Whitefish are one of the biggest, hardest-fighting, most plentiful, nutritious, delicious, and ubiquitous species that ice anglers have to chase. And yet, in other than a few locales where they're pursued with passion, like lakes Simcoe, Nipissing, Temagami, Lake of the Woods in Ontario, and Green Bay in Wisconsin, they're phantom fish for most anglers.
Bonus fish caught by "accident" by a lucky few, but never pursued with fervor because of their seemingly unique ability to escape detection and avoid being patterned. Even in lakes that once hosted a thriving ice fishery, like Shoal Lake at the western end of Lake of the Woods, as soon as the smelt population collapsed, the whitefish immediately changed their behavioral patterns and seemed to disappear.
Solving the whitefish puzzle would open up loads of incredible new ice fishing opportunities. Imagine being one of the first to get in on the action and catch and release 100 or more fish a day.
The Green Bays and Lake Simcoes of the world are few and far between, considering the thousands of other lakes across the Ice Belt that host populations of whitefish. And make no mistake, whitefish are a worthy winter competitor.
A Worthy Competitor
"Everything about whitefish makes them difficult for most anglers to target," says Saskatchewan fishery scientist Rebecca Eberts, who specializes in whitefish biology, including their feeding preferences, the lake environments that support them, and their movements within these systems.
John Whyte, one of Ontario's savviest whitefish anglers, agrees. While most bass, walleye, pike, and trout anglers can take what they've learned, fish new waters, and be successful, Whyte says that it's more difficult to do with whitefish because they behave in so many different ways — even in water bodies that lie adjacent to one another, like his home waters of Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay.
Find the Food, Find the Whitefish
Eberts and Whyte agree that knowing what the fish are eating helps solve the winter whitefish conundrum. "Whitefish are dynamic feeders," Eberts says. She analyzes diet tracers in the tissue of the fish in Lake Huron to determine if the spawning aggregations represent one large panmictic summer feeding group or multiple distinct groups. "We often describe whitefish as opportunistic generalists — they feed on what is available. But they're also quick to alter their feeding choices when new opportunities arise.
"So, as an angler, do you use a subtle lure that blends in with the available choices? Or do you try and entice whitefish to seize an opportunity to feed on something possibly more attractive, but less common or more 'risky'? Whatever you choose, the lure or bait has to be convincing," she says. Whitefish are used to scouring the bottom for nutritious benthic invertebrates and you won't fool them easily."
Whitefish seem to be clever fish, routinely out-smarting us. Even within a group of whitefish, Eberts notes, there's often a mix of specialists and generalists. In other words, not all fish in a school necessarily respond to your bait or lure in the same way.
"I suspect one of the most difficult things for whitefish anglers is presenting a bait or lure to the fish in a way that mimics their prey," she says. "Consider that whitefish feed on insect nymphs, tiny nematode worms, chironomids, amphipods, beetles, mussels, and occasionally small fish.
"Presenting them with something that resembles a fish is easy but the chances of coming across whitefish that are heavily feeding on fish may be slim. If it were me, I'd be jigging a horizontal nymph, worm, insect pattern fly, or small live crawler. I say this from looking at hundreds of whitefish stomach contents through my research. If you're keeping fish to eat, have a look in their stomach and see what they're eating. It could save you a lot of time trying different things."
Because their range of foods is so vast and diverse, Whyte says that in some lakes you find most whitefish relating to the bottom in shallow water, often less than 7 feet deep, whereas in lakes dominated by open-water baitfish like smelt, you find them out over much deeper water, often suspended in the middle of the water column.
"On Lake Simcoe these days, the easiest source of food is gobies, especially 3-inch translucent green gobies," he says. "Find the gobies and you find the whitefish. That wasn't the case when there were smelt in the lake, but it's the case today."
Having a good idea of what whitefish are eating, Whyte turns his attention to pinpointing isolated structures that serve up the food, especially those in 20 to 40 feet of water with soft substrates.
"I typically find whitefish feeding on top of structures early in the morning," he says, noting that they slide down the sides in the afternoon on bright sunny days. "But the structure has to have a soft top, preferably with moss growing on it. The clean, blue aquarium-type tops look nice but they don't have whitefish on them. The top of the structure has to be rich and dirty with food."
Because whitefish use so many food resources, from small fish to benthic invertebrates and mussels, it follows that they are constantly moving and grazing. Ice anglers intent on catching them need to follow suit.
"Whitefish are incredibly mobile, which is why you may find them using a structure one day and then gone the next," Eberts says. "They're on a constant search for food so you have to be mobile. Think of yourself as a wolf following a caribou herd."
