For most anglers, whitefish are savored only in fancy restaurants. Their flesh rivals the walleye’s—smoked whitefish is to die for, and sautéed whitefish livers are delicacies. But how about actually ice fishing for whitefish with a rod, reel, and lure? Some anglers may believe whitefish are phantoms, ghostly apparitions you catch by accident, if you’re lucky.
But there’s no luck involved if you understand the fish, drill holes in the right locations, and use the correct presentations. Then, icing ten to even a hundred or more whitefish a day, averaging 5 to 10 pounds—with 12- to 15-pound fish a possibility—is the rule rather than the exception. One of the biggest whitefish on record is a 42-pound goliath hauled from the icy waters of Lake Superior off Minnesota’s Isle Royale.
Fish of the Flats
The best way to think about whitefish is to think about lake trout. They share many of the same deep, clear, cold, oxygen-rich waters—although whities are less demanding and more plentiful. Whitefish and lake trout also frequent many of the same structures, but the fish position themselves differently. Whitefish don’t wander around as much as trout; so when you find a school, you can often sit on them.
And they’re not as edge- or slope-oriented. Indeed, whitefish relate to flats, whether the top of a shoal or the bottom of the lake adjacent to structure.
To better appreciate why whities are fish of the flats, you need look no further than the fish’s unique overslung snout. Like hogs hunting for mushrooms, whitefish use their mouths to root in the mud and moss on the bottom and suck up insect larvae, aquatic worms, and crustaceans. But they also eat small fish—shiners, ciscoes, sculpins, and the like.
Because of this burrowing nature, whitefish have keen senses of smell and taste, and they also have eagle-sharp eyes: Two factors you can exploit in the clear waters they inhabit.
One final location detail. The 40- to 60-foot depth range is often magical, although in very deep lakes—such as Lake Superior and Lake Huron—you often can add another 10 to 20 feet. In shallower lakes subtract the same amount.
Having selected a likely flat on which to ambush them, the first order of business is to determine whether the fish are hanging tight to the bottom or floating above it. A sonar unit like the Lowrance Ice Machine is crucial. Switch it to manual, punch in the upper and lower depths, and zoom in four times so that you highlight only the bottom 15 to 20 feet on the screen.
I keep at least five ice rods—32-inch medium-heavy Frabill Amplifiers and 30-inch Berkley Lightning rods, using Shimano Symetre 2000 reels spooled with 10-pound test FireLine, onto which I’ve attached an 18-inch Vanish fluorocarbon leader—stuffed into my pail at all times. Two rods are rigged with black-back, silver-sided Jigging Shad Raps and Jiggin’ Raps. Two more sport the famous Williams Ice Spoon—one silver and the other Half & Half Nu-Wrinkle—and I always tip the treble with the head of a shiner. I rig the final rod with a special nose-heavy whitefish jig known as a Badd Boyz, and tip it with a white 2-inch Berkley Power Grub. There is not a whitefish alive that won’t hit at least one of these lures.
Now, the paradox. While whitefish are a bottom-oriented species, with a snout designed for scooping up food from the bottom, I never start fishing there. They clobber a bright lure jigged as much as 10 feet off the bottom, as though fed up sifting for tiny mayfly and caddisfly larvae, and can’t resist a big shiner or ciscoe.
A whitefish can so annihilate your lure that, when you land it, every hook is deeply embedded in its mouth—no mean feat for a fish with such a small oral cavity. Start with your rod tip pointed down toward the hole, lift it up slowly, pause, then let your lure fall under controlled slack. Pause for a second or two and gently shake it. Pause again and then repeat the procedure. You’ll either see a whitefish streak from nowhere and attack your lure as you lift it, or you’ll spot a missile intercepting the bait as it falls. Regardless, set the hook when you feel the fish, and hang on for the ride.
During times when you can’t tempt whities to float like butterflies and sting like bees, lower your lures to the bottom. Lay them on the mud so that when you lift them up and let them fall, you stir up silt and create a mini-maelstrom. This simulates a school of whitefish sucking up mud and spitting it out, and is a real turn-on. Just like smallmouth bass mud-trailing a hooked fish, hoping to steal a meal, whities scoot into the cloud to pilfer a prize. Awesome!