Mid-Winter Suspended Crappies
There are few things in life more entertaining than playing the cat and mouse game on our electronics while trying to entice a fish to bite our offering. Mastering the flasher or typical depth sounder settings to dial them in allows us to watch the bait fall through the water column to the nose of a fish. What happens next is addictive.
The reaction of the fish mark on my screen when my bait is presented is better than any video game I have ever played. So much so that I can watch my bait and the fish for many many hours on end without losing interest. You can really get a feel for the mood of the fish, and whether or not you have the right bait tied on based on the movement of a few bars on your flasher or graph.. so much fun!
I was out on the ice in the Kawartha’s Northumberland region with a couple good friends last week in pursuit of suspended winter crappies. The
Lake Fork Baby Shad rigged on a Lake fork Sickle Jig
fish that we targeted were suspended over an 18’ “mini basin” at the entrance to their spring time spawning grounds. We made the long hike out to the area that Aaron had previously located. Drilled the holes, and setup Michael’s monster hut. The Fishing Inn as we call it. Always a great time sitting in a hut with these guys for several hours. So many laughs, and so many fish! Aaron dropped his transducer down the hole and instantly marked fish.. A lot of fish.
He was first to drop and quickly came back with a healthy crappie! We were in for a good night. Each of us started with a different bait presentation in an attempt to quickly determine a
Aaron Jolicoeur with a healthy crappie!
Lake Fork Baby Shad 2 1/4″!!
preference for the fish that particular evening. Michael started with a jigging rap type bait, Aaron with a small tube and myself with a mini shad type soft plastic bait. While Michael and I were icing fish on a fairly regular basis, it was very evident by the number Aaron was moving that the tube was the hot item. Aaron would drop his offering down the hole and the fish would instantly start to move up towards it. And in most cases eating his offering.
It was really something to watch! As it often is when I fish with Aaron. He is very good at finding the little subtleties that will trigger a bite. In this case he would drop his bait to the fish, make a few slight twitches and when one would show interest he would simply start to pull the bait away from it.
Sometimes several feet, and in a few cases just below his hole! If he detected the fish was committed he would suddenly pause the bait and watch his rod tip. Thunk! Fish on! That cat and mouse game was the ticket to our success this night, no question. Pull the bait away and then stop. Wait for the take and set the hook.
The fish on this particular evening were not terribly aggressive and in many cases we would stop the bait and feel what we were certain was a take, set the hook and nothing! We jokingly described it as a “push”! The look on Michael’s face was absolutely priceless every time he had a fish “push” the bait! I wish I had caught it on camera. Pure rage and disappointment.
Another Deeper screen shot loaded up with suspended crappies
Finding Crappies suspended, in numbers, during the mid-winter months is a very likely story. A soft bottom is typically the case as well. The theory is that a soft bottom generally prohibits aquatic vegetation and insects. So they are there in abundance to feed… Well.. ok sure! That is possible, and likely I suppose.. But In most cases I think they are staging for the spawn. Especially when given the relative proximity to their spawning grounds in this particular case. We know where they are during the spawn and it only makes sense that they setup somewhere close by during the winter months. Of course there needs to be a food sources in the given area to support
Aaron with a MONSTER
them while they wait. But I believe relative proximity to spawning grounds is equally important to keep in mind when trying to locate these suspended fish. In this case the first small basin on our way back out to the main lake.
Had a great time fishing with good friends. Many laughs and a tone of fish topside. That is what fishing is all about. The next time you head out looking for mid-winter crappies I hope you will consider a few of the points I have mentioned. Tight Lines!
Chris Huskilson- Exist To Fish Canada Writer
Digging for the difference
A practical ice fishing guide for shallow backwater lake trout
The thrill of the hunt, the anticipation, the methods for success, all of which feeds into this full blown obsession. Chasing an apex predator whose intelligence, speed and endurance is only matched by its temperament and beauty.
When it comes to small deep lakes here in Ontario there is nothing finer than pursuing lake trout. The competition is fierce and most waters experience a tremendous amount of pressure. As a result the fish grow weary, becoming conditioned from past experiences and seem to be harder to trick year after year.
When the fishing is tough and the usual spots and techniques fail to produce it’s time to think outside of the box. Let’s focus on unusual structure, particularly on shallow bays and how these fish relate to it, and the correlation between weather conditions and the presentations that will be favorable in these situations.
big lake trout in as little as 15 feet of water, feeding on perch and smelt. Later research revealed that there was a steep trench running between two points, funneling everything into a one way street to doom – the perfect trap.
Lake trout can only tolerate cold clean water and as a result, are bound to the deeper sections of a lake during the summer months. However during the winter, once the thermocline is broken, the entire body of water becomes accessible to these fish. Lake trout will take full advantage of this new playground, adapting to this broadened territory thus creating new strategies to forage, and so should you.
