Trout on Ice Part 2: Lake Trout, Landlocked Salmon, and Big Water Browns

June 8, 2010
By Jason Wimbiscus
Article by Jim Paige

When fishing “big waters” or when fishing for especially large trout in winter, I use totally different tactics than explained previously. It’s a whole new ballgame now, as I’m after fish that most people will usually never encounter much less land. My gear isn’t even the same. As a rule, I keep an entirely different set of tip-ups set aside for using on big trout (or salmon), or on deep waters. I use Heritage “Laker” tip-ups exclusively for this type of tip-up fishing. I have the extra-large spools rigged with standard, pale-colored 36-pound ice (squidding) line. To that I attach a quality, medium size snap swivel, then a 14-pound mono leader about 3 feet long. A smaller snap is then attached and then the hook, usually a single Eagle Claw baitholder in size #4. I never use a treble for live bait fishing. It impedes the bait and can often be felt, when the bait is taken, causing a “drop”. If possible, I use a live smelt for bait. Other, local baits may also work well, such as large, emerald shiners.

Bait size matters little when lake trout fishing. They’ll take pretty much anything they encounter, even dead baits. Big baits are simply more readily noticed by a big fish, but browns and salmon tend to prefer not-so-large baits and the livelier the better. I also apply a drop or two of smelt-oil (we use a product called Smelt-Rite) right to the hook wound on the bait. Our live baits are generally hooked just above the spine and about midway between the dorsal fin and head. This keeps the bait pretty much “level” when it’s not swimming, appearing more normal.

Lake trout can be found at all depths, depending on the body of water, the day, weather conditions, even the time of day.  Weather plays a huge role. We always have our best luck the day before, or even during a big storm, but never just after. Those clear, often calm days just after a big blow always finds us home where it’s warm. Fishing after a big storm is a waste of time, as far as we can tell.

Lakers have varying habits, depending on the lake you are on. I fish some big, deep, northern lakes where these big trout never seem to leave the deep waters, or at least not for long. We may catch them in the shallows right at dawn or dusk, but otherwise they stay in the deep sections, often well below 75 feet, even in winter. Yet on other lakes, we have our best luck in waters anywhere from eight to 35 feet. Trial and error is the only way I know of to tell. Using a fish locator is not the answer. I’ve marked fish at certain depths, in certain lakes that will never seem to feed at those depths! It won’t help you to locate them if you can’t get them to hit!

top: This big winter brown was taken by this young fisherman using a tip-up and live smelt for bait, set just under the ice.
bottom: This is an “average” size lake trout for us, about 6-7 pounds.

For the most part, if fishing a new lake for lake trout, I’ll give them an assortment of set-ups to choose from, setting some tips out deep and some in shallow. Even when fishing deep though, we’ll often set the baits at various depths in the water column. Overall, our best luck has come from lines set at anywhere from 6 to 8 feet down, even when fishing in over 100 feet of water. The large schools of baitfish these big predators rely on are often deep. When attacked, some of the baitfish will get wounded but not caught. Eventually, just like in summer, they’ll float to the top and be stuck there, right under the ice. Lake trout and other large predators know to cruise at this level, looking for leftovers. And remember too, a lakers eyes and nostrils are located on the top of their heads. If your baits are set even a foot or two below where the fish are cruising, they’ll never see or smell your offering.

Many people have the mistaken impression that lakers are a “deep water” fish. This simply isn’t so. What lakers are is a cold water fish, not necessarily “deep”. I’ve fished many areas of the far north where lake trout live and can be caught right in the rivers, even in the dead of summer. That the water never warms above 50 degrees is why. So in winter, when ice covers the lakes, nearly every inch of that lake now becomes lake trout territory.

top: Lakers can get BIG! This one was about 14 pounds.
bottom: Landing a big trout is sure to bring a smile to anyone’s face!

I enjoy jigging for lake trout, especially. There’s something about hooking, fighting and landing a huge trout on tiny gear that just can’t help but be fun and exciting. I generally (but not always) fish deep though, as for the most part lake trout still tend to hang out deep, if only due to the location of the larger schools of baitfish. There are, of course, exceptions to this, such as when a school of lakers decides to enter a cove or harbor and chase a school of small perch around. At those times, jigging can be especially productive. The guys jigging perch daily can tell you just when and where that occurs. They get frustrated when large, toothy trout snip off their little bibbits time after time. I like to use a “Jigging Rapala” in firetiger color and about size W-5, at such times. I do replace the lower treble hook with a larger size though, as the one that comes with these lures simply isn’t large enough to handle lakers. It’s an easy process and I replace the tiny treble with one in about size #8 normally. A small chunk of baitfish and a drop or two of smelt-oil on the fish completes the process.

