On Open Mind on the Ice

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As we approach another season on the ice most anglers, myself included, get excited to get out there. Every year we have new gear and tackle to play with that will hopefully help us catch more fish. And there are always new opportunities that await. In Northwest Ontario’s Sunset Country Region we have some of the best ice fishing options on the planet, a reason why nearly every TV show from In-Fisherman to Bob Izumi’s Real Fishing Show to Lindner’s Angling Edge all visit annually to get their ice shows shot. To be successful on your outings this winter, try to keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to try different things if your usual spots and techniques aren’t working. Remember that with the variety of fish in our lakes, there is always going to be something biting somewhere, no matter what conditions we are faced with.

Pike throughout the Season
Usually when we write about ice pike fishing it’s all about targeting them late in the season when they predictably pile up in front of the shallow bays where they will spawn shortly after ice out. Certainly this is the best time to actually target pike and catch the biggest numbers of fish.

One thing that I have learned over the past several years is that they can be caught all winter long though. My friends and I have gotten into the habit of putting a tip-up down with a large dead cisco or herring whenever we are fishing for a different species as a second line and the results have been pretty awesome.

When we’re walleye fishing throughout the winter on humps on Lake of the Woods or crappie fishing on the many small lakes in Northwest Ontario we jig with one rod, and put a tip-up out as our second line. Though we might not catch the numbers of fish that we do in the late winter, we catch plenty of fish and some real monsters. I guarantee at least a couple shots at fish on the slow days and several hits on good days. When I’m guiding, my guests love it, because a 20 pound pike is a pretty nice bonus to a good day of walleye or crappie fishing in the mid-winter.

Pike are hanging around the same spots as these other fish because there is food available, both in the baitfish that the smaller fish are eating and in the population of walleyes and crappies that may be using a given area. Pike eat whatever they can fit in their mouth!

So this winter, pack a tip-up or two and some large five to eight inch dead ciscos that you can rig on a quick-strike rig like a Northland Predator Rig and you’re all set. I like to set the baits about a foot off the bottom. You’ll be surprised at what you catch!

Lake Trout – Big Baits for Big Fish
Last winter while trout fishing on a Sunset Country lake I caught a nice lake trout in the ten pound range and was very surprised when I pulled it out of the hole to see a 14”-18” sucker, half digested, sticking out of it’s throat.

Not only did this trout eat my big soft plastic minnow bait, it was working on devouring what looked to me like a two pound plus sucker!

What does this teach us? Big baits will work for lake trout. There are a couple of reasons why a big soft plastic, airplane jig or spoon will work well. The larger profile baits are easier for trout to see at long distances so you have the ability to call fish in from a wider range and it’s apparent that these fish are active and looking for a big meal. I compare lake trout to sharks during the winter, always on the move looking for food. When using oversized baits like a seven inch soft jerkbait or tube, or a two or three ounce spoon you need to upsize your tackle a bit, to a heavier rod and heavier line. I like 40 pound Power Pro braid and will use a 20 pound fluorocarbon leader. Also, make sure you match the hooks to your baits – you need a bigger hook than you’d use on standard baits or you will miss too many fish.

There are certainly days when smaller, downsized baits will catch lake trout better than the big baits, but with the popularity of flashers now, you can watch your bait for fish coming in for a look. If you’re getting denied, try dropping a smaller bait down the hole and see what happens. Sometimes, if you’re quick you can get the smaller bait down before the fish leaves the area and many times, catch it. Trying these large baits is worth a shot, especially when you start fishing a new spot! Any active fish in the area will see your big bait before they see your buddies regular sized bait.

Staying Mobile for Crappies
Crappies continue to gain in popularity amongst anglers in the Sunset Country, both among locals and visitors. For good reason, there are hundreds of schools of crappies in our lakes just waiting for anglers to drop a jig down to them. They are fun to catch and great to eat.

Many productive spots are well known throughout fishing circles in this area, on Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake and many of the smaller lakes around Kenora. The secret to really catching a bunch of crappies and some big slabs (I consider slabs crappies over 14”) is to fish around the big populations of fish. But instead of drilling holes right on the community spots, start looking for nearby locations that could hold fish as well.

If the fish are holding on a deep flat, start drilling away from the big cluster of holes and look for smaller, isolated groups of fish that haven’t been pressured. Or look for nearby drop-offs or small pieces of structure. When you find fish that have not seen a bait before they are very easy to catch and they’ll usually be larger.

I guarantee you that if you are in an area that holds a big number of crappies, there are more schools of fish nearby.

I like to give them a one-two punch of a small spoon like a 1/16 Northland Forage Minnow and a small soft plastic rigged on a jig head. My favourite package is the Northland Slurpie Stonefly rigged on a Mud Bug jig. Blood red is a deadly colour for crappies.

Thinking outside the box can make the difference between a mediocre day on the water and a great day so don’t be afraid to work hard, drill extra holes and try things that are a little bit outside the norm. That is how you learn and get better at catching fish on every outing. Have a great season on the ice!

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About Author

Jeff Gustafson, known in the fishing World as Gussy, grew up on the shores of Lake of the Woods in Kenora, Ontario. He took out his first guide trip at age 14 on Lake of the Woods and has made his living in the fishing/outdoor industry ever since. A graduate of the University of Manitoba, Gussy has always been self-employed as a fishing guide, outdoor writer and photographer as well as fishing promoter. Today his fishes the Walmart FLW Tour pro bass circuit and as many local bass tournaments as he can find the time to enter and he is the host of his own TV program called Fishing with Gussy, which airs across Canada. You can find him online through his website at www.gussyoutdoors.com

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