Up until a few years ago, I used to do a lot of winter camping. We enjoyed snowshoeing in to some secluded frozen lake, finding and then setting up a perfect base camp and then getting ready for a few days of great ice fishing action.
Only then would we head back to the campsite a few yards away and begin a campfire, get warm and get ready for breakfast. We knew it would not be long before a decent laker would come by and grab hold of one of our baits.
On one such beautiful crisp morning I was the first to see the bright orange flag fly up. I raced after it at full speed… anxious to ice our first laker of the day. As I grabbed the line between my thumb and forefinger I noticed that the spool on the tip up was revolving frantically. I lifted up my arm forcefully and set the hook hard. Right away, I knew this wasn't one of the typical 2-5 pounders so common throughout this section of the province, as strong, powerful runs signalled that this particular lake trout was heavier and larger than most. Even though five minutes later my fingers were semi frozen, they still acted as the perfect drag system; eventually tiring the big brute enough so that I could bring her up through the hole and grab her with my other … not so frozen hand. At just under 15 pounds, this trout would not set any records (except perhaps as the locals later told us for this small inland lake) but it sure was the highlight of the trip.
There is no doubt that the primordial practice of hand lining is the most intimately connecting method of bringing a big lake trout or whitefish from the icy depths. Prehistorically simplistic as well, is the allure of using gads which can still be seen dotting the ice in many remote regions of the country. These plain thin branches are stuck in the snow and bent over towards the hole where the line winds its way down off the spool.
Even more widespread are the use of jigging sticks. For those who like to impart some movement in their baits this foot long ruler-type stick which is notched at both ends to hold the line, is the only ice fishing ‘rod' they have ever used that also doubles for a stationary rig.
HT's Balanced Tip Up like the one shown here is still the preferred choice for many ice hut anglers on Lake Simcoe
Tip Up sticks like this often come with the appropriate stand. They are fitted with 6-10 pound line and are balanced perfectly so that even the lightest hitting fish will upset the balance and indicate a strike.
Often rigged with a double spreader and minnows right on bottom for whitefish, the balanced tip up should actually fall back when a whitie strikes. Quick hands are in order to grab the tip up stick and set the hook with a firm, yet gentle upwards motion.
Doubling Your Odds … With The Two Hole Approach:
Fishing in two holes is perfectly legal when ice fishing most lakes in Ontario so when laker or whitie fishing it's usually a double or nothing type deal for me. The combo of a set line on a Polar or Windlass Tip-Up in one hole and the angler jigging with an ice rod in another is tough to beat. What is rigged on the Polar or Windlass will depend on a few factors, not the least of which is the type of species you hope to catch. For whities on the stationary Polar you could go with the traditional HT spreader rig and minnows placed right on bottom. Or, try a small jig like the Gold Nugget Jig tipped with a Berkley Gulp 2-3” smelt or shiner minnow and place it a few inches from bottom.
The HT Polar Tip Up is great for a stationary presentation
For lakers, suspending something like an HT Lit'l Minnow Jig or even a single hook tipped with the Gulp Minnow can produce when fish want a dead sticking presentation. When using Polar Tip Ups for either of these rigs you can be sure that your line will not freeze thanks to the lubricant within the spool of the tip up, so for extremely cold days they are tough to beat. Using HT's Polar Ice Tip Up Line helps make hand lining hassle free and is especially effective when used with about a 10 Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon line leader.
Polar Therm Tip Up
When heavy snow is an issue, as has often been the case in the winter of 2008, the covered Polar Therm Tip Up can truly shine. This model even comes with a telescoping wire flag for real heavy snow.
The cover prevents snow from filling your hole and makes life so much easier out on the hard water during a snowstorm. These tip ups and others in the HT line can even be fitted with a special strike light that will glow once a fish has tripped the flag.
When you have some wind and temps are still keeping your hole relatively ice free, the Windlass tip up is just the ticket. In essence this rig can do the jigging for you thanks to the metal flap on the rocker arm that moves your bait up and down. You can use the same baits you would for the Polar - but instead of the stationary deal, you'll be having some movement in your baits thanks to the wind. When the wind is really kicking up, you can even add a light spoon like the Mirage or a jig and Berkley Gulp Minnow.
