Not all species of fish are active during the winter season. In fact, certain popular game fish, such as smallmouth and largemouth bass, are all but dormant in the winter. Even popular winter game like walleye are more lethargic when the ice moves over the lakes. Catchable they are. But the walleye bite can get very, very slow when the thermometer bottoms out.
Then there is the lake trout. I sometimes think the good Lord designed the laker to give us ice fisherman species you could at least semi-rely on to catch in the dead of winter. In fact, the colder the day and the bluer the sky, the better lake trout seem to bite. They love high pressure systems and in January, February and March, that usually equals a snappy cold. Why lake trout are such dynamos under the ice is a secret only Mother Nature knows, but it makes them the best winter fish in the swim.
I’ve had too many memorable winter lake trout days to even recount. I’ve chased them out on Lake Superior, and on remote lakes deep in the northwestern Ontario wilderness. No matter where you find them, lakers are a pretty consistent creature come winter. Sure, they can be fussy, and you can get skunked. Yet put your time in, give them what they want, and odds are good you will feel the powerful surge of a laker under the ice.
Jigging Artificial Lures
One of the coolest things about winter lake trout is they can be caught regularly on artificial lures. In fact, there are times when artificial lures work a whole lot better than live bait. You can also fish relatively aggressively for lake trout, jigging a spoon, jigging rapala or tube jig with a lot of action. The most aggressive presentation will come via a jigging spoon like the Hopkins, Krocodile or Swedish Pimple. Spoon weights of a half-ounce to one-ounce will do the job in most lakes. The key here is to jig the spoon with large sweeps, and then follow the spoon on the drop with the tip of your jigging rod. You need to keep the line tight at all times. Lake trout sometimes hit on the upswing, and this is the most classic and exciting winter strike. The dead weight of lake trout that inhaled your spoon is an exciting feeling. As often as not, however, trout will scoop up a spoon as it drops, and all you will see is your line curled up on the ice fishing hole. This is when you reel up and set the hook hard. Trout won’t hold a spoon long, so you need to be on your toes.
Trout will hang on to a plastic jig, scented or not. White tube jigs of about 4 inches in length are my go-to lure, but plastic shads or grub bodies can also work very well. The jigging motion is a bit more subtle with these lures, and it’s almost a slow swim as opposed to the more aggressive jerk/drop of a spoon. The slower descent of a plastic jig also makes it very appealing to trout that are looking for baitfish like smelt or herring that may be dying under the ice. Several years ago, I dropped a white tube into a hole and let it free fall to the bottom. I had an ice fishing flasher on and knew it was about 40 feet deep, but as I let line out, I noticed it seemed to be dropping down the hole at an unusually fast rate. On top of that, I was well into my spool and the line was way past where it should have been bottom. Could it be? I closed the bail, reeled up slack and felt weight. A hard hook set was followed by a line screaming run. A lake trout had inhaled that tube as it dropped and had been swimming off with it. After an exciting fight, a scrappy 8-pound lake trout was slid onto the ice. The sheer unpredictability of winter lake trout is another of the traits that make them so fun to fish for in winter.
My ace-in-the-hole lure is a smelt coloured bucktail jig tied by Mighty Mitch and Jungle Joe Jigflies in Terrace Bay, Ont. The smelt bucktail looks a little different than plastic in the water, and the action really appeals to larger lake trout. Some of the very largest winter trout I’ve seen ate a bucktail jig.
Run and Gun
Because lake trout tend to be more active more often than most fish under ice, it doesn’t pay dividends to wait all day for a bite on the first spot you hit. If you drill a few holes, and nothing happens within 30 minutes, I recommend you move. It doesn’t even have to be that far. There are times lake trout will be on fire in one spot and non-existent just 100 feet away. Drill a lot of holes and move around as much as possible. At times I will simply hit each hole that’s been dug for 5 minutes of jigging, without even putting a second baited line down the hole. If no fish strike the spoon or tube, I’ll pack up and move. It’s amazing how quick the strikes come when you find active fish. Often they will slam a lure within the first few minutes of fishing. Double headers on good spots are not unusual.
I also highly recommend some kind of ice flasher or depth finder when chasing lakers. Not only can you mark fish with them, but you can see if they’re chasing your lure and not striking. This happens quite a lot. If a fish appears on the screen, but keeps rejecting your lure, switch it up. If the spoon is drawing them in, but without a strike, try dropping a white tube or plastic minnow down there. When lake trout are looking at a tube jig, but not hitting, try pulling it way from them as they chase it. I’ve had lake trout chase a tube almost to the bottom of the ice before finally nailing it. If that doesn’t work, a tail-hooked minnow on a light weight jig is very tempting.
Lake trout are great fighters, can be found in a lot of different lakes and are good to eat. If you love to battle big fish and haven’t tried winter fish lakers you are missing out. They are the perfect winter fish.