No fish epitomizes the northern winter wilderness more than lake trout. That's in part because this species lives in lonely, snowy places that warm the heart and stir the soul. Lakers share the rugged land with other secretive creatures like lynx, timber wolves, wolverine, woodland caribou, and moose that take us back to a bygone era when fur traders and explorers roamed the same wild country.
Another reason that lake trout appeal to so many winter anglers is because they grow large on the Canadian Shield and fight like Mike Tyson. It's fun to finesse-fish for walleyes, crappies, bluegills, and perch but there's something special about watching a lake trout blaze across your sonar screen in pursuit of a lure. It feels like your rod has been run over by a truck as the fish peels line under a screeching drag.
Keeping a small trout or two for shorelunch is a time-honored tradition, too. The flesh is sweet, flaky, as red as salmon, and just as flavorful, cooked simply over a crackling fire fueled by bone-dry driftwood found on shore. You savor it with a hot cup of coffee or bush tea as the wind whispers through the pines. Talk about the perfect way to welcome in a New Year, which is precisely how I've done it often with the In-Fisherman crew, for the past half century. Life may be getting more crazy and complicated with each passing year, but ice fishing for lake trout on the Shield keeps me sane.
As a teenager, I'd throw a pack over my shoulder and walk through the bush, sometimes on snowshoes and clutching an ax. Then came spuds, hand augers, gas-powered grinders, and now quiet electric models.
In my thirties, I wouldn't go to bed after welcoming in the New Year and the opening day of the lake trout season. At 5:30 in the morning, in the lonely chill before dawn, you'd find me and a couple of friends on a lake somewhere in my Northwest Ontario homeland, shining a flashlight onto shore so I could gauge the distance and likely depth of water. I won't forget, either, when the first Lowrance Green Box hit the ice and revolutionized how we played the lake trout game, with as many as 40 fish a day caught and released.
A lot has changed on the transportation front, too. Though I still often pull a small sled into a few trout lakes, I typically cruise into the backcountry on the back of 80 horses running faster and quieter than a stealthy drone. It seems a lot has changed on the winter lake trout scene. But, then again, a lot hasn't.
In the early years, live minnows and deadbait were a standard part of our arsenal. They still are for many anglers today, where they're legal. A medium-size freshly thawed deadbait — a 4- to 6-inch sucker, cisco, or smelt — fished on a quick-strike rig, the same way you might present a bigger bait for northern pike, is deadly for Canadian Shield lake trout.
Indeed, because you typically are allowed to use two rods in winter, a deadbait, set under a tip-up, often nabs a bonus trout or two while you hopscotch around and jig in neighboring holes.
The key rigging detail is to skip the wire leader used for pike. I prefer a 3-foot length of 8- to 12-pound-test Maxima fluorocarbon or Ultragreen monofilament for my quick-strike leaders, knotting on a pair of #4 or #6 Gamakatsu treble hooks spaced no more than two inches apart.
Now, I'll get some argument on this, but a small to medium-size deadbeat hooked with one treble along the spine near the tail and the second behind the dorsal fin is far superior to a larger bait. One of the things I've noticed ice fishing for trout for so many years is that lake trout downsize their search image during the frozen-water season, whether tulibees, smelt, whitefish, or burbot are on the menu. I rarely see a trout cough up a big baitfish onto the ice, though I've seen plenty of 20- to 30-pounders spit out a dozen or more silvery ciscoes or smelt half the size of your smallest finger.
FLY BABY FLY
Airplane jigs and spoons like the classic Williams Wabler and Mepps Syclops were the primary jigging baits before the tube jig arrived and changed the winter trout scene forever. They're still both great options, though requiring slightly different sleights of hand. And there's something about airplane jigs and spoons: On days when trout seem to want them, they want them badly. But on the days that they don't, they're a waste of time.
A few years back, for example, buddy Ryan Haines joined In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange and me when we were filming a television episode. The bite was slow until Ryan dropped an airplane jig. It's critical when swimming an airplane jig to let it pause for 10 to 20 seconds or even longer after you lift it up and let it fall, so the lure can swing out to the side and swim in wide circles. With the airplane jig on the end of his line, it was as though Haines was fishing on a different lake than Doug and I.
Spoons, on the other hand, require experimentation to maximize their potential. Some days, when you see a trout flash onto your screen and give chase, you must quickly reel the lure away from it, without any jerks, faster than any other presentation, until the trout overtakes it and strikes. Other days, however, you have to pause the spoon longer than any other lure.
I can't tell you how many lake trout I've caught on spoons that were hanging perfectly still in the middle of the water column while I was away, checking a tip-up, jigging in another hole, or warming up by a shoreline fire. My favorite spoon trick, especially on Lake Superior, is to jig a silver/gold Williams Wabler in one hole for two or three minutes, then set it down carefully while I jig a Mepps Syclops in a nearby hole. I continue this back-and-forth routine throughout the day, and more times than I can count, every trout will wallop the spoon that's hanging in mid-water. The same presentation often works with Salmo Chubby Darters.
If ever a lure has come to dominate a fishing scene, it's the tube jig for winter lake trout. While no lure works all the time and in every situation, a 4- to 5-inch white, silver, or transparent tube jig comes close. Ironically, while the original Berkley Power Tube was called "white," it was actually a tawny beige color. And it set the winter lake trout scene on fire.
With a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jighead either inserted into the tube or mounted to the nose, the lure mimics the size, shape, and profile of the pelagic baitfish that lake trout feed on in winter. And when you try to hold it still, the tentacles quiver enticingly. Some anglers fail to appreciate this nuance of tube fishing by over-jigging their lures. If lakers strike motionless spoons, Chubby Darters, and freshly thawed ciscoes, consider how they react to the trembling tentacles on the end of a scented tube jig, quivering in front of their noses.
But if you spot a trout sneaking in and looking at your tube without striking, try pulling it away from the fish as though it's a baitfish fleeing for its life. This works with other presentation options as well, with the exception of quick-strike rigging. Most days it's the best trout trigger you can use.
While I'd never venture onto the ice without tube jigs, a variety of 3-, 4-, and 5-inch soft-plastic swimbaits (Bass Magnet Shift 'R Shad, Berkley Split Belly, Eco Pro Swing Shad, Big Bite Baits Suicide Shad) attached to 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jigs are occupying more space in recent seasons. The same is true of lipless baits like the Livetarget Golden Shiner Rattle Bait, Rapala Clackin' Rap, and Kamooki Smartfish. When conditions are ideal and lake trout aggressive, especially early in the morning and in the late afternoon, the rattling noise and vibration given off by these lures sets them apart.
With so many good lake trout presentations at our disposal these days, it's no surprise that the first batter up to the plate most mornings is a lipless crankbait, followed closely in by an airplane jig, spoon, and soft-plastic swimbait. And then, like the mighty Casey, a tube jig always bats in the clean-up position.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer, Kenora, Ontario, is a lake trout legend of the North Country and he savors the ambiance of the winter experience, as well as the beauty of these fish.