Luck of the Irish, they say, and I believe it after fishing alongside Gary McEnelly (In-Fisherman's former financial officer) the past five years during our annual "trout opener" trip into northwest Ontario. I was on hand to photograph his first lake trout five years ago and many trout since. Truth is, he usually catches the most, often the largest, and occasionally the most largest — this, without having a clue but to follow closely behind whoever happens to be leading the patrol and dropping his lure down the first hole that someone opens.
Then last year — it was bound to happen — he has a bad day. A good day is, oh, 25 fish or so among a group of four anglers, and as I've said, Mac usually gets more than his share. Too, being the major bean counter he is, he's always keeping score. Given that he's always counting and, at least when things are going well, always providing a running score during the day and long into the evening afterwards, when he has caught no fish by noon, things begin to get, well, tense, especially when the rest of us are catching at least an occasional fish. So justice prevails, although I wish poor luck on no man, even a rather tedious CPA.
The principal pattern that day, like so many other days we've spent fishing lakes in the northwest corner of Ontario just after the season opener on January 1, was to fish along portions of rock bluffs where deep water pushes right up against a rock wall, the better if the water pushing into shore is at least 40 to 60 feet deep, the better still if at least 80 feet of water is nearby.
Sometimes these spots coincide with the sides of short ledge-rock points. Other times, they occur along long portions of rock bluff. They may occur in the main lake or in deep bays just off the main lake. The best spots early on often are in deep bays, deep meaning water at least 60 feet deep.
Holes often are cut no more than 60 feet off shore. Most of the fishing is 20 to 40 feet down over water that ranges from 20 to 80 feet deep. Lake trout herd ciscoes and perhaps other forage fish like perch against these walls. The biggest trout tend to ride higher in the water column than smaller fish, although this isn't an absolute rule.
The second principal pattern is one most anglers trained in basic fishing principles would immediately suspect. Trout often hold on shallow-to-deep-dropping shoreline points, or sunken islands with edges that drop off into deep water. Again, these structural elements might be in the main lake or in deep bays connected to the main lake. Once again, too, the best spots early during the trout season tend to be in deep bays or at the mouth of deep bays adjacent to the the main lake.
Fishing depths run about the same as before. Lots of anglers think of trout as inhabiting deep water, which they often do during summer. No such prerogative exists during winter. Again, trout push bait up against the first principal drop-off into deeper water. In most Canadian Shield lakes, that means the first major drop in from 15 to 25 feet of water.
Again, we catch most of our fish at 20 to 40 feet, whether the water is 20 or 80 feet deep. We also catch some fish near bottom in 40 to 60 feet of water. Occasionally, most of the fish are riding deep. Still, when fish are feeding, they usually do so up higher in the water column, whether they're associated with this pattern or the previous pattern. We have, for the most part, given up searching for fish near bottom in water deeper than about 60 feet.
The third principal pattern isn't written in the books of most trout anglers, because it relies on structural conditions seemingly more akin to fishing for perch and walleyes. Perch probably are the main forage here, although we don't know for sure. Perhaps darters are important. Perhaps ciscoes move into these shallow saddle areas more often than we know to feed on insect larvae or on fish fry. We know, however, that lots of lake trout often inhabit these areas during most portions of the winter season, particularly during early-ice. Many years, this pattern is the principal pattern for scoring lots of trout.
Most Shield lakes have major shallow bays connected to the main lake or to portions of deeper bays connected to the main lake. These shallower areas during much of the summer attract walleyes, pike, and baitfish like perch and perhaps bluegills, crappies, darters, and other minnows. Trout often gather at the mouths of these areas, moving in and out to feed.
Some of these areas are large by comparison to our first two principal patterns; so sometimes it takes a little time to explore the general area to find where most of the fish are roaming. Cut enough holes, though, and you'll usually find trout.
We usually concentrate on the mouth area instead of pushing too far up into the bays. Occasionally, fish are well up into bays, roaming in water 20 to 30 feet deep. Most of these areas are ringed by sandy, gravely, or even rocky bottom with weedgrowth extending into 15 to 20 feet of water. Harder bottom gives way to soft bottom beyond the first drop-off.
We never spend long in an area, preferring to cut lots of holes, searching quickly for aggressive fish. When trout are active and haven't seen baits, they usually bite in short order. It takes longer to search for fish in bay mouths, although if we spend 40 minutes on any area, that's a long time.
That's not to say that if you stay in an area after the initial bite wears thin, other fish won't move through during the day. Some of the biggest fish caught in many Shield lakes are taken by anglers who sit on high-percentage spots like the wall spots in our first pattern. The biggest fish — the real monsters — apparently don't feed aggressively all that often and seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time in areas relative to the main lake. This, too, however, is a perception on our part and by no means a definite rule.
Over the years, we've experimented with every bait in existence, from jigging spoons, to bladebaits, to airplane jigs. We once tipped everything with salted minnows. The last five years, we've settled on two lures that usually outfish everything else. We no longer tip our baits, for used correctly, these lures usually outfish even livebait.
One lure the works well is the Northland Air Plane Jig. We fish jigs without any bucktail dressing, just slip a three-inch Gitzit-style body on the jig and use a drop of super glue at the head to hold it in place. Rig a few jigs before you go out in the cold. Most of our fishing is with 3/8-ounce jigs in conjunction with 8- or 10-pound-test line.
The hottest lure we've found is a 3/8-ounce Blue Fox Foxee jighead slipped inside a Gitzit-style body like the Garland or a Berkley Power Tube. Pop the line-tie through the tube body and tie your line to the lure. After several fish, you may have to replace the tube body. A plain white or off-white tube works well. Modest Mac's favorite is a clear tube with silver glitter.
We use sonar units to indicate depth, where trout are in relation to our lures, and how they're responding. The most aggressive fish often suddenly appear on sonar, moving steadily toward a lure. Whoa boy, you know what's going to happen next. Heavy thump. Big bend in rod. Other times the game is more tentative. Fish appear as you hop the bait, then stop to inspect the situation. Jiggle-jiggle. Jiggle-jiggle. Shake the lure. Maybe give it another short hop. Maybe another major pop. It's all part of the guessing game.
And when the day is done, the last coffee drained from every thermos, we snowmobile toward home, the sun setting over our shoulders. The game continues, though, for we gather at a restaurant to toast the day and recount every man's tales of triumph and woe.
At least once a trip, too, we save enough small fish for a fish fry. Trout, walleyes, and pike are as good as they can be fresh out of icy water and into a deep-fry pan. The Mighty Mystro of the Mackinaw, that man called Modest Mac, is right at home in this crowd, where fish weights are freely estimated and fish numbers are recounted long into the night. Only when it comes to helpings of fish and potatoes, does it seem he forgets to count.
Ice Fishing For Trout