September 01, 2011
By Tom Gruenwald
Natives called Lake Superior The Gitche Gumee — The Big Water. Ice anglers call it Opportunity — Monster lake trout. Brown trout. Plus splake, brook trout, rainbow trout, and even salmon. Whether you're fishing Lake Superior or one of the other Great Lakes, straightforward strategies can produce incredible fishing. This is an overview of the opportunities, as opposed to a tutorial on targeting any one species.
The fishing falls into two categories: The deepwater fishery for lake trout, and the shallower fishery for the other species. Sixty feet is the approximate dividing line between the two fisheries.
Most of the shallower opportunities are within bays connected to big water. Most bays have a deep trough or troughs extending into the bay from the main lake. The banks at the side of a trough are the focal point for fish activity in a bay. Warm-water species like walleyes, pike, smallmouths, and perch use the shallower flats, sometimes sliding into deeper water. Lake trout sometimes filter in from the main lake. Browns, brook trout, and splake relate to the mid-depth portions of the banks, typically holding in from 20 to 40 feet of water. Steelhead are mostly suspended and scattered, and at times move into very shallow bays and harbor areas — sometimes into incoming rivers.
Banks often run for miles on the Great Lakes. As you follow the edge of a bank, look for rocks or anything else that makes a portion of the bank different from the rest of the bank. The fish move up and down the banks in their search for forage such as smelt, ciscoes, and alewives. Out deeper in portions of the main lake, lake trout at times relate to deep points and shoals. Deep saddles or narrows between features are classic producers, too.
All these fish suspend at times, but browns, brookies, and splake usually are caught within 5 feet of the bottom. Be open-minded in your search, learning as you go which lake areas and features hold the various species during different yearly periods. It isn't hard to get basic information from Internet searches.
On the ice, light conditions and snow cover play a role. Shadows are minimized along shaded shorelines and features covered by snow. At times, that's all it takes to congregate fish.
Timing is important. "No surprise, first ice and late ice are best for big fish," Jim Hudson of Lake Superior's On-The-Spot Guide Service says. "At first ice, irregular contour turns along points, reefs, and shoals that aren't heavily pressured are best. At late ice try structural elements near in-flowing currents. Water clarity edges where incoming, turbid water meets clear lake water provide seams trout like."
Current influences fish location throughout the season on big waters. Trout become active during periods of flow, often positioning on structure facing current near secondary features, shifting and moving as currents change direction and speed.
Where multiple lines are allowed, we set tip-ups and jig, especially along contours with prevailing currents. A common tactic when fishing for browns and splake is to "cut a bank," spreading sets and anglers at various positions from 20 down to 40 feet. The anglers move down the bank in their search for fish, also looking for a depth preference to develop.
High-profile tip-ups like the HT Arctic Bay Polar are easily visible, even at a distance or in deep snow. When using low-profile Polars, telescopic tip-up markers increase visibility.
For tip-ups, I spool with 30-pound Dacron tip-up line, using a ball bearing swivel at the terminal end and adding 18 to 36 inches of 6-pound fluorocarbon leader. The hook is a #8 or a #10 treble — the bait typically a 2- to 3-inch emerald shiner. Bulk up for lakers with classic lures including spoons, bucktail jigs, and tube jigs. "And don't overlook deadbait," Hudson says. "A dead smelt on a quick-strike rig set on bottom can be deadly on all the trout at times."
I usually add a small spinner or brightly colored bead or beads above the hook for attraction. Use enough split shot to hold your bait at the desired depth. In heavy current, slip-rigged bottom systems work. "Limit movement near your tip-ups to minimize spooking," Hudson says, "but stay close, because trout are notorious for striking and quickly rejecting." In some situations, consider the instant set rigs covered in the other trout article in this issue, by Steve Ryan.
