By Yvette Pecha

It’s February in Michigan, and the deep freeze is here. Some people will complain, some will seek respite in warmer regions, and some, like Tim Cwalinski, with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, will embrace this opportunity bestowed upon us by Mother Nature. Cwalinski, fisheries unit supervisor for the Northern Lake Huron Management Unit based in Gaylord, Michigan, enjoys fishing and is grateful to have a sporting activity he can take part in year-round. “Ice fishing gives us an additional recreation in the winter,” he said. “It’s a value we have in cold-weather states, and we should use it to our advantage.”

“Hard-water fishing” is not just another fishing trip—it’s a completely unique experience. Aside from the level of solitude you likely wouldn’t find in other seasons, the lack of bugs, and different setups with different equipment give people a prospect they may not have the rest of the year. “Not everybody can afford a 20-, 40-, or 50-thousand-dollar boat,” Cwalinski said. Anglers who were previously relegated to fishing
on the shoreline can now get to the middle of the lake simply by walking, snowmobiling, or driving out. Another perk—according to many anglers—is that ice fishing produces some of the best-tasting fish. “I think there’s some truth to that,” Cwalinski said. “Some species that live in lake vegetation, like crappie and bass, taste a little like their environment in the summer, but not in the winter.”

One unfortunate part of ice fishing is that it’s highly dependent on weather. If Michigan experiences a mild winter, ice conditions will be poor. Cwalinski says Saginaw Bay is a popular destination when conditions allow because there’s an abundance of walleye and perch in the bay. But Cwalinski notes that recent winters haven’t been particularly cold, and people have wound up traveling to places with cooler temperatures. “Some people eagerly anticipate hard-water fishing, so downstate people will drive north and follow the good ice,” he said. Cwalinski lives in Gaylord (where he receives service from GLE) and says he generally fishes in lakes close to home, which are inhabited by plenty of trout. He said they’re also full of panfish, which he is partial to. Panfish, thusly called because they fit in a campfire-style pan, are classified by fish types such as blue gill, pumpkinseed, crappie, and yellow perch.

Cwalinski says it’s better for everyone if there’s cold weather statewide because it spreads out where people fish and doesn’t deplete the northern bodies of water. But no matter the temperatures in the lower part of the state, Gaylord and other upstate communities enjoy a financial boon in the ice-fishing season. “If you come up from downstate to fish, you’re spending money on bait, you’re buying gas and food, you might eat in a restaurant or stay in a hotel—all of that money is getting pumped into local economies,” Cwalinski said. There are also numerous northern Michigan ice fishing festivals and tournaments that serve as valued community development opportunities.

Before you head anywhere for ice fishing, it’s important to ensure conditions are right for it. “You have to consider the safety measures,” Cwalinski said. “Go to websites and find out what ice is good. In general, three inches is safe, but just because a certain spot is three inches doesn’t mean that’s the case throughout the body of water. Ask around and look for places where people are already out on the ice.”

As for when to fish, well, we are currently in what Cwalinski calls the “winter doldrums of ice fishing”— a time where fish go into a state of “torpor,” during which they generally aren’t feeding or moving much. “The thicker you are into the meat of winter—your Februarys, your early March—the harder it is to catch anything because they’re staying still and conserving energy,” he said. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go ice fishing this month, but you may fare better when the shorelines are starting to break up and the fish are more active. Regardless of when in the year you go out, the best times of day to fish are around sunrise and sunset.

Give ice fishing a try and experience for yourself why it is such a time-honored tradition in our state. With more than 11,000 Michigan lakes waiting to be explored, you don’t have to be housebound just because it’s cold outside. “Many of our Michigan recreational anglers look forward to the ice-fishing season year-round,” Cwalinski said. Though he is not a diehard ice angler, Cwalinski said he does find himself anticipating it sometimes in the off-season. “I’ll be sitting in deer stands in the fall and thinking about the blue gill fillets I’m going to catch soon,” he said.

If you want to experience ice angling but don’t have a fishing license, there are two weekends a year you can fish without one. The first is Feb. 17 and 18. In addition to license fees being waived, you won’t need a recreation passport for entry into state parks or boating access sites. The other free fishing weekend is June 8 and 9.