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.
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.
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 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.
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.