New Year’s always holds a special place for me here in Northwestern Ontario; but not for fireworks, champagne, Auld Lang Syne and New Year’s festivities. Usually instead of counting down until midnight, I’m eagerly awaiting 5 a.m. when I get up and load the truck and hit the road. Jan 1st is opening day of lake trout fishing in a zone West of Thunder Bay.
Most years I venture a couple hours west, towards Atikokan, to chase lake trout through the ice, with the season in this zone opening a month earlier than around Thunder Bay. In my mind, come winter, nothing compares to the excitement of targeting lake trout through the ice. Catching ten pound lakers with a jigging rod and a flasher, or hauling them in by hand on a spool of line, is about as good as ice fishing gets. Trips like these also create a great opportunity to spend time outdoors with friends and family, creating traditions, like this trip has become for me.
One of my favourite methods to catch winter lakers, is with a jigging rod, a jig and my Humminbird Ice 55. I’ll typically use either a white tube jig, or a jig like an MMJJ Smelt pattern jigfly. When rigging tubes, I rig them with a stinger ahead of time; I find this seriously increases the number of landed fish. Watching the flasher, if I find fish are hesitant to bite, I may add bait, but more often than not I fish a bare jig. My flasher is essential for winter lakers, providing entertainment, and undoubtedly helping produce more fish. The flasher first shows anglers whether there are fish around, ensuring you’re fishing productive waters, and secondly gives you a far better chance of hooking these fish. Being a serious predator, lake trout will often come screaming in and crush a jig, but there are many times they are a bit more hesitant, and require some coaxing, and this is where some enticement using a flasher is key. I often see trout check out a bait, but refuse to bite. If a fish is watching my jig work and isn’t biting, I’ll start reeling my lure up, jigging it as I gradually reel it towards the surface. Even the most hesitant trout is likely to at least follow. I’ve had fish follow from 80 feet down, hitting the jig mere feet below the ice, and others that crush a bait the instant you take it away from them. You may have fish initially follow and lose interest, heading back to bottom. Send your bait back down and try again, there’s a good chance they’ll eventually hit.
I’ve had fish chase a jig up and down 3 or 4 times before finally hitting. Another great use of the flasher is marking suspended fish; many times you’ll be jigging towards bottom, and mark a fish suspended in the water column. When you see this, reel up to it and start jigging where it is (or was) and odds are that cruising suspended fish will hit.
For my second line when ice fishing lakers, I’ve begun replacing my traditional suckers with dead baits; rigging up brined herring or smelt in place of live minnows. They’re far easier to look after, and I would argue are as, if not more effective than live bait (here in Ontario smelt are banned in many areas, so ensure it’s legal to use where you are). I get frozen herring from a local sporting goods store, and they can even be found in some grocery stores, then brine them in Pautzke’s Fire Brine, freezing them in small bags to take throughout the winter. I’ll then rig these up on a tip-up, or jigging rod setup as a setline with a treble hook or a quick strike rig.
Now when I’m chasing lakers through the ice, I often adopt the run and gun approach; drilling dozens of holes in an area, moving around and briefly jigging them all, moving to a new one if it doesn’t produce. This can be a great tactic for covering water and finding fish.
I tend to employ two different tactics when trout fishing, and it generally depends on the company I’m keeping that day. Often, I’m with slightly impatient, determined anglers like myself, running hole to hole with a flasher in hand, not stopping all day long, covering as much ground as possible in search of the next big trout. I love this, but it makes for a busy, tiring day; barely stopping to eat a cold sandwich while jigging a hole.
Conversely, I also fish with friends who are a bit more relaxed or casual about things; getting set up and settled in for the day, setting out lines, building a bonfire at the edge of the lake, and sitting back, relaxing, waiting for flags to go down. At times I have to fight the urge to drill 3 dozen holes and run around jigging, but it is also a fishing experience I thoroughly enjoy; sitting around a bonfire, socializing, and enjoying the great outdoors, and when coupled with a few lake trout on the ice, it’s a hard day to beat. n