For jigging, I like the longer medium-action rods in HT's Sapphire Ice lineup. They range from 31 inches to 48 inches. The deeper the water the longer the rod should be to provide a sweeping hook set. Reels need a smooth drag for trout, which are some of the hardest fighting fish ice angler encounter. I use with 6- or 8-pound mono for mainline and add a ball-bearing swivel about 24 inches above the lure to reduce line twist. Below the swivel is a section of 10- or 12-pound fluorocarbon.
For fishing deep on Lake Superior, professional angler and TV personality Butch Furtman prefers a nonstretch braid. "Super-strong, thin-diameter braids like 20-pound Power Pro or Sufix 832, coupled with 12- or 15-pound fluorocarbon leader get a lure deep quickly and lets you feel what's happening. You set hooks effectively, too," he says. "Strong lake currents also demand smaller-diameter lines and heavier presentations. The deeper you fish, the greater the effect."
Popular lures include spoons from the Northland lineup, the Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple, and the Jig-A-Whopper's Hawger and Lazer Rockers. Some of my favorite colors are combinations of white, chartreuse, and gold or silver. Swimming jigs like the HT First Strike Minnow, various soft swimbaits, and larger tube jigs are good, too.
"When the weather or fishing pressure makes trout finicky, fish with smaller lures," Hudson says. "For browns and splake I use spoons weighing 1/8-ounce. For lake trout I might drop down to a ¼-ounce lure, depending on how deep the fish are. A light lure won't work in some of our currents. Just consider the situation.
"Another option is a dropper hook tipped with a minnow head or heads several inches below the lure," he says. "A mono snell with a small treble hook also makes a great stinger. Tip with a minnow or a minnow head or try one of the Berkley Gulp! options like their Minnow Head."
Furthman also uses strips of belly meat from smelt, perch, herring, or whitefish on jigheads. "I'm old school," he says. "It's an inexpensive and effective way to fish. I keep a light rod rigged with a #2 or #3 Jigging Rapala ready when I see baitfish come through. Tip the Rapala with a grub or two and you can catch fresh bait."
Over all, be mobile until you get on fish. If you aren't catching, keep moving and try different areas. Work as many holes as you can in a day. Stay just long enough to call fish that are within range. The goal is living up to the old adage, big water, big fish.
Gordon Lightfoot's ballad Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald echoes through many a mind when the subject is the giant waters of the Great Lakes. Powerful gales propel currents that position fish. But those currents also weaken ice, create ice floes, and drive blinding whiteouts. If you plan on venturing far, speak with someone who's been on the ice in the area — or fish with a guide until you know ice conditions. Butch Furtman trailers a small boat on runners behind his snow machine. "The boat's great for hauling gear, and insurance in the event I end up on an ice flow," he says.
Cutting A Bank
Many Great Lakes bays have a deep trough entering the bay. The banks at either side of the trough are used by browns and splake and at times lake trout. Browns and splake tend use water from about 20 to 40 feet deep, but will be shallower or deeper at times. Cutting a bank is one tactic for finding fish. A group of anglers sets up at various depths and moves down the bank in a search for fish.
More Big Waters — Western Trout
Deep, wind-exposed western waters don't always freeze, but when they do, winter trout action can be phenomenal. "We have excellent mixed-bag opportunities for rainbows, cutthroats, splake, and lake trout," Jim Gunderson of Utah's Fish Tech Outfitters says. "Some waters, such as Utah's Fish Lake, are deep, natural, high-elevation lakes supporting strong trout populations, but little structure. Others, like Bear Lake or Flaming Gorge, are expansive and feature an abundance of structure. Either way, the fish often scatter.
"Be prepared to search," he says. "Try classic humps, points, and the outer edges of deep weeds, but don't ignore open water. Trout often suspended 20 to 40 feet down over deep holes. You can't wait for fish to find you, even if you're on a classic-looking spot. They may never get there."
"Suspended fish often are most active, so work them first, beginning with an aggressive, snapping, and ripping motion. If a fish is interested, stop the lure just above it after jigging it up and letting it fall, then slowly move the bait up away from them. If you're not getting any response or if fish spook, try something else — slow everything down. Pause longer.