In Northwest Ontario, anglers count down the days in December, not to Christmas, but to the January 1 ice fishing lake trout opener. I live in Kenona, on the north shore of Lake of the Woods, in the heart of some of the best ice fishing for lakers in the world. I’ve guided folks from Michigan, Iowa, and New York who find it the ultimate ice experience to catch this aggressive fish. Nothing under the ice fights harder and at times attacks artificial baits with such abandon. And of course they grow big.
Here are some top tackle tips, locational secrets, and observations about trout tendencies, so, hopefully, you can enjoy better fishing this season.
(1) Clackin’ Trout
Big walleyes have been caught from Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, the past several years, by anglers fishing lipless rattlebaits aggressively to call fish in and trigger them. Lures like the Rapala Clackin’ Rap, plus similar lures from Live Target, Lucky Craft, and Rat-L-Trap all are options, with each lure offering its own unique sound and action.
The Clackin’ Rap is a favorite that calls in lake trout from a distance. By the end of last season it was the first lure out of the rod box on any new spot. Drop it down and rip it up and down a few times and you soon know if any fish are in the vicinity.
More specifically, I jig the Clackin’ Rap in 3- to 5-foot lifts, followed by pauses of about 10 seconds. On big-fish water I use the #8. On numbers-waters I go with the smaller #6. When I see fish coming in on my flasher, I slow down and shake the lure just enough so it pulsates and looks alive and ready to flee.
(2) Stange’s Jig Strokes
Watch an episode of In-Fisherman Ice Fishing Guide TV and In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange and crew are bound to be preaching the need to understand the nature of the fish you’re after. With lake trout it’s important to know how active they can be during winter. Lakers are coldwater fish; so water temperatures under ice are much closer to optimum for them than for fish like walleyes and even pike.
Stange further instructs: “Lakers live in clear water and have exceptional vision. They’re constantly moving, roaming, searching—so anglers can and should use aggressive jigging moves. To first attract them, I use sweeping 2- to 4-foot lift-falls, sometime 2 or 3 at a time without a pause, followed by a pause. But even during the pause, make the lure barely pulse like it’s alive. Just add a barely perceptible jiggle or shake. This often is too much for most species, but not for lakers.”
Stange: “Bringing the trout in is first visual, but it quickly also becomes a matter of feeling once fish get close to the lure. Fish feel pulsations with their lateral lines. Big fish have long lateral lines so it’s important that the bait both looks good and feels good as a fish moves in and makes a final decision on whether or not to bite.”
In the end, we’re playing the game of getting the fish to bite as we watch our electronics, getting information about how the fish is reacting to our presentation approach. According to Stange, begin with the fundamental jigging moves, but be willing to experiment. It’s always a little like you’re playing keep-away with these magnificent predators, more so than with most other fish.
(3) Keszler’s Shallow Secret: Ice Fishing Lake Trout
Lake trout are notorious for roaming just about anywhere in the water column—they spend most of their time suspended. It surprises many, but Winnipeg, Manitoba, angler Alex Keszler and his crew catch most of their fish 4 to 10 feet under the ice, particularly in lakes that have smelt and ciscoes. Keszler: “The preyfish are feeding on microscopic particles falling from the bottom of the ice. We catch trout that regurgitate gobs of smelt minnows from 1.5 to 2.5 inches long. It’s the high-riding fish in particular that are eating this kind of bait. Lakers are pushing schools of smelt up against the ice and gorging on them.
“Small baits match the hatch. We use Northland Puppet Minnows and #7 Jigging Shad Raps and don’t tip these lures.”
(4) Deadly Dropper Rigging
Dropper rigs often are used by anglers targeting perch, crappies, and whitefish; but rarely are they used by lake trout anglers. During a 4-day guide trip last season we were getting an unusual number of rejections from trout looking at traditional tubes and Airplane Jigs. So one of my clients tied up a dropper rig as a means to get a downsized bait into deeper water and to get fish to come in to consider smaller-than-average lures. The immediate result was a 15-pound laker. For the rest of the season I had dropper rigging on one of my rods at all times.
