead, opt for a thermal base layer and moisture-wicking liner socks to keep you dry. Then, bundle up with warm boots, waterproof outerwear, and waterproof gloves.
What sort of gear do I need?
If you’re going ice fishing, you’ll need three basic types of equipment: something to make a hole in the ice, something to keep the hole from freezing over, and something to catch fish.
A spud is a long chisel to chip a hole in the ice, and an auger is a big corkscrew that allows you to drill a hole. A skimmer—which looks like a big soup ladle with holes—can be used to scoop slush and ice chips out of the hole. And tip-ups are bait-dangling devices that pop up a flag when a fish takes a bite.
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