According to the DNR, ice fishing is the most popular winter sport in Michigan. If you’ve never been, that might surprise you. Why would anyone want to spend a day in the freezing cold, on top of open ice? Because it’s fun, of course! If you always wanted to give it a try but never have, Michigan’s Winter Free Fishing Weekend, February 14th and 15th, is the perfect time.
During Free Fishing Weekend, residents and non-residents are invited to fish Michigan’s rivers, lakes and streams without holding a fishing license. All other fishing regulations still apply. You can pick up a copy of the Michigan Fishing Guide at almost any bait shop to get up to speed with the current season’s rules.
It doesn’t take a lot to get started ice fishing. You just need to gather some basic gear.
First, and probably most importantly, you need to dress warmly. Think layers. Start with long underwear and choose clothing made of fast-drying, moisture-wicking fabric. Damp, sweaty clothes under your coat won’t keep you warm. A warm hat, gloves and scarf are givens. Wear a coat that insulates but can also break the wind. It’s pretty breezy out on the ice during a Michigan winter. You’ll also want thick socks and heavy-duty boots to keep your feet toasty.
Next, you’ll need fishing gear. You won’t catch anything without a pole and bait. Your choice of gear will vary depending on what you’re fishing for and where you’re fishing. If you’re not sure what you need, the guys at the local bait shop will be happy to give advice.
You’re suited up, and you have your fishing gear in order, now you need tools to punch a hole in the ice. A Spud is a long shank with a chisel-like end. If the ice is thin, you can use it to chip a hole. For thicker ice, you’ll need an Auger. You can get an inexpensive one that works like a hand drill. For really thick ice, you’ll have to invest in a Power Auger. Finally, you’ll need a Skimmer. It looks like a strainer with a long handle, and it’s used to clear slush from the hole throughout the day.
You’ll also need something to sit on, so you’re up off the ice. A lot of anglers simply turn over a five gallon bucket which doubles as a carry-all for their gear. For extra comfort, you can also pick up a portable shelter that’s like a pop up tent. Serious ice fishermen often build elaborate, temporary shelters to use all winter, complete with a heat source!
You’ll likely spend several hours out on the ice, so be sure to bring water and snacks. Put the water in something that will keep it from freezing. A thermos with a hot drink is always a good idea too.
Whenever you’re out on the ice, safety is a major concern. A thickness of at least four inches is recommended for ice fishing. You can use your Spud to check that the ice is solid before venturing out onto it. Before each step, give the ice in front of you a couple of strong hits. If it doesn’t give, it should be safe. Also, use the buddy system. Don’t ice fish alone. And tell someone where you’re going and when you think you’ll return. Finally, carry a life jacket and bring your cell phone in case of an emergency. You’ll need to be extra cautious if you’re fishing on a river or stream. Moving water doesn’t freeze as quickly as a lake, and it can also work away at the ice from underneath, leaving hidden thin spots.
You’ll probably want that phone, so you can use the camera to document your adventure out on the ice too. So what are you waiting for? Get out there! Winter doesn’t last forever.
The DNR has a list on their website of Winter Free Fishing Weekend events happening across Michigan.