Bait fish and structures that can’t be accessed during the warm water temperatures are now readily available. These new opportunities present easier challenges that will completely change their behavior during the winter months.
(Beautiful example of a native trout – no clipped fins)
Lake trout will team up in wolf packs and chase schooling bait fish into cliffs and steep bays, into the shallows or against the ice where there is no escape, singling out weak individuals and securing a meal in one fell swoop. Narrow bays with access to deep water are frequently overlooked haunts for such a scenario. These bottlenecks are usually considered too shallow for a typical hot spot, when
in fact the opposite is true. We have accidentally caught big lake trout in as little as 15 feet of water, feeding on perch and smelt. Later research revealed that there was a steep trench running between two points, funneling everything into a one way street to doom – the perfect trap.
Lake trout have very keen eyesight which enables them to spot prey from great distances, all at once a blessing and a curse. Understanding their sensitivity to light will help you to better establish key patterns and ultimately increasing your chance of success. Too much or too little light will present a challenge for them. As a rule of thumb, overcast or heavy snow cover drives them into the shallows, while the opposite conditions will push them deeper into the water column.
For these ambush tactics to work we look for overcast days. Late morning and late afternoon seem to produce the right light conditions resulting in sought after increased activity. Around high noon the hot bite generally shuts down as the fish migrate towards deeper water until the time is right.
On small pressured lakes the usual tactics for lake trout seem to produce less than desirable results. Tubes, spoons and swimbaits all have one thing in common – they are common and while they will catch a young inexperienced trout they often stop working on the big girls.
Glad you asked, because they have seen it all. They all fell for the ‘ol Silver Williams trick once in their lives. Bruises and scars on adult fish can tell a lot about their history. The fact that they are apex predators dictates a high level of intelligence. Big bars will show up underneath your white tube just to disappear back into the depths, curious but not fooled by your offering.
Long story short, straying away from the mainstream baits and presentations and focusing on what these big gals really want will turn this game around. When food and pressure is plenty all they want is that one easy meal, they look for that one smelt that strayed away from the pack, fleeing and possibly injured, ready to be picked off with ease. To mimic this prey as closely as possible while slowing down your presentation will be more attractive than an erratic bouncing torpedo as if playing hard to get.
We fish side by each, parallel to the entrance of a bay so we can monitor their movements either into or out of the area, while studying their behavior and reaction to our baits. Experience has shown that the subtle, natural life-like presentation had a distinct advantage.
A flasher is most essential here, for two reasons. One of which is mapping out a new area while creating a mental image of the underwater structure and two, being able to see how the fish react to your presentation. As for gear, we prefer longer ice rods with a heavy backbone and a sensitive tip. Remember they are picking off an easy meal so the bite is often a delicate pick up rather than a fierce slam. Clear lakes require thin line, 6 – 8lb test fluorocarbon with a small swivel paired with a 15lb leader a little shorter than the length of your rod is perfect. The low profile of the main line won’t ring the alarm bells from a mile away. A soft drag counters the long explosive runs and the heavy leader will hold up when push comes to shove around the sharp ice edges of hole.
Appropriate gear is of utmost importance as lake trout will put it to the ultimate test. When she decides to go for a screaming run, pealing the 20’ feet of line you just gained, sweat on your forehead included, you want to know for sure everything is rock solid. Trusting in your equipment, your knots and line will give you the confidence to take on the challenge. Leaders should be inspected after every fish and replaced after every accidentally caught pike or walleye. Leave nothing to chance because being better safe than sorry is the right mindset here. Taking these few extra seconds to be thorough will pay dividends when a big trout does circles around the hole for several minutes on end. Most fish are lost in the last moment, due to either bad luck but more commonly due to technical failure which is easily preventable.
The business end is a humble short shank jig. Not too heavy as we are fishing shallow waters and want to encourage a natural flutter of the minnow. The weapon of choice is a hearty minnow (emerald shiner in this case) keep in mind the size of the bait will vary depending on the dominant food source found in each lake
The business end is a humble short shank jig. Not too heavy as we are fishing shallow waters and want to encourage a natural flutter of the minnow. The weapon of choice is a hearty minnow (emerald shiner in this case) keep in mind the size of the bait will vary depending on the dominant food source found in each lake. The point of the hook is gently inserted into the mouth and should exit behind the head through soft flesh, allowing a firm grip of the shank. If live bait isn’t readily available a soft plastic imitation does the job as well, just pick subtle, natural looking baits that are unique so you don’t fall into the same pattern as everyone else. We would suggest using an attractant that is fortified with minnows with plastics to make the offering seem real. For this we suggest “Garlic Minnow” by Liquid Mayhem Attractants which is long lasting while leaving a scent trail and a blast of flavor tempting fish to hold on longer giving you a couple seconds longer to get a good hook set.
