The In-Fisherman formula—Fish + Location + Presentation=Success—is the most fish-savvy concept ever developed, because the prescription provides an unbeatable blueprint for catching fish, regardless of the season or geographic location. In the end, it forces us to pay equal attention to the characteristics of the fish, to their location, and to finally finding the best lure or bait presentation. Of those three factors, knowledge of the fish is the most neglected.
A careful look at a lake whitefish tells you just about everything you need to know about it, including where best to locate it and catch it.
The soft, toothless, sturgeon-like overslung snout suggests that most whitefish spend most of their time rooting along the bottom, sucking up copious insect larvae, crustaceans, and small bottom-dwelling minnows, filtering out the debris and swallowing the protein.
The big oval eyes, silvery-gold scales, and wide powerful tail suggest this is a gregarious pack animal of the open-water basin—a mobile schooling fish that uses its keen eyesight and extraordinary sense of smell to gang up with other whitefish rather than skulking alone in the shadows behind rocks and boulders, or in the weeds, waiting to ambush a meal.
This inspection puts you well ahead of the rest of the ice crowd and opens the door to an amazing frozen-water opportunity. Whitefish are one of the most abundant, accessible, and aggressive winter sportfish. They’re hard fighting, gourmet table fare, too. The opportunity for incredible winter fishing is worth connecting the dots leading to fishing success.
Wil Wegman is an angling educator who specializes in fishing for whitefish in southern Ontario’s famous Lake Simcoe, arguably the finest recreational whitefish water on earth. “If I had to pick a depth range to start ice fishing for whitefish,” he says, “it would be between 70 and 80 feet deep. Add another 10 feet to that if the lake is gin clear and has zebra mussels. I also look for bottom composition changes—slight transitions from hard clay to soft mud or from gravel to marl.”
Whitefish Traditional & Beyond
In my younger years, Simcoe was my “home lake” and I kept a permanent ice hut on the immense fishery located only an hour’s drive north of Toronto. In those days 8,000 or more permanent commercial and private ice huts dotted the surface and everyone chummed for whitefish by placing huge quantities of salted emerald shiners below their shacks.
The standard routine was to initially spread half a bushel of salted shiners on the bottom of the lake beneath your shelter as soon as you hauled out your hut. Then you augmented the food supply with a gallon of “salties” every trip out. Most winters it didn’t take the whitefish long to find the free food and put your restaurant high on the list of frequently visited places.
Even better, at the end of the season, if you were one of the last anglers continuing to chum, even after you had removed your hut, you could count on attracting hordes of whitefish as the rest of the soup kitchens dried up and closed their doors.
Not surprisingly, Simcoe’s shiner population took a beating back then and new baitfish rules were implemented regulating the number of salted minnows anglers could have on hand. As a result, barley, sago, macaroni elbows, and spaghetti have been adopted as alternative chumming baits. Today, each food item has its following of aficionados.
Wegman is not among them. Like many top ice anglers, he trades the comforts of a permanent ice shack for the mobility afforded by a portable popup shelter. By going to the whitefish, instead of waiting for them to come to him, he says his success rate has soared.
“You catch the majority of whitefish within 2 to 3 feet of bottom,” he says. He was, by the way, third at the Canadian Ice Fishing Championships held on Simcoe. “That’s why laying a double spreader rig on the bottom, baited with live wriggling emerald shiners hooked through the tail, has historically worked so well for anglers in the permanent shacks. But whitefish in the 5- to 10-pound range don’t get that size scrounging around the bottom, eating only crustaceans. They’ve evolved to look up. Just because whitefish associate strongly with the bottom doesn’t mean they won’t come flying up when they see something good to eat.”
So Wegman runs-and-guns across Simcoe’s mammoth basin, drilling holes over waypoints he has marked on his GPS. The marks pinpoint subtle changes in the bottom composition. As he searches his eyes are fixed on his sonar screen. His “go-to” lures include standards like the Williams Ice spoon and HT Chatter spoon, but they also include specialty baits like the Blue Fox Lil’Foxee Jigging Minnow (Wegman helped design that one), plus local favorites like the Shoal Digger and Bad Boyz.
“When I’m jigging the Williams Ice Spoon,” he says, “I usually remove the side hooks and replace the main treble with a red Gamakatsu hook that’s one size bigger. Sometimes I tip the treble with a shiner head, but mostly I fish the spoon plain. With the Lil’Foxee Minnow, I dress it with a green-and-chartreuse or white-and-green micro-size plastic tube.”
He uses a fast-tipped, HT Polar Lite ice rod teamed with an HT Accucast reel spooled with 6- or 8-pound test Sufix fluorocarbon line. He says the lack of line stretch and reduced visibility increase the number of strikes he gets in Simcoe’s clear water. Fine line is even more important on the weekend when thousands of other ice anglers pepper the popular whitefish grounds.
Indeed, when Wegman spots whitefish on his sonar screen or watches them on an underwater camera but fails to get them to bite, he digs out his perch gear (he won the Perch Trap Attack on Simcoe) and lays a lickin’ on them using a small football head jig stuffed inside a tiny crappie size tube tied to the end of 2-pound test Sufix fluorocarbon.
“It is a killer presentation when you’re contending with heavy weekend fishing pressure,” he says, “or after a front passes and you find a pod of whitefish ignoring everything else. Using the football jig lets you pack a ton of weight inside a very small package.”
Knowing the best lures to use is only half the presentation battle. Stirring up the bottom is the other key ingredient. Wegman: “When I’m jigging the Williams Ice Spoon or the HT Chatter spoon, I keep them a foot or two off bottom, but every once in a while I open the bail and let them fall into the mud and marl.
“When I jig the Lil’Foxee, on the other hand, I try to lift just the head of the lure off bottom, with hook still on bottom. It’s easy to do given the unique position of the line tie. By jigging the lure ever so subtly, you can make it nod its head so it looks like its pecking in the mud.”
Wegman suggests that stirring up the bottom imitates the look of feeding whitefish. A school of 20, 30, 40 or more whities typically fan out across a patch of basin bottom like a flock of barnyard chickens, scratching out insect larvae and crustaceans, including crayfish.
When they’re rooting around for dinner this way, the fish poke their snouts into the soft sediments, stir up the silt and create billows of mud and clay. The puffy clouds attract and trigger other whitefish to race into the melee and steal any tasty morsels of food that a buddy unearths. It’s the last ingredient in a winning formula for winter whitefish—success that starts with a thorough understanding of the fish itself.
Welcome to the party. As I mentioned earlier, whitefish are aggressive, often grow large, fight hard, and are superior on the table. Catching whitefish, what more could the winter angler ask for?