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Guide: Ice-angling for trophy fish

Gord Pyzer

How to tackle winter's trophy triumvirate€”monster lakers, pike and walleye

Many sports boast their very own grand slam, the definitive pinnacle of success. A golfer, for example, can accomplish the grand slam by winning the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship all in the same year. Tiger Woods is the only person to ever come close, achieving a so-called consecutive grand slam when he won the four events spread over two seasons. And only five people-most recently Steffi Graf in 1988—have won the grand slam of singles tennis, capturing the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. open titles in the same season.

Clearly, grand slams are anything but trivial pursuits, and that includes the grand slam of ice fishing—landing a 20-pound lake trout, 20-pound northern pike and 10-pound walleye in a single season. Such a feat is rare to be sure, but it’s not impossible. I came close last winter, in fact, landing an 11-pound-plus walleye, a personal best 32-pound northern pike and a lake trout that was only a smelt dinner shy of the magical 20-pound mark.

This season, I fully intend to score a grand slam, and you can, too—or at least have fun trying. Just follow these essential rules.

Target big-fish lakes

First and foremost, you need a body of water that can regularly produce giant lake trout, northern pike or walleye. This can be tough for most ice anglers to accept, because it may mean facing the harsh reality that their favourite lake lacks grand slam potential. And on this I speak with some authority. I can snowmachine from my backyard onto northwestern Ontario’s Lake of the Woods, which I consider to be one of the fishing wonders of the world. I love the place, but after fishing the massive million-acre pond for 100-plus days a year for more than 35 seasons, I know it’s not a trophy-walleye producer. Most days, I can catch the heck out of the walleye, regularly releasing fish ranging up to eight pounds. But for a whole host of reasons, mostly related to fishing pressure, double-digit walleye are hard to come by simply because they don’t exist in any great numbers.

That’s not the case 120 kilometres away in Lake Winnipeg, however. Indeed, the giant inland sea, lying just north of Manitoba’s capital, is currently the finest trophy-walleye ice fishery on earth. For the past several winters, a few buddies and I have made at least one multi-day pilgrimage to the lake, where we have averaged better than one 10-pound plus walleye per day of ice fishing. So you do the math.

As a general rule, the best grand slam lakes, rivers and reservoirs are giant skating rinks covering hundreds, if not thousands of square kilometres. And like Lake Winnipeg, they’re typically full of soft-rayed, silvery, high-protein forage in the form of rainbow smelts, ciscoes, suckers and shiners. The fatty diet and vast expanse of water combine to let the fish bulk up while remaining hidden for the many years eeded-often 30 or more for lakers-to grow to trophy proportions.

There are exceptions, of course, especially for King Kong walleye and gator-sized pike. Often, moderately large bodies of water covering more than 20,000 acres will produce trophy specimens with some consistency, provided they offer two critical ingredients: the same forage base mentioned above and plenty of deep water (not just one or two isolated basins).

Not that the deep water will figure into your actual ice-fishing game plan. Instead, it comes into play during the open-water season. That’s when large northern pike function best and gain weight at the fastest possible pace, spending as much time as possible in water ranging between 18 and 20°C. Across much of the country, you’ll find those temperatures at depths far greater than most anglers are accustomed to fishing with any degree of skill. As a result, the deep basins in moderately large lakes allow the fish to hide out, much the same way the huge fish factories offer plenty of hiding places.

It’s the same with walleye, which flourish when ciscoes and smelts are present. The large females, in particular, seek out this rich forage base, targeting the so-called ciscoe layer for food and bioenergetics. They’re also able to slow down their metabolism in the cooler water of the deep basins, and devote more energy to fitness, growth and egg production. And become grand slam contenders.

Now that you know what type of waters to target, don’t just show up at one of these winter wonderlands, drill a bunch of holes and expect to haul up award-winning fish. If only grand slams were that easy. Instead, it’s crucial that you know precisely when and where to fire up your auger.

A good example of this occurred last winter on Lake Winnipeg. One day after icing mammoth walleye—some so big my fishing buddies and I could barely squeeze them through the holes—I helped out at an ice-fishing contest on the big frozen inland sea. Even with hundreds of anglers fishing in a large cordoned-off section of the lake, not a single walleye was caught.

Why? Given the large number of contestants and the organizational challenges associated with setting up tents, drilling holes and plowing ice roads, the event had to be staged relatively close to shore. But it was much farther out on the lake, around isolated rock piles and subtle breaklines, that we’d been hauling in the big fish the day before.