HT Windlass Tip Up System
In the second hole - it's actually you that does the fishing not the tip up so if you miss a fish … it's your fault dude! To increase your odds at hooking up, check out some of the high quality graphite ice rods that allow you to detect subtle strikes you might otherwise miss. With so many good ice rods available to today's High Tech angler though it's hard to just chose just one … and you know what? You shouldn't! If you can afford the investment in a few ice rods with different actions for different applications, then you will never regret bringing more the one out with you.
For light striking whitefish with their tender mouths for instance you need a rod with a fast limber tip and a medium or even medium light action. Although the eyes on the HT Polar Lite Jiggin Stik are too small for the nastiest, coldest sub zero weather, the Polar Lite Series are perfect ice rods for light hitting fish even if they're big lakers or whities. Whether you are battling a small stocked lake trout or a big wild fighting whitefish, these rods with their stiff butts and limber tips heighten the enjoyment of bringing these and all fish from their icy haunts.
Polar Lite Jig Stik 32” Medium Graphite Rod
Canadian winters can be nasty though, so there are definitely times your lake trout and whitefish rods will have to have larger guides so that they don't freeze up as easily. HT's selection ranges from the heavy duty Ice Blue Trout Rods with their super sized guides to the more traditional Polar Gold Series.
Polar Gold 28" Medium Heavy Action Graphite Rod
Finding lake trout and whitefish
Local experts look for active fish by jigging a flashy search lure like a large HT Quiver or Big Catch Spoon. In some of the more tannic stained lakes, I prefer the large HT Chatter Spoon. On Lake of the Woods last year, we just hammered the whitefish on these rattling spoons. For lakers a spoon is best worked wherever you are marking baitfish. If none are visible on your sonar try beginning near bottom and jig for five minute intervals before moving 5-10 feet up and start jigging there again.
Repeat until you are about 2/3-3/4 from your hole and then drop down to bottom again or wherever baitfish have appeared. Make sure to have intervals lasting up to a minute where you are not jigging - just holding still and jiggling that spoon. Once you get bit check your sonar right away to note what depth you were at. Also pay attention to how you were working your lure; rapidly up and down or possibly just quivering. Keeping these factors in mind can be a great way to establish the most effective pattern not only in one area of the lake but others as well. Speaking of which, once you have worked an area thoroughly don't hesitate to try elsewhere on the lake to duplicate effective patterns or even to discover new ones that may present themselves.
Wil with a nice north western Ontario Lake trout that fill victim to a Gold Nugget HT Jig and Berkley Minnow Combo
For extremely overcast days or when heavy snow cover blocks virtually any sunlight from reaching the deep lairs of either lake trout or whitefish, the combination of glow and sound can pay big dividends. This is when a 'Jig-A-Whopper Hawger Spoon Rattle' in the ¼ oz pearl glow really shines. To increase hook ups though, try removing the single hook, add a Gamakatsu red treble and slide a Berkley power egg onto the hook. The addition of that egg - especially for whitefish, can mean the difference between reeling up with … or without a big ol whitie.
Other than on some lake - like Lake of the Woods, whitefish are almost always within a couple of feet off bottom and more than likely very close to the lakes floor. It is easy to see why too, as their underslung mouths are ideally suited to picking up tid bits off bottom. Working bottom oriented artificial lures such the full sized Lil Foxxee Jigging Minnow tipped with a grub, ½ a tube jig or finesse minnow are becoming increasingly popular on Lake Simcoe and many lakes to the north.
Knowing where to put your presentation in the water column for lake trout is usually more complex than for the bottom oriented whitefish. Trout are not limited by water temperature during the winter like they are in summer and therefore are notorious for suspending at all variety of depths under the ice– most often governed by the movements of baitfish. For this reason, the use of good sonar becomes a must-have tool for the serious winter lake trout angler. The Lowrance Ice Machine will easily detect movements of baitfish that help determine where to place your bait. Watching it carefully throughout the day helps determine what depths you should be fishing at. It could be 10 feet off bottom in 80 feet of water one day and 40 feet off the next.
The beauty about the two hole approach is that you don't always know which rig will be most productive on any given day. Sometimes it may be a subtle, lifelike Gulp Minnow on a Polar tip up in one hole, yet on others they are whacking the spoon you are jigging in the hole next to it. Oddly enough though, you may not get bit at all while jigging some days or in certain lakes. But I am convinced the flashy lure down there is acting as the key ingredient to bring fish into the area which in fact can trigger the tip up bite. And, if that's what it takes to get bit by a beautiful lake trout or whitefish so be it; your one-two punch is what brought you success.