Monday, March 3, 2014

The many options at Benzie County's Crystal Lake

kids ice fishing on Crystal LakeFew lakes anywhere offer the diversity of fisheries and productivity of Crystal Lake, the huge, deep, two-story lake in Benzie County. At just less than 10,000 acres, there are countless options for anglers.

"It's an awesome lake," said Michigan Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Mark Tonello. "The most popular species is probably perch. It's very popular in the winter though the ice and pretty popular in the summer, too. And the perch get good-sized at times."

Despite its depth, Crystal Lake also boasts a relatively unsung smallmouth bass fishery.

"The shoal areas have very, very good smallmouth bass populations with very good big-fish potential," Tonello said. "A lot of Master Angler fish come out of there."

But what makes Crystal Lake unusual for an inland lake is the trout and salmon fishing.

"We stock it with lake and rainbow trout, roughly 60,000 lake trout a year and about 20,000 rainbows," Tonello said. "Occasionally, when fall fingerling steelhead are available, we'll put some steelhead in as well.

"It has a naturalized population of Coho salmon, one of only two lakes that I know of in Michigan that has a land-locked Coho population. They're totally wild. They spawn in the little creeks that feed Crystal Lake."

Coho fishing through the ice is a popular pastime according to Tonello, "the ones they're catching this winter are running about 15 or 16 inches. They're fun, the fight real hard, and they're really good to eat."

Lake trout are popular with ice fishermen as well. They typically use tip-ups to suspend smelt over the depths and are often rewarded with big fish. Those same salmonid species offer plenty of open-water opportunity too, including jigging and trolling.

"One unique fishery occurs right on the beach in Beulah, typically in the spring and fall," Tonello said. "The guys fish surf-style with spawn bags; they wade out, cast it out, and then take the rods back to the beach. They catch lake trout, rainbows and Coho. That's a pretty popular fishery."

Crystal Lake is also one of Michigan's most popular smelt fishing lakes through the ice. It also supports populations of cisco (lake herring) and whitefish.

"Another niche fishery on Crystal lake is burbot fishing," Tonello said. "Set a tip-up with a dead minnow on it, right on the bottom, and you'll catch burbot. A lot of Master Angler burbot come out of there, too."

There's also some unusual history surrounding the lake, which is currently about 18 feet lower than it used to be. In 1873, an engineering project attempted to connect the lake with a channel to Lake Michigan. It failed miserably, but the resulting lower lake level left plenty of beach area exposed and that's one of the reasons why Crystal Lake is such a popular resort and vacation-home area today.

Crystal Lake has not been surveyed by the DNR in recent years, though Tonello said, fisheries crews will be on the lake conducting net surveys this spring.

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