My jigging rods are a bit stiffer than the size you’d use for panfish, obviously and I use a medium size open-face spinning reel with a quality drag as well. You can’t use cheap gear when after trophy size fish. You get what you pay for generally. Buy cheap stuff and expect a cheap result. I usually use Gold Stren in 6-8 pound test for my line. It is highly visible and has good stretch to it, both factors I rely on. These new “no-stretch” lines have no value to me, as I count on the line’s ability to stretch to help me battle a huge fish on light line and tackle. I attach a quality, ball-bearing snap swivel to the line, then an 18-inch length of 14-pound mono (we use Silver Thread) as a “shock leader”. The line is then tied directly to the jig. When not using the Rapalas, I like the Spro lead-head, bucktail jigs in assorted sizes and colors. When fishing big, deep lakes like Lake Champlain (NY & VT) I use jigs anywhere from 1 to 2 ounces. I generally stick to the lighter colors too and chartreuse combinations always work well on big lake trout. The weight is to help counter both deep waters and the strong currents these big lakes tend to have, even in winter. That hi-vis line is imperative, when jigging deep. Often as not, you won’t feel the hit when jigging in 75 feet of water. But you’ll often see that line go slack or twitch once, that is, if you have line that can be easily seen! Set the hook hard as you back away from the hole. It often takes me up to 15 feet, to get all the slack up and actually connect with that fish, as I’m backing up! I then slowly work my way back to the hole, never allowing the tiniest bit of slack. Never hurry the battle with a large fish. I’ll often get a big trout to the hole 5 or 6 times before I can actually land it. Big holes are a plus when fighting and landing a big trout. I use my 10-inch auger at such times. Usually I jig two rods at once also, with one down near bottom and other only 8-10 feet down. Long, sweeping motions and “lifts” are used to jig the bucktails, which are often tipped with a chunk of smelt meat or a minnow head and that all-important smelt-oil. More often than not, the fish will hit as the jig sinks, after each lift. Watch for that line to go slack! That’s the hit!

This laker fell to a one-ounce bucktail jig.

When fishing lakes for big browns and salmon my tactics are similar as for lake trout, with a few exceptions. The tackle and set-ups are the same. What’s a tad different is that we never set baits deep. We may be over deep water, but our baits and even jigging is kept to just under the ice a few feet. After decades of trial & error, this is something I am steadfast on. If we want to catch big perch or even bass, we’ll fish deeper, but for trout in winter, we stay just under the ice. I also like to get away from the crowds, especially on big lakes. I’ll go way the heck out in the middle of the lake sometimes, just to get away from noisey neighbors on snow machines and quads. Silence is golden, especially when after big trout that are cruising just under the ice. We often space our tip-ups out a lot too, perhaps 50 yards apart, if possible.

A typical trout-fishing day begins well before daylight. We’ll cut however many holes we feel we need while it’s still pitch black out. We are baiting and setting tip-ups in the dark, using headlamps. Often as not, we arrived an hour or two before that even, just to jig for our live smelt for bait, with the aid of a lantern. The smelt can be brought right up to just under the ice early in the morning, with the aid of a lantern and are easily caught with tiny lures and a small piece of earthworm. I especially like the Hali jigs in silver, firetiger and “glo” colors. A quarter inch piece of worm on the hook completes the rig. Most days we can jig all the smelt we need in an hour or so, keeping them alive in a five-gallon bait bucket filled with lake water. I always reserve a hole just for jigging too and will jig smelt all day, just to keep us in fresh bait. Likely as not, I set about half our tip-ups down near bottom, set for big perch. My wife likes to stay “busy” when fishing and for eating, perch are at the very top of our list.

top: This is a typical catch for us while trout fishing,…lakers, big perch and smelt.
bottom: Just an “average” winter landlocked salmon (about 4.5 pounds) for us, taken on a tip-up and live minnow.

Baits for big trout and salmon are set and hooked the same as described earlier, but as I stated, set just down a few feet and no more. We try to check baits every couple hours too, to ensure they are still alive and kicking. I like the Jigging Rapala for browns too and in any number of bright colors. Salmon too, like this lure and the more it mimics a small smelt, the better it’ll work on salmon.

One big difference I’ve noticed between our methods and other fishermen is the way we treat a hit. Once a flag goes up we get to it ASAP and set the hook immediately. Some anglers seem to wait for the fish to stop, turn and swallow the bait. Often as not, at this point the fish will drop the bait and never return. Plus a fish with a swallowed hook is darn hard to release, if one needs to, such as with sub-legal fish. Set the hook quickly and release all but a couple to eat. Bring a camera and get photos as soon as the fish is landed. There is no better feeling than catching, photographing and releasing a big, trophy fish. Fish safely and remember to always check local and state laws. Not all of what I have outlined may be legal in your particular state, or on all waters. Be sure to read the laws before heading out and always check the ice thickness and hardness on a regular basis. Good luck!

A typical early morning catch of salmon, a big brown and some nice perch. These fish were taken on tip-ups and live bait.

Author Bio

Jim Paige is a well known New England outdoorsman, author and outdoor guide. He has acted as a representative and prostaffer for numerous nationally known outdoor-related companies and has been published in most national and regional publications over the years, as well as being a popular seminar speaker.

Jim lives with his wife Sherry in a small village in the mountains of Central Vermont and still is a very active hunter and fisherman. He and his wife have hunted and fished all over the country and especially enjoy ice fishing together each winter all over New England. They operate a small scent company called Ridge-Runner Scents (hunting and fishing scent products) out of their home in Middlesex, Vermont. They moved to Vermont from Alaska in 1984.

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