If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a few good friends who make up your core ice-fishing crew. Thing is, you’re also probably hitting the same handful of lakes and ponds over and over. Your home game is dialed, no doubt, so maybe it’s time to take the team on the road. Planning a D.I.Y. getaway in the coldest months definitely comes with more logistics than a summer trip.
While we can’t stop a snowstorm from making highway conditions dicey, we can point you to the top destinations for lake trout, walleyes, bluegills, and northern pike that require minimal gear and modest expenses, and there’s no need to hire a guide. We’ll tell you where to sleep, where to get the best greasy breakfast and dinner, where to get on the ice, and most important, how to connect with fish so big, they’ll make your hometown personal best look like a guppy.
Road-Trip Destination: Little Bay de Noc, Gladstone, MI
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Lake Michigan on the Upper Peninsula, Little Bay de Noc is renowned for its hardwater walleye fishery. In winter, troves of large adult fish move from the massive main lake to the diminutive bay. These fish are staging to spawn in the rivers after ice-out, and they’re ready to feed. While Lake Michigan is essentially an inland ocean, Little Bay de Noc’s protection makes it perfect for the angler who wants Great Lakes action without the main lake knowledge and risks.
Lake Erie walleye sharpie Ross Robertson has spent many days fishing Little Bay de Noc, and he says its clear water makes low-light periods most productive. Since fishing early and late in the day is a must, nothing beats staying on the lake—literally. Adventure Outfitters rents icehouses that can sleep up to four. Owner Ray Tuberville continually moves his shed city to follow the walleyes, giving anglers the best chance to stay on top of fish. Wake up and drop lines without dragging all your gear on and off the ice in the dark every day.
Although it’s feasible to commute from your temporary home into town via Honda Accord, having a four-wheel-drive vehicle is certainly a plus. Tuberville can transport you to and from your bungalow, but you’ll lack the means to head out for dinner, beers, or breakfast if you don’t have your own ice-worthy wheels. There’s a propane heater and stove in every icehouse, but Tuberville says to pack like you’re camping. You’ll need sleeping bags, pillows, coolers, pots and pans, and whatever food you’re going to eat on the ice.
Little Bay de Noc is best fished with a stealthy combination of tip-ups and jigging rods, Robertson says. He stresses that the walleyes here are wary, so noise and light should be kept to a minimum. Tip-ups should be set in a wide perimeter around your shed and jigging holes. In bright conditions, tip-ups that cover holes are better. Otherwise, try to leave the slush in both your bait and jigging holes to minimize light penetration. Robertson prefers Rapala Jigging Raps or a leadhead-minnow combination for jigging, and a plain 1/0 hook with a minnow on his tip-ups. Long fluorocarbon leaders are critical with both presentations.
After the early-morning bite, head to Jack’s Restaurant in Rapid River for the Camp Breakfast. The two eggs, a pile of home fries, sausage or bacon, and toast made with bread baked on the premises should prime you for the afternoon nap you’ll need to be sharp when the late-day bite kicks in.
Got some downtime after breakfast? You’re only minutes away from Rapid River Knifeworks. Its huge selection of custom, handmade blades in every style is jaw-dropping, and everyone needs a good souvenir from a road trip, right?
Road-Trip Destination: Pactola Reservoir, Deadwood, SD
Pactola Reservoir lies in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Not only is it a hidden gem for big lakers, but it’s also a D.I.Y. angler’s dream. Parking is convenient, and a short 100-yard walk onto the ice puts you over 80 to 150 feet of water. Lake trout breaking the 20-pound mark are caught regularly, and given that Pactola is relatively small—only 782 acres—your chances of hooking a trophy are significantly higher here than on larger bodies of water.
Pactola Reservoir is only 35 minutes from the historic city of Deadwood, which is considered one of the most haunted places in the country. Its lawlessness during the gold rush of the 1870s resulted in countless murders, and many spirits are said to have never left town. The historic Bullock Hotel is a bucket-list landmark for ghost hunters, and lucky for you, it’s also one of the few hotels in town open all winter.
Ice Team pro staffer Craig Oyler may very well be the most knowledgeable angler to have ever fished Pactola, and he says you’re only as good on Pactola as your jigging game. Oyler stresses the importance of a quality flasher. Lakers can hold at any depth, and you’ll need to know exactly where they are to catch them. Oyler adds that your rod selection is key. He relies on the 36-inch Ice Team Professional Series Jigging Rod, which has the sensitive tip you’ll need to detect bites, but with plenty of backbone to muscle big lakers up from the depths.
Oyler says the most essential part of your approach is a willingness to move, noting that if you catch fish at one location, don’t stick around when the action dries up. As for lure selection, Oyler’s go-to is the Clam Leech Flutter Spoon. It’s a heavy lure that sinks fast, doesn’t foul when jigged quickly to goad reaction bites, and gives off a ton of flash in the clear water.
A meal at the rustic, dimly lit Deadwood Social Club is one you won’t forget. The menu features a number of game specialties, including pasta dishes with pheasant and boar. After dinner, head downstairs to Saloon 10 for a local craft-beer nightcap, where the walls are covered floor to ceiling with thousands of pictures and artifacts depicting Deadwood’s history.
