My friend Alan Popp returned from a business trip in the northernmost tip of the Lower Peninsula just after Thanksgiving, and called me on his return.

“It’s nothing I’d take a chance walking on, but some of the lakes along the highway have a skim of ice on them, at least the protected bays.”

A week later, Popp called me again, having made the same trip again. This time, temperatures were in the 60s, waves were lapping shorelines, and we were in autum once more.

So it goes for the Michigan ice angler, for days and often, for weeks. Last winter, for a month or more, lake tops vacillated between liquid and solid. Anglers watched and waited–I won’t say patiently–and tried to predict how much time would pass, how much cold would come, before the ice fishing season began.

Cliff Hitchcock of Midland connected with panfish on early ice of Wixom Lake in Gladwin County last January.

It came, with the New Year, but it was a mousy impersonation of a real Michigan ice season. We’re hoping for better this year.

We watch the daytime thermometer, cringing when it edges past 32 degrees. But air temperature is only part of the equation, and in some ways a small part of it. Much of the cool-down of our lakes comes from radiant and convective heat loss, lakes giving up their stored summer heat during long, dark nights. Finally, the water’s at 32 degrees F, and awaits a still night cold enough to provide the push from liquid to solid.

Why doesn’t gradual cooling alone do it? Physicists say it takes a big energy transfer–they call it ‘latent energy’ to make water change its phase, such as from liquid to frozen, compared to what it takes to make its temperature warmer or colder, called ‘sensible energy’.

Little ponds are quick to freeze, but so are big-but-shallow waters such as Houghton Lake, lakes Mitchell and Cadillac, Saginaw Bay. Wind can break up early ice on these wind-swept lakes, but back it comes, with ice thickening quickly once it forms a few inches.

Smaller lakes’ names seldom get mentioned now, lest they suffer an invasion from hordes of frustrated ice anglers. One near my home has a little bay with an access site, a lobe that supports ice fishing a full week earlier than any other place around.

A fish in the hand…ice fishing hands are just waiting for hard water in Michigan.

It’s shallow and weedy, and the edges of its weed beds are reliable producers of panfish–unless a pike’s in residence, offering a bonus tip-up opportunity. On any given day you might easily catch a crappie or a largemouth bass (legal through December 31), too.

We avoid power augers and other unnecessary commotion on our season-opening lake, and we move on to other lakes about the time many ice anglers are just dusting off their gear.

You can stretch your season by a couple of weeks at each end if you leave the vehicle ashore–provided you make sure the lake’s safe enough even for walking.

It takes a couple of inches of top-quality ice, minimum, for safe walking. Tap the ice with a spud as you go to test it; you’ll generally have a chance to back up dryly if you find a bad spot. A life jacket can be a life-saver, and a rope tied to a bucket can safe you, a companion or a stranger.

For more information on Michigan fishing go to michigan.org.

Images by Steve Griffin

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