The tremendous ice fishing opportunities that exist in Northwest Ontario's Sunset Country have been well documented by In-Fisherman. The region has over 100,000 lakes and stretches from the Manitoba border east to the Thunder Bay region, and is bordered by Minnesota to the south and an endless expanse of wilderness to the north. Perhaps no other region in the North America offers such world-class multispecies opportunities on ice. Much of it is relatively easy to access — much more is not. Certainly, adventure awaits with the option to place holes where they've never been drilled before.
During the open-water season, walleyes are king across Sunset Country, but on hard water, lake trout may well take that title. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has been making trips to Canadian Shield lakes for more than 30 years.
"On most of the waters I've fished in Northwest Ontario, lakers usually chase lures, so we jig aggressively high in the water column to call trout in and trigger them to bite," he says. "Three- and 4-inch tubes on 3/8-ounce jigheads have produced more fish than any other lure. But lots of other things work. And, as is the case with any type of fishing, it sometimes takes some fine tuning on waters that get a bit of winter pressure."
On trout water it's all about figuring out the locational patterns during each week of the winter. At times bluff walls are best; other times most of the fish are using extended points. Softer bottom areas at the mouth of large shallow bays also can hold fish at times; so we experiment with different locational strategies and then focus on the types of locations that offer the most action.
On the best days, when fish are active, the action usually is in the top 25 feet of the water column, especially on big lakes that have large baitfish populations. I catch many big trout on Lake of the Woods no more than 10 feet below the ice. These fish are pushing schools of smelt up against the ice and gorging on them. At times they regurgitate dozens of smelt when they're pulled from the water.
Bait selection often is secondary to location on many days White tubes remain a top producer, while 4- and 5-inch soft jerkbaits continue to gain in popularity. A relatively unknown softbait that has been effective in recent years is the 4-inch Yamamoto Fat Ika in color #031. Rigged on a 3/8-ounce Northland Slurp or Mimic Minnow jig, this softbait has a seductive fall that gets fish to bite. Spoons, swimming jigs, and bucktail jigs continue to produce fish year after year as well.
An extended season allows anglers to fish walleyes until April 15 across Sunset Country. Though fishing can be good all season long, late ice offers the best opportunity for anglers to catch big walleyes on many waters, as the fish move toward spawning areas. It's warmer in March, which makes the ice experience more enjoyable, and, with lots of daylight, there's plenty of time to fish.
We can fish the big lakes like The Woods, Wabigoon, and Lac de Mille Lacs, which get most angler attention and have great fish populations. Then there are hundreds of back-country lakes that anglers can get to with a snowmobile or ATV. Many of these lakes are fly-in only during the open-water season. The action's often hot during late season, with most of the fishing in less than 10 feet of water.
On big water, offshore structures — particularly sunken islands — offer the most consistent bite. Anglers fishing The Woods or Rainy Lake should check the new LakeMaster Version 4 Woods/Rainy map chip, which has previously unmarked structure on these lakes mapped in detail.
On the smaller lakes, walleyes make predictable moves toward small creeks late in the season. Some of them offer great fishing all day long, while others are prime-time lakes, with slow fishing during the day, and an hour of fast action just before dark.
There are no presentation secrets anymore. We fish spoons and jigs tipped with shiner heads; we use swimming jigs like the Northland Puppet Minnow; and we use various jigs tipped with minnows. On big waters I have more success jigging and usually use a tip-up for big pike as my second line. On smaller lakes, 1/8-ounce jigs tipped with a lively minnow often produce, with jigging presentations.
Find crappies in lakes in this region during winter and you may just catch the biggest slabs of your life. The secret to scoring big is to find crappie populations that haven't been beaten up badly by other anglers.
Crappies aren't as widespread as other species, but there are countless places to fish on Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake and in the areas surrounding these lakes. Local bait shops and outfitters can tip you off to some of the hot backwater lakes.
Jamie Bruce is a guide in the Kenora area who is constantly seeking untouched populations of 15- and 16-inch fish. "To find crappies, I look for the presence of good spawning areas and start working my way out deeper. During winter, most of the fish hold in deeper holes, called basins in big bays," he explains. "Fish often spread across soft-bottom flats, so drilling plenty of holes is important to finding those tight schools of fish. One angler drills, while a second follows with a flasher, stopping to drop a line only if you see fish or at least a flicker of fish on the edge of the transducer cone."
I rarely find fish shallower than 18 to 20 feet and as deep as 40 feet. Small, compact lures that get down fast usually are more efficient than finesse baits. I like spoons, swimming jigs, and tungsten jigs tipped with soft plastics. Find unpressured fish and you usually have biting fish.
Many lakes across Sunset Country are stocked with brook trout, rainbows, and splake. Davis Viehbeck lives in Thunder Bay near some of the best stocked lakes in the Region. "You can catch trout all winter long, but the best bite is at first and last ice," he says. "Some lakes are easy to access and others require snow machines. You have a shot at trout that might go 6 pounds."
Ontario permits ice anglers to fish with two lines. "I jig with a small spoon like a 1/6-ounce Luhr Jensen Krocodile or a 1/8-ounce Northland Forage Minnow tipped with a piece of a nightcrawler," he says. "My second line is a deadstick rod, spooled with 6-pound Sufix Elite mono tied to a small jig tipped with a lively minnow."
Think shallow for stocked trout — 2 to 6 feet of water — with weeds or rock bottom and at times brush or timber lay-downs can be hot, as can beaverhut areas.
For a listing of stocked trout lakes across Sunset Country, visit the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Fish ON-Line website. It's a tool for information on lakes across the region: web2.mnr.gov.on.ca/fish_online/fishing/fishingExplorer_en.html
I've guided for pike for almost two decades. In all those years, on ice and on open water, my five top fish of all time have been caught through the ice. Winter is prime for giant fish — all season long, but especially at late ice. One of my biggest was caught while fishing with Fly Fisherman Art Director Jim Pfaff five years ago when he was visiting on a photo assignment. That fish made the cover of the 2010 Ice Fishing Guide.
My guide partner Dave Bennett agrees with me that the best way to catch big fish is to soak a large deadbait below a tip-up. We have so much confidence in this that we usually don't bother to use jigging rods, opting for two tip-ups instead. Anglers in Ontario are allowed to use two lines per person.
Minnesota guide Jeff Andersen introduced us to his Bigtooth Rigs in 2005, and that type of rig is all we've used since. It and the similar Northland Predator Rig have put dozens of big pike on the ice for us. We prefer to fish big dead ciscoes near the bottom. We catch our own ciscoes, and stockpile them throughout the winter in preparation the late-season binge, when pike migrate to shallow weed bays where they spawn shortly after ice out. Set lines across the entrances to shallow bays, just out from the first drop into deeper water.
A long season awaits anglers looking for a multispecies adventure in Sunset Country. There's minimal fishing pressure on most waters. It's beautiful country, too. And the size of the fish makes every lure drop or tip-up set an opportunity for fish worth remembering.
Floats for Muskie, Pike and Catfish