December 04, 2012
It's a tradition at In-Fisherman for a group of us to head north into Northwest Ontario to greet the January 1st lake trout opener. We station in Sioux Narrows, Nestor Falls, or Atikokan, and then run by snowmobile into the backcountry, carrying what little we need to be completely mobile on ice. This is no sit-still group of guys. A couple power augers are running most of the time, as we move from spot to spot, probing points and reefs.
Of course, we use sonar units to tell us what's happening below — to see our lures in relation to fish, in relation to structure. The nice thing about lakers is that they usually aren't bashful. On sonar, you see your lure as you jig it. Then a mark appears and you know what's about to happen. These are fish that put a serious bend in a rod, fish with a real good attitude about whacking lures.
Twenty minutes of moving from hole to hole on a spot usually is enough to catch the active fish. On a good spot, then, we often cut 20 to 30 holes and hit two or three fish, sometimes as many as six or eight. Even if we stay for an hour longer, we rarely catch many more. So it's important to keep checking the topo map for potential spots and to keep moving. A fish here, a fish there. About every three or four major moves, we hit one of those six- or eight-fish spots.
This is about as good as the catching gets during winter. It's not unusual for a group of five guys to hit 25 to 50 fish a day. And, depending on the lake, the fish usually run up to about 10 pounds, with an occasional fish up to 20. About every two years, someone in our group hits one that pushes 25 or so. No monsters last year, but the big fish in 1997 was 28 pounds. That's just about as big as a trout can be and still fit through a 10-inch ice hole. Big pike, walleyes, and whitefish are bonus fish. We release everything except an occasional fish for evening dinner.
The lures — Over the years, we've experimented with every ice bait in existence, from jigging spoons, to bladebaits, to airplane jigs. We once tipped everything with salted minnows. Now we've settled on two lures that usually outfish everything else. And we no longer tip our baits, for used correctly, these lures usually outfish even livebait.
One lure that remains a hot number 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 of the body to hold it in place. Rig at least three jigs before you go out in the cold. Most lakers are caught in less than 60 feet of water, so 3/8-ounce jigs work well on 10-pound-test line.
The hottest lure we've found, though, is a plain 3/8-ounce leadhead jig with a three-inch Berkley Power Tube slipped over the jighead. Pop the line-tie through the tube body and tie your line to the lure. After several fish, you might have to replace the Power Tube. A plain white (or off-white) tube works well. Clear-bodied tubes with glitter also produced last year.
Presentation — Of course, working the jig properly is important. A typical scenario proceeds like this. Drop the jig to the bottom, watching it fall on sonar. Occasionally, lakers intercept the jig on the way to the bottom. Say bottom's 50 feet down. Raise the jig three feet above the bottom and momentarily hold it still. Now sharply raise your rod tip three feet and immediately return it to its starting position just above the ice hole. The jig darts up and then swims in a semicircle back down to its original position.
Sometimes lakers just swim in and bang the jig right then. Other times, you see a mark just above or below your jig. Jiggle the bait just enough to wiggle the tentacles. Jiggle again. Maybe once more, a little more aggressively. No response? Give the bait a sharp lift-drop again. Try the jiggle-jiggle routine again. No go? Then suddenly reel the bait up five feet. If that doesn't trigger the fish, he's probably not hungry.
If you don't get a response in short order with the jig three feet above bottom, raise the bait to the 40-foot level and work that depth for a minute. Then raise the bait to 30 feet, then to 20. Lots of times, most of the fish are holding at a particular depth. It's common to catch lots of fish 10 to 20 feet below the ice over 40 to 80 or more feet of water. We don't spend much time working water deeper than about 60 feet, though.
In most places, the tradition is to fish much larger lures than those I'm describing here. Airplane jigs weighing an ounce or more. Monster jigging spoons. Huge bladebaits. I can see those sizes working for large trout, but I believe at the expense of a vastly reduced overall catch.
Instead of larger, I see more need to occasionally choose baits even smaller than the 3/8-ounce baits we usually rely on. Last year, 1/4-ounce baits on 6-pound-test line produced more than 3/8-ounce baits on 8- and 10-pound line. One angler even dropped down to 4-pound line. Might not seem possible, but even 10-pound lakers are relatively easy to land on 6-pound line. Admittedly, though, if a 40-pound fish ever happens along, we'll probably never land it.
From Flaming Gorge to various areas on the Great Lakes, anglers who have adopted these baits and general tactics are having topnotch success in tangling with big fish with an attitude. An angler from New Hampshire dropped me a note last year after reading about our preference for Gitzit-style baits. He was fishing a local lake when two anglers walked by and saw his Gitzit lure. You after bass, they asked? Nope, lakers, he said. They laughed. But during the next half hour he landed two trout while they didn't get a bite. "Got any more of those bass baits?" they asked. Have faith and you'll have fun.
Nontraditional Tactics for Lake Trout