Ice fishing fans gear up for Michigan tournament season

Julie Riddle
The Alpena News

Alpena – On winter weekends in northern Michigan, peering into a hole with a pole offers a welcome getaway for locals and out-of-towners alike.

As ice fishing tournament season approaches, with its influx of outdoors-types eager to warm up at local watering holes and motels after a busy day on the ice, the thickened waters of Grand and Long Lakes north of Alpena are dotted most days with intrepid anglers who know a bad day of fishing beats a good day at the office.

Bitterly cold temperatures and a slicing wind couldn’t keep Dave Hyatt and Shane LeBoeuf, both of Battle Creek, from enjoying their fishing weekend on Grand Lake, the two said recently, perched on folding chairs and supervising three small holes in the ice.

Shane LeBoeuf, left, and Dave Hyatt of Battle Creek supervise fishing poles on frozen Grand Lake, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Grand Lake, Michigan.

Calling Northeast Michigan “a sportsman’s paradise,” the men said the lake’s ample supply of walleye – a fish they can’t depend on catching downstate – drew them north, The Alpena News reports.

A submerged camera offered a sneaky advantage over their prey through a fish-eye view of the perch they were trying to lure onto their dinner plates.

“I’m not out here to be fair to them, if you know what I mean,” Hyatt said, displaying an assortment of other electronic fish-hunting gizmos. “You spend about $5,000 to get $20 worth of fish.”

The men had a bucket of medium-sized perch nearby and were, they said, very content to sit another few hours to see what more they could catch.

“It’s better than sitting at home,” LeBoeuf said. “There’s only so much to watch on Netflix.”

Shane LeBoeuf of Battle Creek shows off a perch that nibbled on his fishing line on Grand Lake, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Grand Lake, Michigan.

The men were reluctant to share where they had caught the perch, knowing other anglers would swoop in if word of their success got out. Then again, they said, if they heard about someone else’s lucky catching spot, they’d try to cash in on it, too.

“You gotta give it a shot,” Hyatt said. “Civility goes out the window.”

The fun of ice fishing is not limited to the hours in a shanty, beer and brats at the ready. The weeks’ worth of planning for a trip upstate, deciding where to stay and what supplies to bring, “makes the winter go by quicker,” Hyatt said.

Like the downstaters, locals are excited to get out on the ice, especially those planning this year’s round of ice fishing tournaments.

On Saturday, the tournament season starts with a splash at the 6th annual Fish Frenzy Outdoors Fishing Tournament.

Planners hope to surpass last year’s 650 participants at the event, which funds the Long Lake Lights Festival and fish restocking by the Long Lake Association.

Anglers from around the state trek to the event each year, bringing tourism dollars and fishing enthusiasm with them, said Zac Rousseau, who coordinates the tournament.

After a successful first outing last year, organizers will bring back the Fish Frenzy Outdoors Real Women Fish Fishing Tournament the first weekend of March on Grand Lake. Last year the event drew 45 teams of five women.

Two weeks after the Long Lake event, several hundred anglers will scatter across Grand Lake during the 39th annual Grand Lake Sportsmen’s Club Ice Fishing Derby.

To include as many people as possible, the Sportsmen’s Club charges no tournament entry fee, said Jeff Duly, president of the club.

“We want anybody and everybody to be able to come out and have a good day of ice fishing,” Duly said.

Kids and adults enjoying the event can snag hot dogs and snacks during the weigh-in at the club’s pavilion on the afternoon of the tournament.

The following weekend, anglers will fish shanty-free at the Reel Fun ice fishing tournament on Grand Lake.

The live-release event draws hundreds each year to sink their lines in pre-drilled holes for a chance at a $5,000 grand prize or an assortment of 30-some other prizes, from gift cards to augers to a boot dryer.

Event proceeds will support the future Thunder Bay River Center in Alpena.

The same weekend, thousands more in prize dollars are up for grabs at a Hubbard Lake tournament, this year renamed the Dave Hillert Memorial Hubbard Lake Classic.

Entry fee proceeds will funnel back to anglers in the form of prize money, but money raised at fundraisers during the event will go to cancer support organization Friends Together in honor of Dave Hillert, beloved by many as the long-time owner of the Downtown Union 76 shop in Alpena, who succumbed to cancer in 2021.

An avid fisherman himself, Hillert opened his Hubbard Lake cottage to ice fisherman every weekend in winter, said tournament planner Romeo Bourdage, who said businesses have eagerly offered prizes and financial support of the event to honor Hillert.

In the meantime, shanties and four-wheelers and cold-looking people in snow pants and hats appear on Northeast Michigan’s frozen lakes daily, soaking up the Up North tradition of peering into a hole and waiting to see if a fish comes out.