5 Tips for Fishing for Michigan Hard Water Panfish


Anglers across Michigan always get a good laugh this time of year. As the lakes freeze over and we get ready for the hard water season, those of us with friends in the South get ribbed for venturing out on a frozen lake to chase after a few fish. They just don’t understand how much fun it can be.

Love at first ice

As autumn moved along, the fish were in active feeding mode. When the temperatures stayed below freezing long enough to solidify the surface water, it triggers a whole new feeding frenzy. This can be a great time of year to score a quick limit of bluegill, sunfish, crappie, and more.

For Great Lake State anglers venturing out onto the frozen waters, there are a few things to keep in mind. The Michigan DNR doesn’t recommend going out on ice thinner than four inches thick. Lakes freeze from the shore inward to the center as the shallow water at the lake’s edge cools faster. Density plays a big role, too. Water is most dense at 39 degrees Fahrenheit. When the water cools below that, the water inverts with the cold, lighter water now sitting at the surface. This top layer of water interfaces with the cold air, which cools it even further until it eventually freezes. Wind aids in the cooling and freezing process. Wind also makes early ice very unstable. For this reason, smaller lakes usually have the best early ice, or bays an inlets of larger lakes. Remember that the bigger and deeper the lake, the longer it will take to freeze completely.

Finding the fish

If you know your lake well, then you already have a good idea where the fish can be found. While they are a little more sluggish during the winter months, the fish, especially panfish, will still move around. It isn’t uncommon to be having a very slow day and then have a school move in under your hole. You won’t be able to keep a line in the water.

Chumming for panfish is a pretty common tactic for hard water anglers and it works very well—when done right. There are some commercially made chums, but I’ve always used a mixture of grubs and wax worms combined in a paste made of the same stuff. I use an old blender I picked up at a garage sale. Basically you make a pasty ball of the stuff and keep it in the freezer just long enough to firm up, but not freeze. You then just drop it into your hole and let it fall to the bottom. It’ll start dissolving on the way down. The scent and bait in the water will bring in fish and then you fish right off the bottom. The bait starts a frenzy of sorts and you can limit out quickly. Be sure to keep a few bait balls around for your buddies. You score extra points if you can trick one of them into eating a bait ball.

Seeing what’s going on

Ice anglers like catching fish. I mean, why else would you brave cold temps and the threat of falling through the ice? So knowing that fish are in the area is a good thing. That’s why flashers and other fish finders are so popular. Around here, my buddies and I have devised a plan to keep costs down. We spread out the buying. One friend recently bought a brand new Strikemaster Lazer Mag ice auger, while another bought a new Marcum LX-5 color flasher. I picked up an AquaVu II camera. All of these things make fishing more enjoyable as it helps put us on fish faster. Spreading it out between a few guys you can trust is a way to not have to spend as much out of pocket.

Get jiggy with it

Michigan anglers seeking panfish can do well with grubs, waxworms, and minnows for bait under the ice. Fishing these baits with a teardrop jig works very well. Crappie and perch can be very aggressive toward minnows, but I’ve score more than a few bluegills on them, too.

One of my favorite places to go for crappie is Lake Mitchell in Wexford County. The west side of the lake is made up of several coves that hold good fish and usually have good ice.

Jigging spoons can be a fun and active way to score some great fishing action too. The VMC Flash Champ spoon is a favorite of friend and former guide Jay Frolenko. Jay and I have been fishing together for many years and he knows his stuff.

“I really like being active with my jigging,” Frolenko said. “Early ice action for Crappie is something I’ll take time off from work to go after. Some of my go-to baits are Rapala Jigging Raps and Jigging Shad Raps.”

Jigging spoons is a great way to be active when fishing. I like to set my son up with a jigging spoon, just because it keeps him doing something when we’re fishing.
Jigging spoons is a great way to be active when fishing. I like to set my son up with a jigging spoon, just because it keeps him doing something when we’re fishing.

Don’t be dumb

Michigan is a winter wonderland. There is a lot to do in the great outdoors of the Great Lake State even when the temperature is low enough to freeze the hairs in your nose. The scenic landscapes and abundant lakes combines with public land and access make Michiganders the envy of many others not fortunate enough to live here. So the most important thing to keep in mind is for you to keep on living here.

Again, it is highly recommended that you do not venture out onto ice that is less than four inches thick. Don’t even think of taking your ATV or snowmobile out onto ice that is less than five inches thick. Want to drive your car or truck out? Better look for a good foot of solid ice first. Keep in mind that snow insulates the ice and holds in heat, so early, snow-covered ice can be a risky proposition. Wind, sun, and barometric pressure can all affect the quality of the ice and the fishing too.

Fish smart, take precautions, and have fun. Make sure people know where you are and don’t go alone if you can help it. If you take precautions, you will be rewarded with a great Michigan ice fishing adventure and some delicious panfish for the table.

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This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.

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