Growing up there was no day I looked forward to more than getting back in the boat after a long winter. Come the first warm day in February I was sorting and organizing all of my tackle and putting new line on my reels. Maps were laid across the table and long hours were spent studying them as I made a plan for where I would fish come opening day. It was overkill but I was excited to go fishing! In Northwest Ontario we are fortunate that the season remains open through the ice out period for all species except musky and walleye. So there are always bass, pike, lake trout and crappies ready to catch as soon as we can get out there.
Jerkbaits for Smallmouths
When I was a teenager back in the late 90’s, suspending jerkbaits were just being discovered. In the tournament crazy Ozark region in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, anglers were drilling holes in floating minnow baits and inserting pieces of lead to make the baits suspend. Eventually the word got out on this local secret and fishing tackle companies began manufacturing suspending jerkbaits.
The first models I had were suspending Smithwick Rogue’s and Rapala Husky Jerks. Reading all about how effective they were for cold water smallmouths I was eager to try them the year they became available. A few days after the ice went out I caught literally hundreds of bass on the west end of Lake of the Woods on the couple Rogue’s and Husky Jerks that I had. It was incredible. There was no other lure that you could catch as many smallmouths on as you could on a suspending jerkbait. The same holds true today early in the season.
Today we have much better jerkbaits than those original models, with more realistic finishes and most importantly, long casting technology so they are much easier to cast. Most of the good baits today have a weight transfer system that lets you really launch them out there.
My jerkbait of choice today is the Jackall Squad Minnow 115. It suspends perfectly and comes equipped with premium treble hooks. There are times when smaller profile or deep diving jerkbaits are better but on most days you can catch a bunch of fish on that Squad Minnow 115. I like to fish it on 10 pound fluorocarbon and use a medium action rod, something a little bit soft so that you don’t tear hooks out of fish that area short striking. G. Loomis makes a great rod that is designed for fishing jerkbaits that is 6’10” in length.
Finally, jerkbaits are very easy to use. Simply cast them out and work them back to the boat in a jerk-jerk-pause cadence. The colder the water, the slower you should fish them. By that I mean longer pauses. I guarantee you that there is no other type of lure that will put more smallmouths in the boat within the first few weeks of the ice going out.
Watch the Wind for Lakers
If you like to fish for lake trout then you know what I mean when I say you can catch the bug. Growing up fishing on the Clearwater Bay area of Lake of the Woods I spent quite a bit of time chasing lake trout around on the big lake as well as on the many smaller, inland lakes north of Kenora. Northwest Ontario is one of the top destinations on the planet to catch lakers and though we may not have the numbers of giant fish that can be caught way up north, we have some great fishing for both numbers and quality fish on a variety of fisheries.
Lake trout need cold water so as water temperatures warm as the summer progresses, lake trout move to deeper, cooler water. For the first few weeks of the open water season when water temperatures are still cool, lake trout are on a feeding frenzy, eating everything they can fit in their mouths.
The best days are always after the wind has blowing out of the same direction for a few days in a row. Baitfish move onto stretches of shoreline where the wind is blowing in, likely because the water will be slightly warmer and the trout will then congregate. Trolling crankbaits and spoons on these windblown stretches is my favourite pattern early in the season. Fish can be found shallow in as little as five feet of water and out deeper but I seldom fish deeper than 50 feet before June 1. Once you find an area that has fish you can attack them with jigs tipped with soft plastic minnow imitators but trolling is a great way to cover water and make contact with active fish.
Where will the Walleye be?
Across Sunset Country the walleye season opens annually on the third Saturday in May. I expect that the ice will be out everywhere by May 1, so by the time the season opens in the middle of the month walleyes should be done spawning but they will be still be close to spawning areas. That means anglers should be looking shallow.
After they spawn, walleyes are known for being lazy for a couple of weeks as they recover. Fishing is still pretty good but you usually need to slow down a little bit to catch fish. I’m a big fan of using light 1/8 oz jigs early in the season and I’ll tip them with real minnows or finesse soft plastics depending on the activity level of the fish. You want jigs that just kind of “glide” and float through the water column more than you want them banging into the bottom. As fish become more active, heavier jigs banging into the bottom can generate a reaction strike but early in the year, use the lightest jigs you can get by with. It’s simple, but it will help you catch more fish!
As far as finding fish, keep your eyes on the shoreline and look for sand. It’s always a good thing early in the year. Cabbage weeds will usually grow out of the sand and walleyes love cabbage. You won’t be able to visibly see it yet, but you can feel it with your jigs. Transition areas from sand to rock can be really good as well. Always pay attention to little things like this. All the best on a new open water fishing season!