Ice fishing generates regional revenue while showcasing successful environmental recovery efforts

Whether you’re driving across a bridge or taking a mid-winter stroll along the Riverwalk, it’s hard to miss the ice shanties sprouting from the Saginaw River ice.

What might be easier to miss is what those shanties symbolize.

They symbolize economic opportunity. Fishing and hunting inject billions of dollars into Michigan’s economy every year. They also symbolize a healthy ecosystem. When the anglers reel in fish, they’re seeing evidence of successful habitat and environmental restoration efforts. Finally, ice fishing symbolizes an affordable path into a classic Michigan hobby. 

It’s difficult to say exactly how many people ice fish in Bay County or to quantify the economic impact of those people on the Great Lakes Bay Region. Statewide, though, hunting and fishing are multi-billion dollar industries.

According to a 2019 Michigan United Conservation Clubs report based on 2016 spending data, hunting- and fishing-related purchases generate more than $11 billion each year for Michigan businesses and support 171,000 jobs. The state estimates the value of the year-round recreational walleye fishery at $30 million.

Local experts agree that the Great Lakes Bay Region sees significant economic benefits from ice fishing.

“If you look up and down that river, you see thousands of shanties,” says Michael Kelly, Director of the Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network

If you could see the Saginaw Bay from shore, you’d see even more shanties and fishermen. 

“There are thousands of people who fish on the Bay,” Kelly says. “You can see their vehicles at the Bay City State Park or the end of Linwood Road or the end of Pinconning Road. In terms of numbers, there are probably just as many people fishing on the Bay as on the River.”

Those fishermen buy bait, fill their cars and four-wheelers with gas, re-fill propane tanks, shop for new equipment, and more. “There’s no question that it certainly promotes the regional economy,” Kelly says.

Ken Shear, who has served as president of the Saginaw Bay Walleye Club and organizes large fishing tournaments in the area, agrees with Kelly.

“It’s a great revenue booster for the area,” Shear says. “This year, we’ve had times with 300, 400 people on the river. We’ve got people coming from all over Michigan and from out of state.”

Shear says the presence of those visitors shows that efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to restore the walleye fishery were successful. Read more about the fishery and how it was restored in this March 2020 article in Route Bay City.

“There’s probably a generation of fishermen out there who don’t realize that the Saginaw Bay walleye fishery wasn’t there just a little while ago,” Shear says.

The fishery has advanced to the point where the fish naturally reproduce. In recent tournaments, anglers have reeled in record-setting fish. During the Linwood Fishing Frenzy earlier this month, Keith Bryce caught a 14.56-pound walleye. “In 35 years, that is the biggest walleye that’s ever been weighed in during” Shiver on the River or the Linwood Fishing Frenzy, Shear says. “That’s a huge fish.”

While the tournament and recreational fishermen send millions of dollars into the local economy, ice fishing remains an affordable sport for an individual to try. 

Winter provides a unique opportunity to access out-of-the-way fishing spots. In the summer, you need a boat to get far from shore. In the winter, though, you can walk to some of the best fishing locations.

“You have this really active fishery on the Saginaw River because it’s easy to get to,” Kelly says.

“People can park at a boat launch or a park. You don’t have to walk far. You just jump off the riverbank and you’re at the fishery. The Saginaw River fishery is terrific. It’s one of the best ice-based fisheries in the world.”

Shear agrees that the Saginaw River is unusually easy to access. “In other areas, you need a guide or equipment to get to the best spots,” Shear says.

The only equipment needed is a fishing rod, bait, and warm clothes. “For 100 years, people have gone out and sat on the ice or sat on a bucket,” Kelly adds.

If you discover you enjoy the hobby, you may want to invest in an ATV or snowmobile to look for fish farther out on the Bay. Fish finders, shanties, power augers, and other special equipment all are available for those who want to expand their opportunities. 

One of your first purchases, though, may be safety equipment. “Safety is no. 1,” Kelly adds.

A good rule of thumb on the Saginaw River is that 3 or 4 inches of ice is safe to walk. If you head out onto the Saginaw Bay, avoid jumping over cracks in the ice. If the ice breaks free, you may have trouble getting back to shore.

If you aren’t sure if it’s safe, ask a fisherman or stop at a bait supply store for an ice report. Kelly says most people take safety seriously and will be happy to help you.

“There is a variety of safety equipment available to ice fishermen,” Kelly adds.

For example, many anglers wear life jackets or drape a cord with spikes on it across their shoulders to help climb out if they fall through. Retailers are a good source for information on what works in terms of safety equipment, bait, and more.

“One of the things I’ve found is it’s very easy to walk up and talk to,” ice fishermen, Kelly says. “They’ll tell you about techniques or what worked today or yesterday. It’s a very accessible fishery, not only from an opportunity to reach the fish, but also to learn about it.”