HOUGHTON LAKE — My buddy Jeff Sowa, who is an excellent angler, says he thinks Houghton Lake produces the most fish per acre — “or at least the most pounds of fish per acre” — of any lake in Michigan.
I’m inclined to agree with him. Houghton Lake is a fish factory. And the workers are on overtime.
I’ve probably fished Michigan’s biggest (more than 20,000 acres) inland lake 30 or 40 times over the last several decades and it’s very rare that we don’t wind up with a nice catch. Generally, we fish for walleyes, but it isn’t unusual that the specimens in the by-catch outnumber the target species. Houghton Lake is loaded with everything — bluegills, pumpkinseeds, crappie, bass (both flavors) and, of course, pike, for which it has always been known.
I spent parts of two days with Sowa on the lake recently during one of Mark Martin’s annual Ice Fishing Vacation/School events and while the weather was disappointing the fishing wasn’t.
We started out before daylight one morning when the wind occasionally calmed down to about 20 miles an hour. It was brutal. We went out and set up on a waypoint Sowa had located a couple of days previously — he spent a whole day just driving around on a snowmobile, drilling holes, and locating potential fishing spots for Martin’s students — and, the next day, caught four walleyes and four northern pike in the vicinity we‘d fish.
We’d just set up the shanty — which was a challenge in the gale-force winds; in fact, one guy had his shelter destroyed when the wind caught it and another’s suffered some significant structural damage — when Sowa’s phone rang. Someone needed some help and Sowa is one of those guys who can fix anything. So he took off and I started jigging (a small Northland spoon, tipped with a minnow) in the predawn. I almost immediately caught a rock bass, not quite 12 inches.
We were right on top of a weed bed and it was a chore to get the bait to the bottom. When Sowa returned we moved the tent a few yards as he didn’t want to fish in the weeds; he wanted to fish in “the desert”: on a weedless flat within a few fishtail-swishes of a wall of weeds. Sowa theorized that the high winds had moved the ice so we were off the waypoint.
It was slow; a little after 9 a.m. I caught a walleye (an honest keeper, say, 16 inches) that had barely ticked my bait. But that was it for the day. I missed a bite. Sowa broke one off. (A pike?) And when it started raining in early afternoon, Martin decided we should get off the ice before it became any more miserable.
It rained all night. The next morning there was enough water on the ice that we could have taken a boat instead of a snowmobile. But the bite was black-and-white different from the previous day; within 40 minutes both Sowa and I had iced a pair of pike. He took off to check on students but I stayed with it, fishing a minnow-tipped Do-Jigger in 9 feet of water and, over the course of the next couple of hours, I iced a walleye and three more pike well before noon.
Houghton Lake has always had plentiful pike, but right now it’s full of hammer handles, so much so that the DNR enacted a more liberal limit: five, no minimum size, but just one 24 inches or longer. I had a 26-incher and four in that 20- to 23-inch range. Perfect. (And they were excellent; pike do not get their due, neither as table fare, nor as game fish. They’re boney, which turns some folks off, but if you’re good with a filet knife, you can clean them easily enough.)
Mark Tonello, the Department of Natural Resources biologist who oversees Houghton Lake calls it an “amazing” fishery. He said the liberal length limit on pike is designed to give anglers the opportunity to take home fish and, at the same time, reduce the population so, hopefully, there will be more food for the remaining fish and we’ll break the small-fish cycle. That it holds up so well — Houghton Lake supports more anglers/days than all of Lake Superior — is one of God’s gifts to fishermen.
But it figures; it is highly fertile, shallow (maximum depth is 22 feet, so it’s pretty much all good warm-water fish habitat) and weedier than a hippie’s house. About 15 years ago, when the property owners’ association nuked it with herbicide, the fishing was so spectacular — the fish had nowhere to hide — that some say the outstanding panfishery (Houghton Lake produced about as many Master Angler bluegills as the rest of the state) is not yet back to where it had been. Let’s hope they do not make that mistake again.
About lunch time the temperature started to drop and I had popped a seam on one of my boots so I had a major-league soaker. I was freezing. I called it a day — and I hate to leave ‘em biting — but I think I made the right call as my buddies told me the bite cratered with the cold front. “You didn’t miss anything,” Sowa said.
But I’d gotten most of the juice out of that berry, as has been my experience more often than not on Houghton Lake. If you’re looking for a place to catch a nice mess of fish for the table, this is it. And don’t feel bad about taking them home. Houghton Lake will make more.
Bob Gwizdz is a longtime outdoors writer and has also worked in public affairs for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.