Mid-winter limnological surveys of Lake Erie captured extremes in ice extent ranging from expansive ice cover in 2010 and 2011 to nearly ice-free waters in 2012. Consistent with a warming climate, ice cover on the Great Lakes is in decline, thus the ice-free condition encountered may foreshadow the lakes future winter state. Here, we show that pronounced changes in annual ice cover are accompanied by equally important shifts in phytoplankton and bacterial community structure. Expansive ice cover supported phytoplankton blooms of filamentous diatoms. By comparison, ice free conditions promoted the growth of smaller sized cells that attained lower total biomass. We propose that isothermal mixing and elevated turbidity in the absence of ice cover resulted in light limitation of the phytoplankton during winter. Additional insights into microbial community dynamics were gleaned from short 16S rRNA tag (Itag) Illumina sequencing. UniFrac analysis of Itag sequences showed clear separation of microbial communities related to presence or absence of ice cover. Whereas the ecological implications of the changing bacterial community are unclear at this time, it is likely that the observed shift from a phytoplankton community dominated by filamentous diatoms to smaller cells will have far reaching ecosystem effects including food web disruptions.