Ice fishing and fat-tire bikes: Here's where to go for outdoor fun in Macomb County this winter

Even though Tony Longo no longer lives in Macomb County, when the weather permits he still likes to go ice fishing there on Lake St. Clair. Tony Longo

Now a business owner and volunteer firefighter who lives in Madison Heights, Longo grew up around Warren and Sterling Heights. The thirty-five-year-old  got into ice fishing after trying it out with his brother-in-law. In fact, you might say, he got hooked.

"It's a whole lot of fun, [but] the fish isn't guaranteed." he says. "All that work that you put in and everything, you're not guaranteed to land a fish that day, let alone multiples. So if you get something, it just instantly gets exciting."

The work Longo is talking about can vary, depending on the person, the state of the ice, and the tools they have at hand. One ice fisher might just take a bucket and hand auger, drill a hole, and sit there all day waiting for a bite. Another might use an electric auger and move around the lake or pond looking for the best spot to fish. Still another might set up shop in an ice shanty with a portable heater, hanging out  with friends and occasionally moving the portable shed around.   

Longo with ice fishing gear.Longo makes a point of encouraging safe ice fishing practices: always go out with a buddy, use a steel "spud" bar to check the integrity of ice before you walk on it, and be sure to pay attention to what's happening, especially during the early and late parts of the season when ice is thinnest. Beyond that, he and his friends also wear special jackets with flotation devices. He's aware that those can be expensive and may not be for everyone. But life jackets and ice picks are good items to have in case of an emergency, as is a cell phone.

This winter, since it's been fairly warm, Longo hasn't needed those things much around here. He's been going up north to do his ice fishing, though he's done a little dock fishing in Southeast Michigan. 

When the conditions are right, though, there are lots of places around Macomb that he likes to go ice fishing, all of them along Lake St. Clair. Some of his favorite spots with access to the lake are Lake St. Clair Metropark (also known as Metro Beach); several locations in St. Clair Shores, including a Coast Guard station by the public library; and just north of Selfridge Air Force Base at the canal by the Sportsmen's Direct Bait Shop. He also likes to take his shanty up to Anchor Bay at the northern part of Lake St. Clair.  

Around the Macomb County area, Longo typically catches frying pan fare like perch, bluegill sunfish, and crappie. Though it's not unheard of to catch bigger bites like walleye deeper in Lake St. Clair when the ice is safe enough.

As things stand now with the recent drop in temperatures, Longo is optimistic he'll once again be able to get back to ice fishing close to home.

"There's actually a couple of spots in the canals around Lake St. Clair that people are fishing right now," he says. "But we're all hoping. and praying. This cold snap looks like it's going to stay and we might have decent ice around here for the next month or so."

A sledding hill at Patriot Field in Shelby Twp.Winter excursions in Macomb County

Ice fishing isn't the only thing happening outdoors in Macomb County during the winter, though. Just ask Amanda Oparka, who works with the county's Parks and Natural Resources division.

"Even though the weather is colder there's still stuff to do to get yourself and your family outside," she says. "And you don't have to go up north to enjoy certain things like skiing or sledding. There's activities right here in your own backyard that you can do."

Winter enthusiasts certainly have no shortage of options. They can go cross country skiing at Freedom Hill County Park. Or they could take a brisk hike on the Macomb Orchard Trail. There's even plenty of winter goodness to be found at the municipal park level. 

In Warren, for example, kids can go skating in City Square Park or Warren Community Center Park. And in Sterling Heights there are plenty of sledding hills at places like Hampton Park and Beaver Hill Park. Winter fun seekers can find more activity sites around the county in places like Mount Clemens, St. Clair Shores, Roseville, Chesterfield, Romeo and New Baltimore by checking out the county's online winter activities tool.

Burgess-Shadbush Nature Center

Getting back to nature

Shelby Township, in particular, has a lot to offer outdoor enthusiasts, like the Burgess-Shadbush Nature Center, which is part of River Bends Park. The nature center has a bunch of animals to check out, including, turtles, salamanders, snakes and even a type of lizard known as a bearded dragon. It also has a theater room filled with information about the fascinating history of the park, which played a role in the underground railroad, served as the great boxer Joe Louis's horse farm, and at one time housed a Nike missile base. 

"We're always open for people to come in and visit and check out the animals we have here and learn about them," says Faith Rembisz who works with the nature center. "With COVID, we've been restricted in a lot of our activities, but our trails are always open [and] the building is open to the public."

Although there isn't any special winter programming this year due to the pandemic, visitors are still welcome, as long as they make reservations, wear a mask and fill out a COVID questionnaire online or when they arrive at the center. The center is closed on Monday and Tuesday, but open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

As for River Bends Park, it's a rather expansive park, encompassing more than 850 acres that are divided by a 6-mile stretch of the Clinton River. It features both paved trails, where dogs on leashes are welcome, as well as protected nature trails. Those who bring sleds or toboggans can also have some fun at a sledding hill located in a part of the park known as Patriot Field. There's even an archery and trap shooting range open to the public on weekends from 9 a.m. to dusk in January and February (with expanded hours during the warmer months). 

Stony Creek MetroparkFrosty fun at the Metroparks

In addition to the local offerings, there's also lots to do at Macomb County's three Huron-Clinton metroparks: Lake St. Clair, Stony Creek and Wolcott Mill.

Located in Harrison Township, Lake St. Clair Metropark is a 770-acre park with a wealth of different terrain from meadows to marshland and great access to the lake from which it gets its name. 

"At Lake St. Clair, we have sledding hills," says Metroparks spokeswoman Danielle Mauter. "There are cross country ski trails, and it is a hot spot for ice fishing, which, until we get some colder temperatures, the ice build up on the lake is not quite there yet."

As for Stony Creek Metropark, it occupies a 4,461-acre area in the vicinity of Shelby Township that spans both Macomb and Oakland Counties. 

"That is a big destination for cross-country skiing," says Mauter. "There is a ski rental center there. It's not open yet, but it will be with some COVID precautions in place as soon as we get enough snow to open it."A deer at Stony Creek.

There are also sledding hills at Stony Creek as well as places to ride fat-tire bikes.

 Both Stony Creek and Lake St. Clair Metroparks, also have designated trails for cross country skiing. Also for those who aren't super big fans of snow, both parks have paved trails that are cleared, so cyclists and walkers can mosy along without fears of sliding or getting their feet wet.

And when there's enough snow, there are plans for organized activities like snowshoe hikes, guided birdwatching and other activities. 

As for Wolcott Mill in Ray Township, the 250-acre mill and farm doesn't have any organized winter activities, but it's regular amenities are in place year round. And folks looking for a quiet winter hike are welcome to walk its trails.

For those who  do plan on checking out these outdoor opportunities this year, though, Mauter asks them to take winter weather considerations into account. 

"Remember that it is winter and that means it is cold, so dress for the weather," she says. "Also remember if you're out on the trail that there is potential for them to be icy, so be cautious and pay attention so that you don't slip and fall."

The Macomb Parks & Trails series seeks to capture the story of the outdoor recreation, greenspace, placemaking and emerging outdoor assets that are shaping Macomb County's future. It's made possible with funding from Macomb County.

All photos by David Lewinski, except those featuring Tony Longo.
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