Ice Fishing Lake Trout
January 14, 2013
Those rod-snatching bulldogging lake trout are among the easiest fish to catch through ice fishing lake trout. If that's not the way you are ice fishign for lake trout, you're doing something wrong. You're not fishing in the right places or using the right presentations.
To get on the right track and to stay there, remember that lake trout are the cheetahs of freshwater — prowling predators that rarely remain idle in one or two spots. Instead, they glide through the crystal clear water column in small to medium size hunting parties, constantly on the move, scanning a wide periphery in front of them as they track schools of silvery ciscoes, whitefish, smelt, shiners, and perch. When you find baitfish, you find trout.
Fortunately, lakers also are structure oriented. It's not that these open-water gypsies need hidden outcrops to hide or live around. But like the Plains Indians who herded bison over cliffs, or "buffalo jumps," as they were known, lakers use these hard sunken structures to coral, confuse, and seize their milling prey.
The best winter trout locations are long underwater points with boulders, sunken humps and reefs, saddles between islands, necked-down channels, and high rock walls. But don't discount the three most neglected lake trout hot spots: (1) walleye-looking shoreline food shelves in 10 to 20 feet of water; (2) isolated pockets or holes on 30- to 40-foot flats; and (3) shallow bays and coves.
The biggest mistake most anglers make is taking the scientific name of the lake trout — namaycush, Ojibway for "dweller of the deep" — much too literally. For most of the open-water season, lake trout are locked out of these shallow, productive, food-rich sections of the lake, because lakers flourish in water in the high 40°F to low 50°F range, and in summer, temperatures in these areas often approach twice that reading. But come winter, when every part of the lake, from a temperature perspective, is close to ideal for the cold-water-loving trout, they maraud these shallow sections like kids let loose once a year in a chocolate factory.
The catch, however, isn't Hershey bars. It's yellow perch. And you can score anywhere on shallow shoreline shelves, along the rims of the pockets, and in bays and coves leading into the main lake.
Even on ideal, deep, easily recognized winter trout structure — points, reefs, humps, saddles, and bars — one section typically is overlooked by ice fishermen. That's the inside turn. While most anglers concentrate on the top, tip, and sides of points, experienced cold hands select the inside turn every time.
Biologists and fisheries researchers who follow radio-tagged fish have repeatedly noticed a reluctance to move up and over obstacles. Instead, predator and prey alike prefer to follow constant contours and narrow depth bands — even if that means traveling around a structure as opposed to over it. So while lake trout will run a herd of cisco or smelt into the tip of a point, they create a hysterical feeding maelstrom when they coral a school into the rocky dead-end snare of an inside turn. That's why the best turns are created when two long points jut out to create a huge, deep, underwater horseshoe-shaped trap with no escape.
The biggest lake trout I ever hooked — only minutes after we released a 37-pounder — was in an area like this. When it popped my 20-pound mono line during a railroad runaway, the noise reverberated off the high granite cliffs like the crack of a high-powered rifle.
Depth is doubly important in winter. Early in the ice fishing season, lake trout can be caught in a variety of depths — typically from 20 feet to 60 feet — but often into water approaching and exceeding 100 feet deep.
As winter progresses, though, usually in February, a midseason lull begins. Have the trout vanished or stopped feeding? Hardly. To be sure, on some popular waters, the trout population has been skimmed off, but the fish also appear to make subtle shifts in location. Most likely, these movements are in response to changes in the forage fish community.
Many biologists speculate that a combination of ever thickening ice and added layers of snow combine to block sunlight penetration and darken deeper waters. In response, the phytoplankton and zooplankton — tiny plants and animals that provide the foundation for life — float higher in the water column as they follow the last rays of life-sustaining light. Baitfish similarly follow the plankton higher, with trout in hot pursuit.
How deep light penetrates and how high plankton and baitfish migrate depend on a whole host of factors including water clarity, ice thickness, and snow depth. So experiment and keep your eyes on your sonar.
Finally, never neglect confined open water adjacent to trout structure. Like crappies — but even more so — lake trout love to prowl over deep open water adjacent to structure. To the first-time or nonobservant trout angler, the trout appear to be cruising randomly out in the middle of nowhere. But they leave little to chance. Most often, they're using the same depth they used when they were scouting the structure. Sometimes that's the top, but usually it's the depth the forage fish are using.
Location is the hardest part of the lake trout ice fishing puzzle. Presentation, by comparison, is easy, so long as you keep a few things in mind.
Whether you use tube jigs, Jigging Rapalas, airplane jigs, or spoons, lake trout love movement. And the erratic action that simulates a dead or dying cisco, smelt, or perch is usually the best. But you must develop a cadence. That's because in the clear waters where lake trout roam, they're accustomed to spotting a baitfish (or your lure) at a great distance, lining it up, and then demolishing it at a predetermined spot, just as a trap or skeet shooter leads his target. So if you throw in a zig at the last moment, when you previously zagged, you could feel a trout slap your lure and miss it.
Make it easy for the fish by developing a systematic rhythm. I find that my lakers key on country music, so I like to jig to the beat of Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, or Shania. Your trout may prefer heavy metal, rap, or even the three tenors. Just be sure to sing the tune silently, in your head, if you're fishing with friends.