Perhaps more importantly, my friends and I had been running-and-gunning on snowmachines between small sweet spots stored in our GPS units, covering at least 70 kilometres. And we were doing it with stealth. Compare that with the carnival-like atmosphere of the ice-fishing contest, with thousands of streaks of light suddenly streaming down holes and hundreds of anglers tromping around on the frozen water.

If you were a 10-pound-plus walleye, you’d have either vacated the area as soon as the commotion erupted or hidden on the bottom and waited for the gong show to end. You don’t grow to grand slam proportions by being a dim-wit-those fish were fried up for shorelunch years ago.

So, when exactly should you target grand slam fish-and where? For catching big lake trout, make sure you’re the early bird at first ice. Because lakers spawn in the fall, the open-water trout season usually closes at the end of September across most of the country. So by the time ice-fishing season rolls around, typically on New Year’s Day, the fish haven’t been hassled for months. And since it’s post-spawn, they’re famished and likely to bite.

As to where you should drop your baits, far too many ice anglers spend far too much time fishing in and around deep structure, sometimes in 80 or more feet of water. That’s because their minds are still in the open-water season, when the trout head deep in search of cold water and forage. During winter, however, the entire water column is cold, so the trout don’t need to go deep. Instead, moderately deep structures almost always produce more and bigger fish. In fact, I don’t believe lake trout structure can be too shallow in the winter. In particular, target large sunken reefs, long underwater points and isolated rock piles on otherwise featureless flats.

Since large lakers are never numerous, though, it pays to be mobile. Thirty minutes at a spot with no action tells you it’s time to move on. And again, it’s important to hit these easily identified areas early in the season, as they often lose their lustre a week or two after the opener and swarms of ice anglers arrive.

The biggest winter walleye and northern pike I’ve ever caught, on the other hand, have almost always come through the ice at the end of the season. There are two main reasons for this.

First, walleye and pike use the latter half of the winter to drift toward their eventual spring spawning sites. By the end of the season, therefore, you’ll find the largest concentrations of big fish schooled around the best structural elements close to where they’ll soon lay their eggs.

Second, because the spawning process is so energy dependent, pike and walleye use the last weeks of the ice-fishing season to consume as many calories as possible to help their eggs mature and to maintain their fitness level. Think of giant grand slam fish as Olympic athletes, and the last-ice/pre-spawn period as the training leading up to the Games.

Indeed, the mammoth pike I hauled up onto the ice last winter—my biggest northern ever—came from a spot where I’ve caught and released numerous 25-pound-plus fish over the years. It’s the first major contact point lying adjacent to the main lake basin, yet only a cast away from the shallow, weed-filled bay where the fish spawn-the perfect pit stop.

Keep in mind that both gargantuan pike and enormous walleye will commonly congregate around the best structural features at last ice. That’s why I always set tip-ups on top of the structures to catch the giant gators while I jig on the edges for the big ‘eyes. As for timing, the northerns routinely pop the flags during late afternoon, while the night-loving walleye show up like clockwork as the sun sinks below the horizon.

Choosing the right size, shape and colour of lures, then presenting them properly, is the final crucial ingredient to accomplishing the grand slam of ice fishing.

For giant winter lake trout, it may surprise you to learn they’re least attracted by overly large baits. For some strange reason, normal-sized three-, four- and five-inch-long (and even slightly smaller) tube jigs, swimbaits and spoons entice big lakers much better most days than do larger baits.

For sumo-sized walleye and northern pike, meanwhile, the operative word is “big”—these fish almost always show a preference for spoons, jigs and lures that are larger than most ice anglers are accustomed to using. Walleye anglers, for example, misguidedly believe big winter walleye are difficult to catch, require finesse tactics to fool and spend most of the time lying with their bellies nudging the bottom. This is simply not true.

Instead, you need to get aggressive with the rattling, lipless style of crankbait typified by the Rapala Clackin’ Rap and the Koppers LIVETARGET Trap series (the hot new colour this year is Gizzard Shad). In my opinion, these are the two best big walleye lures that most ice anglers never use-their ability to attract and trigger Goliath-sized walleye is remarkable.

The rattle is the obvious draw, but don’t discount the lures’ appeal in terms of vibration, size and colour. While it’s curiosity that brings muskies and smallmouth bass to lipless cranks, there’s something inherent in the sound and feel of the noisy, vibrating lures that attracts big bruisin’ walleye.

On large, featureless waterbodies such as Lake Winnipeg and the Bay of Quinte, you can call in a school of walleye from a considerable distance with one of these lures, just like a waterfowler working his magic on a high-flying flock of geese. I’ve watched the scene unfold so many times on my sonar screen: You’re jigging the lure aggressively enough that you can feel it wobbling and hear it rattling in the depths below your boots when suddenly one, two, three, even four or more walleye come streaking across the screen chasing the lure.