And because they're capable of using so many different bottom substrates, Eberts says anglers would be wise to select presentations mimicking the prey found at those depths. In other words, using lures like spoons in the middle and upper water column to imitate pelagic forage fish like smelt and shiners, and softbaits on the bottom to mimic nymphs, worms, and gobies.
"Another consideration is what the whitefish are doing, in terms of their biology, at any particular time of the winter," Eberts says. "Whitefish typically spawn on shallow, near-shore cobble substrates in November, December, and January. This means that at the beginning of ice fishing season, you're likely to find them hanging around the spawning grounds, often eating eggs. As you move into mid-winter, it's worth investigating transition grounds and deeper habitat."
Get the Drop
To capitalize on their eclectic taste in foods, Whyte typically offers the fish the choice between a full-fledged fish dinner and a bug lunch, employing a dropper-line system developed on Lake Simcoe more than a century ago. He prepares it by tying a lure like his favorite 1/2-ounce Sebile Vibrato to the end of his mainline and attaching a short 8-pound test fluorocarbon dropper line about a foot above it. He finishes off the rig by tying a red #6 hook to the end of the dropper, baiting it with a single Luhr Jensen Jensen egg. He also uses a double surgeon's knot to affix the dropper, shunning swivels or other hardware.
"I've probably caught more 7- and 8-pound whitefish on the Vibrato rig than anything else," he says. "But you need to let it crash into the bottom. Then, rip it up 6 inches and let it hang perfectly still.
"The cloud of dust looks like a school of whitefish feeding on the bottom. When you hang it perfectly still, they either hit the egg dangling above the cloud or the lure itself. Unlike most fish, whitefish can look down and see well off to the side at a 40-degree angle."
Whyte relies on the Vibrato to search for whitefish and to call them in, but he often switches to a second setup when he knows there's a school below. It's a modified drop-shot rig with a 1/4-ounce firetiger Badd Boyz jig, a legendary Lake Simcoe whitefish lure that is a nose-heavy specialty jig that looks like a small minnow and features a center line tie. Lindy's Slick Jig is another option of similar style. On the red drop-shot hook above the jig he threads a Jensen Egg or a Berkley soft plastic nymph.
"I rely on the Badd Boyz when I can't get bit on the Vibrato," he says. "But you have to present it more subtly. Because it's nose-heavy, just tap the bottom with it ever so gently, to imitate a feeding minnow, then slowly lift it up a couple of inches and let it hang.
"You can carry as many tackle boxes as you like, but I think you're much further ahead learning how to use one or two whitefish baits well. I use a 32- to 34-inch medium-heavy ice rod spooled with 10-pound braid and a 6- or 8-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. I've experimented with lighter leaders but found they made no difference."
What did make a difference for Whyte was when he shut off his underwater camera. He loves using the camera to scope out bottom substrates, monitor the goby population on structural soft-tops, and to watch schools of feeding whitefish. But, when he has his lure in front of the camera he can't get bit. It ties in with Eberts' comment about whitefish being so tuned into their environment.
"Whitefish are camera shy," Whyte says, who is the publisher of the Time on the Water (-timeonthewater.ca) website, which provides up-to-date information on a number of popular ice fisheries. "They either drift off or come in and look right into the lens. But I've only caught four fish while monitoring schools that have numbered in the hundreds. And as soon as I pull up the camera I pound them."
What are you waiting for?
It's almost a guarantee that if you live in Canada or the northern United States, there is a booming winter whitefish fishery close by waiting to be discovered.
"Whitefish are a post-glacial relict, so they exist in far more lakes than most anglers think," Eberts says. "And you don't have to travel to the Great Lakes or some other well-known fishery to get into the action. The Great Lakes may seem like the obvious place to start, but these systems are incredibly dynamic, making the whitefish there less predictable than populations in smaller, more manageable lakes for fishing.
"There are untapped whitefish lakes with huge potential, such as Last Mountain Lake and Lake Diefenbaker in Saskatchewan and many other similar prairie-type systems," she says. "These prairie lakes also have higher productivity than deep, oligotrophic whitefish lakes so the whitefish grow much faster.
"Whitefish are found in a variety of lake types, proving that they are incredibly adaptable. But you need to learn about the whitefish in your system. What are their habitat options during the winter? What are their limitations? What are their prey choices? When you combine the dynamic nature of whitefish feeding behavior, movement, and the lake environments where they make a living — you realize you truly have a complex fish on your hands."
Are you up for the challenge?