While Deadwood has no shortage of attractions, Moriah Cemetery, where Wild Bill Hickcock and Calamity Jane are buried, tops the list. If you’re willing to drive another 30 minutes past Pactola, pay a visit to Mount Rushmore.
Road-Trip Destination: Bass Lake, Deer River, MN
Veteran fishing guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl chases every fish that swims in northern Minnesota, though one of his true passions is hooking giant bluegills through the ice. You’ll find him feeding that addiction on Bass Lake. This 2,400-acre body of water averages only 10 to 12 feet deep, and come winter, the lake’s giant bluegills swarm the shallowest areas, making them easy for the do-it-yourself angler to find. Bass Lake has had a five-fish limit on bluegills for more than a decade, and its stunning population of dinner-plate-size fish is a direct result. Brosdahl notes that local anglers conserve the trophy population by keeping only medium-size fish, allowing the larger ones to pass on their genes.
There’s simply no place more accommodating to ice anglers than the White Oak Inn and Suites in Deer River. They start serving breakfast at 5:30 a.m., have a fish-cleaning house out back, and offer reasonable rates that will help lower the overall cost of your trip. The Outpost Bar and Grill is a 20-foot walk from the Inn, and in addition to their full menu, they’ll gladly cook your catch.
Brosdahl warns “not to come up here if you don’t have a good pair of boots.” While there are a number of pricey snow boots on the market that will do the job, Brosdahl swears by a pair of white military bunny boots. These are no longer being produced, but a quick internet search will turn up new and used pairs from military surplus sites priced anywhere from $40 to $100. With a single pair of quality wool socks, Brosdahl says, the bunny boots keep his toes toasty all day. Also, because ice can be more than 2 feet thick in the North Woods, an extension for your auger is good to have on hand.
Brosdahl uses a combination of ultralight tackle and live bait to entice Bass Lake’s monster bluegills. A 25-inch noodle-tip rod is what you’ll need to fish tiny jigs on light line, because it allows you to detect the subtlest bites. Most of the time he uses 1-pound-test line and relies almost entirely on Northland Tackle’s Gill-Gitter and Mud Bug jigs to match the size of insects that bluegills feed on. Lastly, Brosdahl says a small, portable underwater camera is a huge plus; drop it in each hole after drilling and move on right away if the screen is blank.
The Gosh Dam Place in Deer River is a popular stop for ice anglers, offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you can’t decide what to eat, the Gosh Dam Breakfast or Gosh Dam Burger are good choices. Trust us. In the evening, join the locals for a few beers at the Pickled Loon Saloon. Every Wednesday night is their famed “meat raffle,” in which you can win a variety of fresh or smoked pork, chicken, or beef products from a local butcher and smokehouse.
The Lost Forty Scientific and Natural Area is a section of forest unlike any most people will ever see. Due to a surveying error in 1882, it has never been logged and is truly virgin forest. The red pines are 240 to 250 years old and offer visitors a rare glimpse of the past.
Road-Trip Destination: Black Lake, Hammond, NY
While the Northeast may not jump out as the country’s premier pike region, Black Lake’s insane number of northerns and easy access make it a D.I.Y. ringer. Anglers can expect steady action regardless of conditions, with frequent shots at fish in the upper 30- to low 40-inch range. You also don’t need to go far from the car or cabin to connect, because you’ll find the near-endless weedbeds less than 100 yards from shore. The lake is less than 30 minutes off Interstate 81, providing fast highway access for anglers coming from any direction.
Rogers’ Old Oak Camps was the original Black Lake destination catering to the ice crowd. The cabins are located on the northeast side of the lake, which happens to be a favorite side for local pike hunters. Anglers can step out the door of their cabin, walk onto the lake, and have tip-ups set within minutes. The cabins are fully heated for cozy sleeping and quick warm-ups during the day. Each can sleep up to eight people and has a full kitchen complete with pots, pans, utensils, and a coffee maker.
Pike fishing on Black Lake is a tip-up game, so make sure you have an insulated bucket to keep your live baits from freezing. You can be successful without electronics here, but just make sure you have sounder weights to check the depth. Because you won’t be moving around between jigging holes, a small, portable shelter is a good idea. It will offer protection from the wind and cold while you’re waiting for flags to pop.
Guide Dave Gascon has been fishing Black Lake for more than 55 years and says that to keep tip-up flags flying, big, lively baits are the key. Large shiners and sucker minnows are his staples, and nearby Chapman’s Sport Shop has them in stock all winter. Gascon spools his tip-ups with 40-pound ice braid and finishes with a 25-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. He doesn’t add a weight to his leader, because he says a No. 6 treble hook is heavy enough to get the bait near the bottom while still allowing it to move naturally.
Gascon says the pike will bite all day, so there’s no need to go out at sunrise, when the air is the most frigid. That leaves you time to head to nearby Ogdensburg for a gut-busting breakfast at the old-school Phillips Diner. For dinner and drinks, the Turner Inn is close to the lake. Thursday is wing night, Friday is fish-fry night, and Saturday is St. Louis–style ribs night.
You’re a stone’s throw from Dark Island Spirits in Alexandria Bay. Take a tour and sample its handcrafted bourbon, brandy, vodka, gin, or other spirits. Just be sure to have a D.D. and call ahead to check the hours before driving over.