January 23, 2022
When ice season hits in the North, the options for different species to pursue are endless. From panfish to crappies, or walleyes to lake trout, you can choose to target your favorite species of fish without traveling too far. Obviously, those species are a fun target, but other species should not be forgotten.
There are other species with trophy possibilities that also fare well on the table, and for pro bass angler and Canadian resident Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson, he enjoys both. He has plenty of experience targeting a variety of species though the ice in Ontario and shares three of his favorite species that often get overlooked.
Burbot (eelpout) are popular in some places and are not often caught during open water seasons. Throughout the ice belt however, the eel-looking critters can be caught, but are not often easy to catch. During prespawn periods, late February into March, they become more aggressive and offer anglers a truly fun battle. Gussy looks for areas where burbot group up on rocky shoals during the latter part of the winter when they become active.
“We catch them on spoons, with shiners gobbed on the hook. I like a heavy spoon that I can crash into the bottom to stir up the mud - I think this helps to attract fish,” he said. “I jig my Northland 3/4-ounce Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon in an aggressive manner and make some noise with it. The bites are fun.”
Burbot are typically nighttime feeders and use their excellent sense of smell to detect bait. He will almost always tip his bait with some sort of “meat,” usually a minnow. With a combination of electronics, the Canadian angler can quickly see if there are fish around and keep moving until he finds fish willing to bite.
“Electronics are critical to finding and catching fish, and it's typically a Humminbird Ice 55 Flasher. With the new Mega-Live, before I even move to another hole, I can determine where the fish are or how the baitfish are positioned. I can also easily identify structure that I know burbot prefer.”
In addition to the Humminbird electronics, another tool is the Aqua-Vu underwater camera. Focusing on flats just off the rock piles or structure, he is able to dial in exactly where burbot congregate and focus on getting bites much quicker.
While whitefish often serve as forage for other game fish, in lakes with deeper water, once they get big enough to avoid being prey, them become an aggressive cold-water fish. Gustafson enjoys targeting the whitefish for both its aggressive nature and tasty, white fillets.
Typically found on deeper mud flats, they will feed on smaller invertebrates on the bottom as well as other minnows, perch fry and smelt when available. By examining the stomach contents while cleaning fish, he becomes better prepared to target whitefish when the opportunity is there.
“Whitefish are opportunistic feeders, but anglers should understand that they have a small, downturned mouth, so smaller baits are ideal for actually hooking fish. For me, a dropper rig consisting of a spoon with a small jig or fly tied a few inches beneath it is a top bait option. I’ll use a Buck-Shot Spoon for additional sound, and they will usually come and check things out when your bait is down there. A small spoon tipped with a minnow head will catch fish as well.”
Deeper mud flats are his primary go to when searching for this species, and deep water in this case means 40 to 50 feet. Areas where shallower flats are adjacent to sharp ledges are also another scenario on occasion. Similar to burbot, electronics are a must for whitefish as they are notorious for showing up wherever in the water column.
“I am constantly moving my bait around at different depths from the bottom to just below the ice. Humminbird’s Mega-Live sonar in this case is huge as you can see fish coming at different depths and present your bait exactly where the fish are.”
Pike may not be as forgotten about or less popular to some, but a fish typically targeted with a tip-up rig sometimes gets less thought, especially amongst hardcore ice anglers. Living in northwest Ontario, Gussy doesn’t forget about them and has the regular opportunity at true trophy-class fish through the ice. Admittingly, spending more time targeting other species, he will often times utilize tip-ups simultaneously while using his electronics to target other species.
“I learned a long time ago that big pike share many of the same locations as walleyes, especially later in the season. Both species spawn immediately following ice out so you can expect to find trophy walleyes and pike staging in similar locations just out from spawning areas for that last month of the ice season.”
Where do trophy pike live? When it comes to locating and angling the giant toothy critters, he likes to set baits down to 12 to 20 foot in most cases and prefers a quick-strike rig beneath a tip-up. Hanging a big dead cisco, herring or sucker a foot off the bottom is a deadly, proven technique for maximum success.
“It's a pretty straight-forward system, drill a bunch of holes in the last deep water before the shallow bays start, set some flags and get ready to catch a big fish. Twelve to 20 feet is the main range but the later we get into the season, the fish start to push shallower into the bays.”
Most of the time, the Northland Predator Rig gets the nod on a tip-up and it keeps the cisco in a natural horizontal position. For anyone interested, it is not terribly hard to make your own. Gussy uses 100-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon with a Gamakatsu MH G-Finesse Hook. With big pike, the hooks find the corner of the mouth right away – right where you want to hook them.
“A lot of people ask when the best time to set the hook is, and for me, I like to let them run for 10 seconds. If they are still swimming, I just tighten the line and let them hook themselves. If they do stop, a big sweeping hookset will do the trick.”
As previously mentioned, walleyes and pike can often be found close by. Even when he is fishing for walleyes, he will spread out a few tip-ups for the off chance there are pike willing to bite. The point is not to catch a lot of fish, but the ones during the mid-winter period will usually be trophy size.