Indeed, in these wide-open, clear, structureless waters with tightly schooling balls of roaming baitfish, the walleye typically behave like lake trout, forced to gang up and strike quickly or go home hungry. On highly structured lakes with plenty of points, bars, reefs and shelves, on the other hand, big walleye typically relate more closely with these hard-bottomed underwater features. That’s not to say lipless cranks won’t work here, because they will. It’s just that it’s much more difficult to call in the fish when there’s a 20-foot-high rock reef in the way.

For this reason, you need to be more precise about where you drill your holes on these well-structured waters, always fishing over and around the sweet spot-on-the-spot, such as a small patch of gravel, an isolated boulder or a distinct drop-off. When you get the location right, a Clackin’ Rap or LIVETARGET Trap is still the first lure you should drop down the hole.

After I’ve picked off the highly aggressive walleye using lipless crankbaits, I’ll switch over to a 2 1/4-inch-long, Williams Half & Half Nu-Wrinkle Ice Jig tipped with a large shiner head. Most anglers associate this famous spoon more with lake trout, and it’s certainly a wonderful arrow in your lake trout quiver. But it’s also one of the finest big lures for winter walleye.

The Rapala Jigging Rap and Jigging Shad Rap are the next lures in my repertoire, and the ones I use for mop-up duty. The same goes for the Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon and the HT Jig-A-Whopper Hawger 2000 (or Lazer Hawger 2000) with a minnow head adorning the treble. If you’re wondering whether live bait enters the grand slam equation, it doesn’t. You just don’t need live minnows, which generally only attract the smallest fish.

This also applies to northern pike big enough to chew off your leg-avoid live bait. Instead, start by attaching freshly thawed foot-long suckers and ciscoes to quick-strike rigs, gradually progressing to even bigger dead baits. Since I can never find ones big enough in my local bait shop, I dip-net suckers in the spring and freeze them whole. I also target ciscoes when ice fishing for whitefish and keep them for pike bait.

Can you catch a big pike by dangling a live minnow down a hole? Well, you could get lucky. But when you’re going for a grand slam, luck plays no role in the outcome. Just ask Tiger Woods and Steffi Graf.

Tips

Pimp your spoon

You can double any spoon’s effectiveness by removing the treblehook and attaching a Stringease Fastach clip to the split ring instead. As for the hook, slide the eye through a minnow head and out the mouth, then attach it to the clip (pictured below). Not only will you attract more big walleye with the pendulum effect of the rocking minnow head, but you’ll also hook every fish that bites.

Hang ’em high

The biggest mistake ice anglers make is to jig their lures and hang their quick-strike baits below the fish close to the bottom.

Instead, the offerings should be presented above the fish. That’s because lakers and pike use the underside of the ice to silhouette their prey; they’re especially proficient at capturing softrayed forage high up in the water column. Even winter walleye are almost always looking up.

Trophy takers

For grand slam lakers, northerns and walleye, you can’t beat these lure and colour combinations.

1 Clackin’ Rap

  • Firetiger
  • Glass Ghost
  • Olive Green
  • Purpledescent

2 LIVETARGET Trap

  • Bluegill
  • Gizzard Shad
  • Golden Shiner
  • Pumpkinseed

3 Jigging Shad Rap

  • Glow
  • Glow Tiger
  • Gold
  • • Pearl
  • • Perch
  • • Shad
  • • Silver

4 Half & Half Nu-Wrinkle Ice Jig

  • Gold and Silver

5 Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon

  • Gold Shiner
  • Golden Perch
  • Silver Shiner
  • Super Glow Chub

6 Jigging Rap

  • Glow
  • Glow Tiger
  • Gold
  • Perch
  • Silver

7 Jig-A-Whopper Hawger 2000

  • CG (Chartreuse Green)
  • CO (Chartreuse) Orange)
  • CW (Chartreuse White)
  • O (Orange)
  • S (Silver)
  • W (White)

Gord Pyzer

Gord Pyzer

Fishing Editor Gord Pyzer is widely regarded as Canada's most scientific angler. Known in fishing circles as Doctor Pyzer, he worked for 30 years as a senior manager with Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources before devoting all his energies to fishing. A member of the Canadian Angler Hall of Fame, the award-winning writer is also an internationally sought out speaker, tournament angler and field editor with In-Fisherman Magazine and Television. As well, he co-hosts the Real Fishing Radio Show with Bob Izumi. Catch Gord on the Outdoor Journal Radio Show live every Saturday morning 8:05AM EST. If you're in southern Ontario, tune your radio to Sportsnet 590 The FAN AM or visit www.fan590.com and listen live online.