March 12, 2019
Pre-baiting an ice-fishing spot to attract walleyes, sauger, lake trout, pike, yellow perch, and whitefish, and chumming your hole while you’re fishing, may be the most overlooked facet of the sport. It is akin to setting up a tree stand or ground blind next to a food plot or bait station when you hunt for bear or deer. Where it’s legal, it can be effective.
As a kid growing up ice fishing on southern Ontario’s famous Lake Simcoe, it was standard to place half a bushel of salted shiners on the bottom of the lake beneath your permanent shanty when you first put it out in the winter, and then to refresh it every outing with an apple juice can full of salties.
The bait attracted whitefish, the intended target, as well as bonus herring, lake trout, and burbot. So much so, that when you cleaned your catch at the end of the day, you’d often recover as many or more minnows than you originally put down.
It was clear that the whitefish were making the rounds, foraging back and forth between clusters of huts like college students on a pub crawl, this back in the days when more than 6,000 permanent shelters dotted the big lake’s surface. At the end of the season, as ice anglers removed their huts from the lake, ceased baiting, and the stations dried up, if you were one of the last few folks to remain chumming, you enjoyed a field day.
So many ice anglers were netting emerald shiners to salt down and use as chum that the massive shiner stocks were being depleted, causing the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to impose a possession limit of 120 minnows per angler. The move coincided with the shift away from permanent ice shelters to portable pop-up and hub-style huts. As a result, anglers began going to the fish rather than waiting for the fish to come to them. Nevertheless, the lesson was clear—you can attract fish to your hole.
Lake Trout Chum Piles
“Ice fishing for lake trout has always been my love,” says Rick Sphiruk, who spends a lot of time on the ice of Lake Athapapkasow and Clearwater Lake near Flin Flon, Manitoba. “Some days are slow and tedious,” he says. “You debate whether to sit longer and test your patience or move to another location.
“We solve the problem by chumming with cutbait. The chum fills the water column with scent, provides visual targets, and pulls in big fish. Trout see the shiny pieces of skin and scales peeling off the slabs. We even chum when we’re ice fishing for walleyes on Lake Winnipeg.”
Like a die-hard muskie angler who views everything else as bait, Sphiruk is an unabashed lake trout aficionado. So he complains about not being able to pre-bait effectively for trout on lakes with abundant whitefish and burbot populations because they gobble up the chum as fast as he can put it down the hole.
He also says that many of the best underwater points, drop-offs, and reefs on heavily structured trout waters are known by local anglers, so if he pre-baits a spot and someone beats him to it, they take advantage of his efforts. “If I’m ice fishing out of a permanent shack rather than a portable shelter, then pre-baiting helps,” he says. “If we’re fishing for three or four days, the chumming the first day adds to the next. The bait may get eaten, but trout are drawn to the area and don’t seem to wander far away.
“On lakes like Clearwater, on the other hand, with fewer whitefish and no burbot, pre-baiting is a necessity. The best strategy is to come out to the shack or the area where you’re going to fish on Thursday and Friday and drop down an ice-cream pail of chum. Then, fish the chum piles on the weekend.”
The same pre-baiting strategy works on flat, featureless lake-trout lakes that lack rocky, fish-attracting structures. Sphiruk says the trout frequent the flats. ”It’s the chum pile under your shack that determines the number of trout you draw in,” he says. “You need different strategies for different lakes. The only thing that remains consistent is the need to chum.”
Keep your hands free of all other scents when you’re chumming, says Rick Sphiruk, who enjoyed a three-day, 65-trout episode last December. Sunscreen, hand lotion, auger gas, and oil don’t mix well with cutbaits. When he fishes with friends, one person is designated to cut and chum for the group.
Chum While You Fish
Regardless of whether he has pre-baited a spot, Sphiruk, who expects to catch 6 to 10 trout every outing, is emphatic about the need to constantly chum while you fish. He and his partners drop three pieces of cutbait down every hole in the ice every 30 minutes. He says it’s common to see trout show up on the sonar screen and start getting bites within five minutes of baiting.