Most strikes occur when they scatter, disappearing off of your screen, frantically running for cover. In this case, your offering is the last snack on this “all you can eat” buffet so prepare for impact
Locked and loaded, the next step is presentation. When fishing in 60 feet of water or less, working the whole column methodically is easy. Starting with a slow descent, a few pauses and wiggles will catch the attention of any nearby suspended fish. Bouncing bottom to stir up a ruckus also wakes the curiosity of either prey or predator. The main focus should be the bottom third of the water column. If you encounter large schools of bait fish it is best to position the bait either above or below said school. Most strikes occur when they scatter, disappearing off of your screen, frantically running for cover. In this case, your offering is the last snack on this “all you can eat” buffet so prepare for impact.
If in fact a lake trout sees this sudden movement in the huddle, it will see that minnow and be happy to have an early lunch, or better yet, the aforementioned easy meal. Bars will raise up to your bait and a little lift or twitch is most likely enough to entice a bite. However sometimes they miss or are simply curious, circling around the offering while contemplating whether or not they really need those extra calories. In this case, a gentle game of cat and mouse just might cater to their given temperament and predatory instincts. Lifting the jig by a foot or two imitates that last little struggle and generally triggers an aggressive strike.
If the odds are in favor and the bar turns into “fish on” a firm but not overly strong hook set is required. The short shank hook is your best friend right now as it will usually finds its point, getting buried into the roof of the mouth or into the cartilage along the sidewall of the jaw. Bony jaws need added penetration but a too sharp of a hookset can result in a miss as the bait gets pulled out of their mouth.
If she is on get ready for the fight of your life as their speed and stamina is unmatched. Cool, calm and collected is key here, letting the fish run when she wants to. Being patient and paying extra attention at the hole is of utmost importance in landing a giant lake trout.
Last but not least, when everything goes as planned and a gorgeous “grey” comes through the hole, treat the fish with the respect that is deserved, as for the majestic creature that they are. Gentle handling, a quick snapshot or two then a swift release will reduce stress resulting in much lower mortality rates. Make this the least negative experience for the fish and she just might fall for it again right?
Shallow lake trout can be a tremendous experience, so next time don’t shy away from those typical “perch bays” or shallow untapped areas which are all too often overlooked. This can be the ultimate game changer and your calling card.
Robert Conley-Exist To Fish Writer
Robert Fuchs- Exist To Fish Canada Writer
Jamie Wilson Exist ToFish Canada Lead Writer Editor
Kirsti Harris Exist To Fish Canada Writer
Every now and again you have to just take a day off and do what you love to do most. I’m an avid multi species sport angler with a passion for the outdoors. On this particular day, a snowy Sunday morning, a few friends and I set out on an adventure to try our luck at one of the many stocked brook trout lakes in the area. We packed up 2 vehicles loading them with our 4 huskies, fishing gear, and some food. It was going to be a great day. I visited this lake once in the fall and did re- ally well by landing a nice sized male brook trout by simply casting from shore using a Blue Fox Mepps spinner. So I was excited to get on the ice and walk out to a spot I had picked out in the fall time. It was close to shore and in shallow waters.
It was just over a 100km drive to this lake and the highway wasn’t in the best of conditions from all the snow we were getting so it took us longer than usual to get there. It was just before noon once we arrived and the dogs were real happy to get out and stretch their legs. My girlfriend’s little puppy was joining us on our ad- venture today. Best to start them young! It was still lightly snowing and there was a fresh blanket covering the lake. A few ravens were cawing loudly, making their presence known and flying over us. We were surrounded by some cliffs that looked absolutely beautiful with the freshly fallen snow. We were the only ones on the lake. I love when that happens!
Once we got all of our gear out on to the lake, we began to drill some holes. We first started off by trying in the area where we had success in the fall time. The ice was only about 3-4 inches thick, just safe enough. It was perfect for the hand auger to drill some holes. About a half hour went by and there wasn’t a single bite. We looked around the lake for any structure that looked out of the ordinary. On the west side of the lake there was a fallen cedar tree that looked promising. I was using an ultra light rod with 6lbs test line and my choice of lure today was a Mighty Mitch & Jungle Joes Jigfly tipped with a piece of Gulp worm. I was jigging right on bottom.
It was just past noon, the snow was still coming down, and that’s when I finally had my first hit. I reeled up a beautiful male brook trout. Finally the bite was on. Throughout the day we ended up landing 5 male brookies and 3 females. The red- dish bellies on the males were spectacular. I think that trout are one of the most beautiful fresh water fish to catch. The colors on them are vibrant, especially in the fall.
