Finally, the gear: My rods are, of course, custom builds. Finding the right ice rods for Laker fishing can be difficult as most commercial ice rods are designed for Panfish and Walleye. I’m also usually very unsatisfied with the short lengths of most commercially available ice rods. It’s so hard to get a nice tip and a nice butt in only 24 to 28 inches of rod blank. There just isn’t enough rod blank to transition between the two needs. By ice rod standards the rods I build would probably be classified as extra heavy rods but I consider them more of a medium rod. I typically purchase cheap graphite freshwater spinning blanks rated for 6 12 pound lines and hack out a 42” section of that blank that fits my requirements. The process is all done pretty much by feel; carefully trimming the tip section of the blank back until you get the flex and power needed. Then from the new tip, cut the blank to the desired overall length. I’m looking for a combination of something with the right tip for the baits to be used and enough butt power for fish that can easily weigh ten pounds. For this trip I brought two rods. A 42” spin and a 42” spiral wrapped bait caster. The bait casting rod was a step heavier than my spinning rod for some of my heavier presentations in deeper water.
Matt's box of ice fishing lures and his handy FRS Radio
I chose to bring an older Shimano Ultegra 2500 spinning reel because it had a folding handle making packing the rod much easier. I had that reel spooled with 20 pound Power Pro and tied on a six foot, twelve pound fluorocarbon leader. The bait casting reel I brought along was a trusty Abu Garcia 5501 C4 spooled with 30 pound Power Pro. It has a clicker on the reel, just in case I decided to dead stick some meat, and I like the high speed reel. It’s impossible to out reel a Lake Trout and often times, speed kills so to speak, when it comes to fishing Lake Trout.
A Whislter Hare Jig
The Baits: I packed a small Plano 3600 tackle box with all of my staple items: Little Cleo spoons, Northland Bionic Bucktail jigs, Northland Whistler jigs and Northland Airplane jigs. I also hand tied several Northland ball head and Whistler jigs with combinations of hackle, buck tail and rabbit strips and threw those in my box. A hare jig was a pretty hot lure for me on my last trip and I wasn’t going back without a good supply of them. For tipping of some of my offerings I had two bags of my staple white Berkley Power Tubes and a couple of other bags of varied stuff from Berkley and Yamamoto to play around with in the hopes of finding the new hot plastic. Some of the guys on the trip like to tip with salted dead shiner minnows.
Getting ready to deploy an airplane and power tube bait.
Location is Key: Locations for finding Lake Trout are much like any other fish. Close, quick access to deep (100’+ for Lakers) water, points, saddles, humps and most importantly, food, are the things to be looking for when finding a location. While I know guys that do well fishing at depths of 100’ and greater, I prefer to stay under 100’, because during the constant oxygen content of winter, Lakers are free to roam anywhere and I often find them in 40’ of water. Regardless of how deep I’m fishing, I tend to run into the most active fish in the middle of the water column (i.e. over 80’ of water, active fish will be at 40’). Fish on the bottom tend to be in a neutral to negative attitude and while they can often be coaxed into biting, it’s the ones in the middle that will crash your bait with reckless abandon often times never even showing on your depth finder as they speed thru your sonar cone after your bait. In situations like this, seeing them and feeling them are nearly simultaneous.
The setup from a distance. Normally, this would be the middle of the lake but during this time of year, it looks like a snow covered field.
Belching Fish?: Lake Trout are unusual in that they have the ability to “pass gas”. When most other species of fish are caught at great depths and quickly hauled to the surface their swim bladder expands greatly, often times protruding right out of the mouth of the fish. This can often times kill the fish. Lake Trout are able to belch out the air in their swim bladders. So catching Lake Trout in 100’ of water isn’t a concern.
Matt's first ice fishing Lake Trout in 5 years, a beautiful 26 inch specimen.
Ready, Set, ACTION! My first set up was on an inside turn. I found an interesting piece of structure on my last winter trip and had the opportunity to scout further from a boat on a later Muskie trip. As I lowered my Airplane jig/white tube combo into the water the tell tale red line of a fish appeared on my Vexilar just about centered in the water column. I let my Airplane spiral down to about 3’ above the fish and gave one good jig to let Airplane spiral back up then spiral down. Just as the jig settled to its final depth the red line of the fish sped up to meet the green line of my bait and I felt the solid “thud” of a Laker jack hammering my bait. It was on! First fish. A nice muscular 26” Lake Trout.
All this gear towed across a frozen lake via snowmobile
After releasing the fish and giving the report over the radio I dropped my bait down the hole again. Again a fish showed. This time it just moved up to the bait and the two lines merged and became one. But it didn’t strike. My next move was to reel up 15 or 20 feet as fast as possible hoping to entice a strike. Bingo! I couldn’t have made it more than 5’ and I was hooked up again. Within 15 minutes of release of my second fish I had yet another interested fish. This time running away didn’t do the trick so after bringing the fish up 15’ I opened my bail and let the bait drop, and drop, and drop. The fish finally gave chase, and at about 20’ from the bottom I closed the bail and watched the two lines on the Vexilar merge and become one. Just then, I felt the familiar “thud” of a Laker slamming into my bait. We call that little maneuver the Atomic Drop. You have to pay close attention while performing that trick and try to watch both your depth finder and your line as often times you get hit while your bail is still open and the lure is still dropping. I managed another fish or two out of that location before hanging things up for the day. A good day in Laker country.
Matt and a beautiful 24" Laker
Conclusion: That wound up being the best day of fishing I was to have for the trip. Mid day the next day a cold front moved thru that dropped overall temps about 20°. It went from temps being in the teens and twenties to minus teens and single digit above zero temps. We all still caught fish but activity slowed down considerably and the average size of fish dropped by 6 inches or more. Lots of fish were hugging the bottom, which is never a good sign. You could get a good number of fish to come up and “sniff” your baits and even follow them up and down the water column. But they didn’t want to bite. I managed to get one fish to follow me from 50’ down to 10’ below the ice before it turned and headed back for the bottom. Biters were few and far between. Overall the fishing could have been better but the company, scenery and solitude would have been hard to beat. I’m already looking forward to next year’s trip. I just picked up my smoked Trout from the locker and am enjoying this years trip all over again.
Tip: While I was staying at a private facility there are several resorts in North West Ontario that cater to Lake Trout ice fishing. The first couple years I fished Lakers thru the ice was at Brown’s Clearwater West Lodge. An excellent outfitter. North West Ontario isn’t short on Lake Trout water or competent outfitters. It’s an adventure you wouldn’t soon forget.