My basic rig consists of 10-pound Power Pro Ice main line tied to a 3/4-ounce Northland Macho Minnow spoon with the treble hook removed. Below the spoon I add 6 inches of Sufix fluorocarbon leader to a 1/4-ounce Mimic Minnow Jig tipped with a plastic minnow reduced at the head end by about half an inch.
(5) Bro’s Sonar Savvy
Ice fishing expert Brian Brosdahl (Bro) relies heavily on his Humminbird Ice 55 flasher to take more trout. “Most trout anglers use the narrowest beam possible because it gives them a crisper view of their presentation, plus the presence of baitfish and lake trout in deep water. In deep water, the traditional 19-degree cone at times displays too much clutter when the gain is turned up high enough to see things well in deep water. If you have the option, flip back and forth between the narrow and wide-angle beams on your unit to see which mode gives the best view. Fishing in a group, the narrow beam also reduces the interference from other sonar units.
“I monitor my flasher constantly for the presence of smelt, ciscoes, and shiners. The trout most often show up at about the same depth as the baitfish. With the Ice 55 you can move the zoom anywhere in the water column; so if the bait or trout are at a specific zone, say 20 off bottom, I focus on that area. You also get better target definition in zoom mode. But you must keep checking the full column, because bait depth often changes.”
(6) Overlooked Lakers
Most anglers, deciding where to drill holes, look first to main-lake points, humps, bluff walls, or saddle areas. Many times these are top-notch options for lakers.
One of the most overlooked spots is the mouth of shallow weedy bays connected to traditional deep spots. Jess Swenson from Sioux Narrows, Ontario, has spent countless hours fishing these kinds of spots on the Whitefish Bay area of Lake of the Woods. The water at the mouth of these spots often runs from 25 down to as much as 50 feet. The main forage here is perch moving in and out of the shallow bay. Many bodies of water across the lake trout range display the same or similar patterns.
(7) The Double-Holer
Trout fight harder than any other fish in the ice belt. Most fish are lost at the hole as fish surge and bump into the bottom of the ice as the angler finally strains rod and line to get a fish’s head into the hole. On big-fish water, drilling a double hole—two holes drilled side-by-side to create one longer hole—helps to land more fish, especially if you’re cutting 8-inch holes. Most trout anglers run with augers that cut at least a 9-inch hole.
Drilling double holes also allows more successful sight-fishing from a portable shelter like my Frabill Predator. With all the light blocked out I can see down to 30 feet in some waters.
Sight-fishing for lakers is one of the hottest things happening on ice. Trout often swim circles around your lure just before they strike—and there’s the rush that goes with changing up jigging tactics to get a reluctant fish to finally commit. It’s the large-screen version of everything we’re trying to accomplish watching our sonar.
Lake trout are a slow-growing fish that can get very old; so catch-and-release must be the rule for bigger fish, in order to insure continued fine fishing. We harvest selectively, only occasionally keeping a 3- or 4-pound fish for a fine dinner. Most of the other fish we fish for are so much more plentiful, making them a better option for a fish fry. We also usually reserve these special fish for more exceptional recipes than just deep frying.
Remote areas usually produce the best fishing, for numbers and size, so we travel by ATV during early season when there isn’t much snow—and by snowmobile most of the rest of the year. The country these fish live in is incredible, indeed. It must be, because the In-Fisherman staff keep coming back to visit us in Kenora. In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer also calls this his home base and works closely with the In-Fisherman staff on the Ice Fishing Guide show. The Kenora Super 8 has also sponsored Ice Fishing Guide television the past two years. Maybe we’ll see you this year? Wherever you go in pursuit of lake trout, good fishing to you.
*Jeff Gustafson (gussyoutdoors.com) is a freelance writer, guide, and promotional angler from Kenora, Ontario.