I catch and release 90% of my fish. The conservation of our fish populations, by releasing and letting them grow is important for our future angling opportunities. I only keep the odd walleye, perch, or crappie for a meal here and there but today I was itching to use my new fillet knife and my girlfriend who joined me that day also enjoys eating the odd brook trout so we kept a few for a meal. Plus, I recently had a handmade custom fillet knife made for me by Steven Tedford knives that I was itching to field test!
We just had a few hours of daylight left and a long drive home so we decided to call it a day. It was a successful day out on the ice. The dogs were happy to get out on an adventure, we were with good people, and we had the added bonus of bringing home a healthy meal of fresh fish for ourselves.
Everyone has their own way of celebrating the New Year! Well I rang in the New Year by celebrating my angling success of 2015, and that included catching 14 different species of fish, and making it to 49 different lakes! And this last trip of 2015 capped it off. Angling, hunting, and hiking opportunities in Northern Ontario are spectacular. We’re spoiled with so many different opportunities for angling! So this year it’s on my bucket list to make it out to 150 different lakes. I can’t wait to see what the rest of 2016 has in store for me!
Kirsti Harris Exist To Fish Canada Writer
Winter’s White Gold
If you ask any fishermen to give you their top 3 target species in the winter, I can almost guarantee you that you will get Walleye, Trout and pan fish. You may squeeze in pike on to that list as well. I can guarantee you that Whitefish will not make the list.
Justin Girard Exist To Fish Writer
Now, if you ask any fishermen who fishes Lake Simcoe in the winter to name you their top 3 target species, Whitefish will most definitely be on that list – this I can guarantee! Calculating the equation, thus consistently putting “white gold” top side during the winter months can be a challenge, unless you pay attention to the finer details.
When I first started fishing Lake Simcoe some 10 years ago, I will admit that whitefish would always elude me. But, the odd time I would luck out and get a fish to hit my Williams Whitefish spoon. Now I am not a spoon man, unless there is a frozen desert involved, I would rather show them a finesse presentation and hook these Whitefish with a little coaxing. It wasn’t until I was cleaning a whitefish before I realized that my efforts would pay off if I just changed my outlook and ultimately my go-to presentations.
I always enjoy cleaning fish. In fact, I will say that I love cleaning fish. One of the things that I will do is to look into a fish’s stomach to see what they are eating which is key to success out on Simcoe. You know, match the hatch as they say. What I did discover inside the whitefish was crushed up zebra mussels and round gobies, and lots of them. The other unique thing I noticed was a tinge of brown along the whitefish’s belly, which indicated that these fish were hugging the sand flats. They were not chasing bait fish or my spoon up high in the water column and that was the answer I was looking for. Clearly whitefish are relating to and forage on bottom which was the eye opener I needed.
To fool these often elusive fish, I present baits on bottom, in the sand amongst the thousands of zebra mussels and round gobies that these Lake Simcoe Whitefish are feeding on. Minnows and gobies are a staple in the whitefish diet so the goal is to closely mimic and stand out in the crowd of the tasty snacks that abound.
Two simple presentations that get the job done are both tubes and small minnow bodied plastics. Internally weighted tubes in both white and off colored brown are very effective. As far as plastic minnow bodies, a Lake Fork Trophy Lures “Baby Shad”, “Sickle Tail Baby Shad” or “Boot Tail Baby Shad” rigged on a darter style or a football jig head also can’t be beat. Both presentations can be effectively fish on bottom enticing finicky spooky fish alike. Another piece of the puzzle is scent. For this, Liquid Mayhem “Garlic Minnow” leaves a natural scent trail that can widen the strike zone and trigger more bites along with tricking fish to hold on longer.
Gear wise I spool up with 10 pound braided line paired with an 8 pound fluorocarbon leader (a swivel for line to leader connections for tubes) I’ll start by bouncing the jig a few times on bottom to create a cloud of sand to get whitefish roaming the area interested. Once I mark a school on my electronics, I hold the jig still on bottom on a tight line and monitor the fish’s reaction on my sonar. If the fish does not hit right away, I will bounce the jig lightly on bottom once or twice and hold it still. I then watch the line closely and wait for the bite. The fish will tell you what they want and how they want it, you just need to pay attention to your electronics.
Any of these jigging methods will work on any given day, you just need to adapt to each school of fish entering your zone and experiment with the presentation. If I can give you the most important tip it would be less is more. Don’t over work the jig. It’s a finesse presentation that will coax these elusive whitefish to bite.
Step out of your comfort zone, put the spoon aside and try some finesse jigging for Simcoe whiteys. Pay attention to detail and find those sandy haunts that hold forage and of course, schools of whitefish. Play safe and have fun on the frozen lakes my friends!
Justin Girard Exist To Fish Writer
Jamie Wilson Exist ToFish Canada Lead Writer Editor