The Final Temptation of Ice Fishing for Lake Trout
February 26, 2014
I have a young friend from west Texas who throughout his years in high school has been dropping me an occasional note about fishing. Last January he and his father decided to drive to Colorado to ice fishing for lake trout, their first experience with lakers in winter. Time was short before they left, so I outlined briefly via email what to expect. They went, caught nothing, and were totally puzzled by their inability to find fish. I followed up with several past Ice Fishing Guide articles about trout location and presentation options. They went out again a month later and jigged up 20 fish.
We have, over the past decades, taught those who want to catch lake trout through the ice how to do so, whether the fish are in New York, Ontario, Utah, or Alaska. The angler needs a portable flasher or TFT (which perform to -30°F) unit rigged appropriately, to see the lure below the hole in relation to the bottom and the lake trout that come into view. Jigging with a lure like a 3- or 4-inch plastic tube slipped onto a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce jighead works everywhere trout swim. Traditional spoons work, too — and also swimming lures like the Jigging Rapala.
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Anglers take two fundamental approaches to fishing, either moving relatively quickly from lake area to lake area, searching for active fish; or setting up in known hot spots and sticking it out, trusting fish to move through the area from time to time. If you know you're onto a good travel area, this latter approach can work.
I've always opted to move and search. I pick a goodlooking shelf aong a steep shoreline or island, the tip of a mainlake point, or the point or inside turn of a sunken island; cut a half-dozen to a dozen holes at depths ranging from about 20 to 60 feet, and give each hole 5 minutes or so, unless fish are moving through.
Lake trout in most lakes, but not all, swim through at just about any depth and certainly aren't stuck to the bottom. Indeed, I've caught more trout 15 to 25 feet down, no matter what the overall water depth, than at any other depth. Trout like to pin suspended prey up against the bottom of the ice.
In 50 feet of water, I might start jigging 20 feet down, then drop the jig to 40 feet and jig some more. The water's clear and I assume that fish can easily see 20 feet — even much more. After jigging for a bit at 40 feet, I bring it back up to, say, 25 feet — then maybe up to 10 feet, before moving on to the next hole.
I jig aggressively to attract fish by lifting the jig 3 feet and letting it fall back. Often a fish rushes the jig and hits without much warning on the depth sounder. This happens a lot when the jig's down 10 to 20 feet. The sonar cone's relatively small at that depth, so you don't see fish coming from a distance, unless you notice them rising up from the bottom. Other times, they rush in and hesitate. Sometime I get these fish to take by nodding the rod tip to make the jig quiver, then maybe giving it another quick lift-fall. Or, I might quiver it then quickly raise it up 5 feet, give it a little lift-fall followed by another quiver. Hesitant fish often become strikers when you tease them up.
You also never want to just reel up a jig from any depth before hesitating it 5 or 10 feet below the ice. The act of reeling it up is in itself a powerful triggering maneuver.
Lance Sokero, of Waterford, New York, sent me a note this year about how he often finds and triggers the trout on waters like Lake George and the Finger Lakes. On smelt waters like Lake George, he likes to search large flats in 70 to 80 feet of water. Sokero: "The fish usually roam these large flats; one of my favorites is about 1 mile by 1 mile with a mix of mud, gravel, and rock. The fish follow smelt, which are suspended. When I first search a deep flat, I cut holes about 100 feet apart until I find fish. I usually don't have to move unless the smelt move completely out of the area.
"In lakes with alewife, big trout spend a lot of time near bottom, although there are suspended fish too. A lot of the flats in these lakes are 120 to 180 feet deep. I begin with my lure 10 feet above the bottom. If fish move through suspended at any depth, I quickly reel the lure up to them."
Sokero usually fishes with spoons, one favorite being the Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, in 1/2 or 3/4 ounce. He uses all the standard maneuvers I mentioned for triggering fish, save one that hasn't been widely talked about and might work to trigger hesitant trout anywhere they swim. He likes to take a lure away from such fish. That is, if he encounters fish hesitating once they get near the lure, he takes the lure away anytime fish start toward it, bringing it steadily up toward the surface before the fish can actually swim up to scrutinize the spoon.
Sokero: "I try to keep the lure away from the fish. This often triggers them to swim faster and overtake the lure. At times, though, they follow all the way to just under the ice without striking. After stopping the lure for a moment, I immediately drop it back down 40 feet or so. If the fish follows, I then immediately reel the lure steadily back up toward the ice, again with the fish following. Often I'll do this 3, 4, or 5 times before a fish strikes. Any time I run into hesitant fish I also start experimenting with spoon size and color."
In lakes with a shad forage base, Sokero says that trout often don't move as fast as those feeding on smelt and ciscoes. He again begins with his spoon about 10 feet off bottom. As fish come up to look at it, he gently lifts the spoon while quivering the rod tip. If fish are aggressive, they hit the lure when it's been lifted only a foot or two. Typically, it takes at least 10 feet of lift to trigger a strike.
Sokero, who stays put once he finds fish, prefers to fish from a shanty, while we rarely use them, relying on today's great clothing to stay warm and mobile. Part of the difference in preference is a matter of the fishing depth. I usually use a monofilament line of 10-pound test, preferably Berkley Big Game, an extremely reliable and tough line. It's a stretchy line, perfect for hard-charging lakers in water depth no more than 60 feet deep or so, where I would otherwise worry about bending a hook out on the hook-set or in fighting a fish.
At times Sokero is fishing deeper than 100 feet, the reason he prefers 6-pound Berkley FireLine, which doesn't stretch. It's tough to "get hooks" when fishing monofilament that deep. He adds a Berkley fluorocarbon leader about 5 feet long, testing 10 or 12 pounds, to the end of the FireLine. This adds abrasion-resistance via increased line diameter.
Sokero's rod preference is for a medium-action 32-inch St. Croix Premier. I use one of several custom rods made for me years ago by Thorne Brothers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My rods vary in length from 36 to 46 inches. Especially in extremely cold weather, when an angler is fishing a long line, it's helpful to fish from a shack because FireLine tends to freeze to the spool, whereas monofilament doesn't.
Of course a good spinning rod with a smooth drag is vital to the process. Meanwhile, a ball-bearing swivel is tied into the leader line about 2 feet above the lure, to reduce the line twist that results from constant vertical jigging. I imagine Sokero worries about bending hooks out when he fishes shallow water, with his preference for FireLine, which is why he replaces factory hooks with heavier models and he replaces factory split rings with heavier split rings, too.
Harvest lake trout selectively. The bigger fish, especially on Canadian Shield lakes, are always very old and limited in number. They can't stand any harvest. Once a trip, we usually keep a 3- or 4-pound fish for a shorelunch of chowder — maybe a fish or two for a fish fry back at camp.
Lake trout are as good as it gets on ice. They grow large and fight harder than just about anything else. They're often supremely aggressive. I've had fish start up from 40 feet down, charging toward my lure after I've just dropped it down the hole. Those are memorable moments that don't happen with other fish, one of many reasons trout have become so popular.