A russet winter sunset illuminates a fishing shanty “village” on the ice of Green Lake, just south of Traverse City, Mich. near the Interlochen Center for the Arts. How good is the fishing around Traverse City? So good that in 2005 Fly Rod & Reel Magazine just named it one of the country’s 12 Top Fly-Fishing Retirement Towns, while Life Magazine named it the country’s Best Place to Catch a Fish. So good that even in winter, diehard anglers can still be found standing in near-frozen streams or crowding their boats out around the mouth of the Boardman River in hopes of landing some of the tasty but elusive jumbo perch that frequent Grand Traverse Bay.
But when the region’s lakes and bays are finally locked under a thick layer of ice, it’s time to try an entirely different kind of fishing. In fact, for those hardy souls who are willing to venture out on the ice, the months between December and April can be the most enticing of the year.
“There are a lot of lakes here that are very productive in winter,” says retired fisheries biologist Stan Lievense, who still goes out on the ice every winter. “And there’s always the Bay, once it gets cold enough.”
To be sure, ice-fishing lacks the glamour and style of casting for trout on the nearby Boardman, or heading out to the deep blue Lake Michigan waters where those big lakers and salmon lurk. A properly dressed ice fisherman (known hereabouts as a ‘cold-footer’) bears a closer resemblance to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man than to Brad Pitt. Nor is ice-fishing a pastime that requires large amounts of skill, strength or cleverness. What it requires, more than anything else, is patience. Mind you, that’s no small thing. In fact, there is something positively zen-like about the ice-fishing experience. There you are, sitting on a little folding stool in the middle of a frozen lake (a stark and minimalist landscape if ever there was one) staring down into a small dark hole in the ice. You know there are fish down there — but you also know that nothing you do or say will persuade them to bite; the decision is entirely up to them. You can only wait.
Fortunately, there are LOTS of winter fish in these rich, clear waters. Big toothy pike, tasty walleye and perch, plenty of bluegills, and even the occasional foolhardy bass are active under the ice in Grand Traverse Bay, Boardman Lake and the dozens of other inland lakes that surround Traverse City. And somehow, a fish tastes even better when you’ve waited all day in the cold to make its acquaintance.
“There’s really quite a large variety of fish waiting to be caught around here in the winter,” says fishing guide Dave Rose. “You can even find lake trout and whitefish in some of the larger lakes, and I know guys who go for brown trout on Duck Lake through the ice.”
During the warm-weather months, Rose can usually be found in his boat, taking customers out to his favorite spots on Lake Leelanau, Elk Lake, and other local fishing grounds. But although he’s been known to anchor out in Grand Traverse Bay in February just to fish along the edge of the ice, winter is his ice-fishing season.
He’s not alone. Almost as soon as the ice will bear their weight (and sometimes a wee bit sooner) enthusiastic ice-fishermen head out to their favorite spots in the small forest lakes in the hills above Traverse City, where bluegill and crappie are the predominant species. As the season progresses, they’ll begin congregating on larger bodies of water like Boardman Lake and the long, glacier-gouged lakes to the east and west of the city – Leelanau, Elk and Torch – where walleye, whitefish, lake trout and herring can be found. Finally, when the temperatures dip low enough, they’ll venture out onto the ice of the Bay.
Like fishermen everywhere, ice-fishing enthusiasts conduct lively arguments about the best gear, lures, bait and technique for catching different fish. Some prefer deep water, while others contend that fish are livelier in shallow lakes. Some wait endlessly at places like Lake Dubonnet for a massive northern pike, while others gladly gather on nearby Green Lake to catch tiny smelt, one by one, just for the enjoyment of getting a strike every couple of seconds.
“Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it,” says Rose. “It’s a lot of fun. Some nights you’ll see a hundred people out on that lake filling their buckets.”
But there are several basic things every ice-fisherman needs: an auger, spud or drill for getting through the ice and a skimmer for keeping the hole ice-free; jigs and minnows for bait; a short, sturdy fishing rod (18 to 24 inches is best, preferably with a sensitive tip) or a tip-up rig to warn when a fish is on the line, for anglers who prefer to fish more than one hole at a time. And, of course, plenty of refreshments, a comfortable seat and a sled to carry it all out onto the ice.
Some ice-fishermen prefer to fish in the comfort of their own portable shanties, and there are times when so many of these little structures cluster together over a particularly rich fishing spot that it looks like a small village on the ice. For Dave Rose, a shanty is the most rewarding way to enjoy the ice-fishing experience. Not only are you protected from the cold, but under the right conditions (on a bright sunlit day, with the crystal-clear water glowing gently up at you) you can watch the fish swimming back and forth far, far below your feet.
On the other hand, purists like Stan Lievense would rather lug their worldly possessions out to a lonely spot in the middle of the ice where they can wage their cold and silent battle of wills without the distraction of an audience. This approach also possesses its own austere beauty – on a windless evening, when the dying sun turns the sky to lilac and every shadow to a deep rich blue, or trudging back to shore under a fleet of impossibly bright stars, listening to the deep notes of the groaning ice as it expands and contracts beneath you. And there are no mosquitoes to deal with, either.