“We net suckers in the spring,” he says. His biggest lake trout through the ice measured 45 inches and weighed over 30 pounds. “Not sucker minnows, but adult-size suckers. They are plentiful and cheap, so it’s easy to get lots of chum. We cut the filets into bite size pieces, keeping on the skin and scales, and then freeze them in Ziploc bags.”
He says tullibees and whitefish, which are native to the lakes that he ice fishes, don’t work as well. “We occasionally catch a whitefish while we’re jigging for trout and cut it up immediately, thinking that fresher is better,” he says.” But it never works as well as sucker. Guys set deadbaits on quick-strike rigs using small tullibees and catch big trout. Not numbers, but bigger ones. For that reason we set quick-strike-rigged tullibees in our second holes for bigger trout.”
It’s important when you’re pre-baiting a spot in deep water to place the bait directly beneath your hole. If you just drop it in the water, lake currents often carry it a considerable distance away. The best tactic I’ve found is to cut off one end of a large juice can. Then punch a small hole through the center of the other end. Tie a small knot at the end of a length of strong string or braided fishing line and thread it through the hole. Fill the can with salted minnows or cutbait, cover the open end with a sheet of newspaper, seal it tightly with an elastic band, and lower the container until it is 5 to 10 feet off the bottom. Let the newspaper soak for a minute or two and then tug on the string until you feel the soggy newspaper open up and spread the bait below you.
While you generally can’t go wrong pre-baiting and chumming with suckers, Sphiruk says that many times during the winter, lake trout show a preference for frozen shiners. “When trout tell you they want minnows, give them minnows. We always bring along a variety of baits and chum with suckers, even when it’s a minnow bite. However, when it’s predominantly a minnow bite, I cut 5 to 10 minnows into thirds and let them flutter down the hole when the action slows. It’s deadly.
“We catch a lot of suspended trout during these bites. Watch your sonar screen and you see trout swimming up and the chum disappearing. One day last year we started dropping down minnow pieces and saw the arm of the transducer suddenly bouncing up and down. It was a lake trout bumping the transducer as it gobbled up the pieces right below the hole. I cranked up quickly and the trout smashed my jig.”
Sphiruk jigs a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce white, white/green, or white/blue leadhead dressed with a strip of sucker meat, presenting it in a subtle, near-deadstick fashion, keeping it within inches of the bottom and occasionally dropping it into the mud to create a cloud of silt. “It looks like a darting minnow or feeding trout,” he says. “If you watch the fish on an underwater camera, you see them rooting around. That’s why putting chum on the bottom works so well.
“Some anglers mistake a bump for a bite,” he says. “Trout often swipe your lure with their mouths closed. Imagine what they want and how to emulate it. Should I deadstick it, twitch it, bring it up slowly, drop it to bottom, make a dust cloud?”
Hand-Feeding Walleyes and Perch
Matt Benson’s video of he and his fellow guides hand-feeding walleyes off the end of the dock at Boois Wilderness Lodge on Northwestern Ontario’s Trout Lake went viral on YouTube. Each day, Benson and his colleagues would clean their guests’ catches and toss the fish bits to the walleyes hanging off the end of the dock. Because they did it so frequently, like clockwork each day, hordes of giant walleyes were conditioned to wait for the boats to arrive.
You can do the same thing in the winter. Last year for the first time in many seasons, I spent a lot of time ice fishing for walleyes and yellow perch from a permanent shelter. And like, Sphiruk, I chummed holes with minnow bits, typically the body and tail sections of the emerald and spottail shiners that I had clipped the heads off to tip my Jigging Raps and spoons.
After each outing, I checked the stomachs of any walleyes or perch we kept for dinner and invariably they were stuffed with the bodies and tails. It was so intriguing that I used different colors of food dyes, red on Monday, green on Tuesday, and yellow on Wednesday, so I could determine if the fish were eating the minnow pieces as I was dropping them down, or picking them off the bottom from previous outings.
I discovered they devoured both, but the daily pieces were usually eaten as soon as I dropped them down, leaving scant remains for any tardy fish.
This year, at the end of each session, I intend to chum with all of my leftover salted minnows to see if I can keep the schools in the neighborhood and attract even more. I have no doubt what the verdict will be.
*Gord Pyzer, Kenora, Ontario, is an In-Fisherman Field Editor. He is a former Ontario natural-resource manager and frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.