By the way, this is a good time to reinforce two highly peculiar lake trout traits. First, lakers rarely travel alone, usually swimming in loose aggregations of two, three, or more fish. So expect double and triple headers. That means when your partner catches a fish, move immediately into his hole as soon as he lands the trout. At the very least, move to the nearest vacant hole. If you're fishing alone, on the other hand, and you catch a trout, watch your second line for a strike, and get your lure back into the water as quickly as possible.
Second, lake trout routinely smack a jigged lure and miss the hook. Most anglers assume the trout has missed the lure when, in fact, the fish has brushed against it to see if it's edible. If you pull your lure out of the water to change baits — or to check it — you're missing an opportunity. Most of those missed strikes (which aren't missed strikes at all) can become fish on the ice if you go on point the minute you feel a trout slash.
Tube jigs are phenomenal ice fishing lures for lake trout, in large part because of the downward, spiraling, twisting motion you impart to them when you let them free fall on controlled slack. Smelly white Berkley Power Tubes and slimy smoke-colored Exude tubes are my go-to trout lures. But when the fish are picky and I need to fine-tune the color, I use thick-walled, super-salty, silver, white, and blue-hued Phoenix tubes, spiced with Power Bait or Dr. Juice scent.
Talking about fine-tuning options, slide the head of your jig hooks only about three-quarters of the way inside the lure. That maximizes the death-defying downward oval spiral that makes the tube jig so deadly. On the other hand, if you want a tighter, slightly more subtle fall, push it in all the way.
Sometimes is seems Lake trout are suckers for sound. That's why many times I place a McCoy glass rattle inside a tube jig for added attraction. Strangely, at other times, any amount of added noise is a turn-off. So experiment. I also play around with 1/4-ounce to 5/8-ounce round ball, darter, and mushroom leadheads molded around sticky sharp Gamakatsu hooks to determine which action the trout prefer.
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In the past — before tubes — ice fishing for lake trout meant jigging with spoons. Today, especially when the trout are on a torrid cisco, smelt, or perch bite, spoons can still be your best choice.
But put away the paper thin, flutter-light stuff you troll in summer. Also leave the oposite end of the spectrum at home — the short, squat, heavy, bass-style jigging spoons. I've found the best hard-water trout spoons to be standard 1/2-ounce to 3/4-ounce models like the Mepps Syclops and the famous Williams Whitefish spoon.
The Williams spoon has been a Canadian classic for decades. The coating on this spoon is pure silver — like the Lone Ranger's bullets — and when the trout are mowing down glistening forage, the spoons brilliant flash has the same effect on trout. When lakers are gorging on perch, on the other hand, a copper and chartreuse #2 or #3 Mepps Syclops, for a reason I cannot explain, is in a league of its own.
Most spoon jiggers attach a piece of sucker meat to the trailing treble, but a sucker or chub minnow is a much better option, if you rig it right. I learned this trick thirty years ago from an old-time Grizzly Adams Lake Simcoe trout guide, and it's been a winter secret ever since. You won't believe how many more strikes you'll get and trout you'll fight.
Slip the back treble off the O-ring of a Mepps, Williams, or similar spoon, and then nick the belly of the minnow with one of the hook points. Insert the eye of the treble into the slit and run it out the mouth of the minnow so it's lying cradled in-between two of the three hooks. Then reattach the spoon. Rigged this way, your spoon maintains it's brilliant flash and fluttering action, while the minnow provides added visual attraction, natural scent, taste, and smell. And not a single lake trout in the North Country can pull the minnow off your spoon without getting hooked.
When trout are running ten pounds and smaller in popular waters under pressured conditions and in tough-bite situations, few lures are the equal of the Jigging Rapala. Like the original floating balsa wood model, which not surprisingly is my favorite open-water trolling lure, the jigging Rap looks so natural that no matter how many times a lake trout sees it, it never becomes conditioned to the lure.
I stick pretty much with the two biggest models (the W9 and W11), and I almost always tip the lower treble with either a piece of sucker meat or the ragged cut-off head of a minnow. When the trout are chasing ciscoes and smelt, the chrome blue Jigging Rap is a dead ringer; the perch and glow tiger patterns excel when trout are feasting on perch, which is far more often than you'd ever imagine.
I never tie directly to this lure, favoring instead a premium snap. And I always experiment with jigging actions that range between a constant slow up and down yo-yo motion and a snap, pause, snap. Just remember three things when you're using a Jigging Rap: The lure is still moving enticingly long after you quit jigging and pause, so don't overwork it. And hone the front and rear hooks to razor sharpness when you replace the stock treble with a high-grade hook like the Gamakatsu (try one size larger).
Up, Up, and Away
During the '70s, the hottest winter trout lure was the airplane jig — a heavy lead-head and lead-bodied jig with wings and a bucktail skirt. When you lift one of these up and down, they circle and swim for miles under your hole just as their namesakes. But for some reason, in some places, the airplane's effectiveness has tapered off lately. Like buzzbaits for bass, the trout appear to have become conditioned to them. Or maybe it's just that spoons, Jigging Raps, and tubes have provided such a fresh new alternative. Nevertheless, airplane jigs can be an important arrow in your winter trout quiver.
The best airplane jigs are homemade and fashioned around a single 3/0, 4/0, or 5/0 hook like the Gamakatsu. (They also lack the tiny, flimsy, ineffective trebles on the wings that rarely hook fish and all too often wrap around your main line). I once owned one of these hand-crafted marvels that was nothing short of awesome, a gift from a visiting Minnesota game warden. For almost ten years I could catch trout with it when nothing else worked, and I was once asked seriously how much money it would take for me to part with it. But sadly, that giant lake trout I told you about earlier, broke my line and swam away with "Oscar the Trout Grouch" firmly attached to its lip, and I've mourned its loss ever since.
It's All In The Fall
Nine out of every ten lake trout you catch will hit your bait when it's falling. That's why it's so important to let your tube jigs and spoons descend on a controlled slack line. You must maintain contact, on the other hand, with airplane jigs, and to a lesser degree jigging Rapalas, as if working a yo-yo.
The key with all these lures is to let them spiral naturally, yet to be in control. You have to be able to set the hook immediately. That means you need to be a line watcher. Anytime you see your line dart, flick, or hang suspended in the hole, strike immediately. And the best way to do that isn't by reeling up your line or setting with your rod. It's by doing both simultaneously as you run backward away from the hole.
Trolling Through the Ice
Trolling through the ice often is the most potent jigging motion you can employ. To troll, let your lure free-fall to the bottom under controlled slack. Then jig as though your rod or hand line is a brush and you are ever so slowly painting a low ceiling just above your head. Now, here's where the trolling comes in. While you're jigging this way, back away from your hole, and keep walking backward until your lure is right under the ice.
Sometimes I speed troll by dropping my lure to the bottom and briskly walking backward without jigging at all. I simply keep my rod tip pointed toward the hole, ready to strike, knowing my tube, spoon, Rapala, or airplane jig is spiraling up to the surface like a fleeing baitfish. Other times, I rip-jig while trolling my lure up to the hole.
Expect to catch a trout anytime you're trolling under the ice. You'll be amazed how many times you'll feel a laker pop your bait at the last second, only inches below the ice. And if you troll a jig or spoon up from the bottom and don't feel a strike, walk it back down before starting a new troll. As you do, though, maintain constant control over your lure. And if you feel any loss of weight, run backward and set the hook.
Lake trout live in some of the most pristine, awesome places on earth. And while a mature female produces only a relatively small number of eggs and may spawn only every second year, lake trout can live for 50, 60, even 70 or more years. Also, being a ductless species with the ability to control the amount of air in its swim bladder (the gurgling noise you hear when you land one) a lake trout is releasable in winter, regardless of the depth from which you catch it. In fact, recent research shows virtually one hundred percent survival, in the coldest part of winter, so long as you don't gut-hook the fish.
Unfortunately, even the best lake trout waters are fragile, inhospitable environments that grow trout at rates of less than .25 pounds per surface acre on a sustainable basis. So it's easy to overharvest and destroy a lake trout fishery, sometimes within a single winter.
Take one or two small trout to eat, but release the moderate and larger fish, taking care not to expose their eyes or gills to snow or long periods of subfreezing temperatures. If we all do that — long into the next millennium — we'll continue to enjoy one of the greatest sporting rites of winter.
* Gord Pyzer recently retired as the Kenora District Manager, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. He operates Canadian Angling Adventures (807/468-4898) a personalized guiding service that specializes in ice fishing trips into the northwoods.
When the fishing's real difficult, nothing produces better than a big white marabou jig. Paul Jensen, a professional custom jig tier from Wisconsin replicated my favorite laker fly, the McLeod's Alewife, with a jig. He overtied long, silky white marabou with peacock herl, flashabou, crystal flash, and other ingredients to create the best baitfish imitator I've ever seen in a jig.
When lakers refuse big white tubes in artificial-only lakes, I drop Jensen's marabou creation on them. Marabou is so sinuous, so breathable, that it doesn't have to be worked. When a fish appears on sonar adjacent to the jig, I barely nod the rod tip. Watching through the hole, the marabou rolls and unfurls like an explosion in slow motion. Only rarely does a laker come up for a look at Jensen's creation and leave without biting. Most of the lookers bite, and most of those are hooked solidly.
When they refuse even this, which is rare, I add a strip of sucker belly. A taste of meat makes this the surest thing happening through the ice for lakers. Because the jig is worked slowly up and down, however, the belly strip has a tendency to drape across the hook point and ruin a hookset or two, so I start without it.
Jensen (920/731-5889) ties this marvelous cisco imitator on 1/8-, 1/4-, and 3/8-ounce Owner Ultrahead jigs. He can make them long and bulky for a bigger silhouette or small and subtle for slow days, and that's the trick — being prepared for anything. When ice-bound lakers are biting, 20-pound line and giant jigging spoons work. When the bite dies, 6-pound line and subtle jigs outfish anything heavier. - Matt Straw