My boots connect with the icy snow. It is a sound I have come to love in the stillness of the morning before the sun crests the horizon. Pulling my sleigh across the frozen lake, ice fishing gear in tow, I drill my first hole and drop a line into the ice-chilled depths of the water. Ice fishing for lake trout is an experience long before you even hook a fish.
It’s -40˚C and my line and holes are freezing up quicker than I can keep them cleared. I know I won’t last long in these elements, so I set up my Cabela’s Hub Ice Shelter and a Big Buddy Mr. Heater. My auger is already a complete block of ice and needs to thaw before I can drill more holes.
My friend Mat Weaver joins me on the ice. He is an avid lake trout angler, guide, and custom rod builder. His passion for lake trout fishing is inspiring, and I can’t wait to send my bait down and learn the art of ice fishing for lake trout from him. We drill a couple of holes inside the warm tent and appreciate the break from the ruthless temperature.
Mat suggests I start with a Kim’s Watermelon tube jig, baited with a frozen chunk of herring. I open the bail and let it fall 80 feet, tapping the lake bottom. The sonar lights up, and I start spooling the line back up as I watch the laker chasing my lure. The faster I reel, the quicker the laker closes the distance to the bait. The line goes tight, and with the bend in my Screamer 43-inch medium heavy ice fishing rod, I know I’ve landed my first Cold Lake laker.
The battle begins. As I attempt to retrieve the line, the laker dives back down to the bottom, taking everything I gained. I try again to reel back the 20-pound braided line attached to an 18-inch fluorocarbon leader, but this fish wants no part of it. My drag screams out as he takes another run. The tug of war continues up and down the water column until he finally allows me to bring him up. After a quick picture, I release this energetic laker for another ice angler on another day.
Fish and Fun
Fishing through the ice in the frigid winter months is an exhilarating way to catch fish and a great way to enjoy time together with fellow angling enthusiasts. The laughter and jokes, alongside homemade soup and ham cheese melts cooked on the Mr. Buddy heater, warm the soul out on the frozen water. Fishing and food connect people in a way that makes you quickly feel like old friends.
Lakers constantly roam, looking for bait fish, during the winter months. They use structure points adjacent to deeper water to ambush their prey. We position ourselves near an underwater hump with a steep drop-off and tap our jigs aggressively on the bottom of the lake.
Our sonar shows big clouds of bait fish swimming through the area. Mat turns and says, “Hang on, this should be fun!” Before he finishes his sentence, I have a laker trailing.
I swiftly reel up. This fish is on a mission and slams my jig with attitude. Though he thrashes his head left and right, I keep my line tight and continue to reel, slowly but steadily. Mat reaches down and removes the laker from the hole. Its soft, elongated, greyish-brown-dappled body is offset by dark orange-grey coloration on its fins, lined with a thin white edge. With a quick twist from Mat’s pliers, the hook is out. As I return this trout to the ice-cold water, his forked tail fin slaps my hand, telling me he is ready to go.
I learn a lot from Mat; listening, watching, and mimicking his presentation helps me catch and release five lake trout that January day. I know I will be back. The challenging and aggressive bite has me hooked.
A Second Trip
It’s now March, and I’m on another road trip to Cold Lake, my truck loaded with fishing gear and a sleeping bag. Since January, the weather has warmed up, and the three-hour drive allows me to think ahead and plan the locations I’ll fish and the techniques I’ll use.
I access the lake at the Cold Lake Provincial Park boat launch at 6 a.m. With the temperature rising 34˚from January, it is now a balmy -6˚C, so I don’t need an ice fishing tent or heat. I set up near a large weed flat with a shelf that drops down 80 feet. I send my glow tube jig to the bottom, but I’m not finding the lake trout. I’m marking them mid-column or higher on my sonar.
Lake Trout are cold-water-blooded fish, which means the water controls their body temperature and movement. They like water temperatures around 8 to 12 ˚C. While most fish become sluggish with the colder water in the winter, lake trout stay active and maintain their strength.
I quickly realize the lake trout’s patterns have changed. They are not on the lake bottom as they were in January, and neither are the baitfish. I release the bail as my glow tube jig, baited with a frozen smelt, drops to 40 feet. I instantly have a mark on the sonar, and with a few quick jigs, followed by a fast retrieval, the laker is on the move—but it loses interest and peels off.
The sonar marks fish all day, but I can’t seem to land them. Laker after laker follows my lure and spins off; it’s a tough day of ice fishing. I fish till midnight, hoping for a hungry bite from a lake trout, but I put my gear away with no success. I sleep in my truck on the ice that night with no heat. I’m glad I spent the money and purchased a good-quality sleeping bag for extreme temperatures. It is cold.
Longing to land a laker, I’m up early to watch the sunrise. I drill holes in deeper water but continue to work the mid-column. Suddenly, the sonar lights up as a school of baitfish comes through; the lake trout are close behind.
Persistence pays off. This laker is hungry and wants a meal. The chase begins, but he doesn’t smash my tube jig until it is just below the ice. I set the hook and immediately feel his weight as he peels the line. With the tension set high on my reel, it doesn’t take long before I bring him through the hole.
I had sensed this laker was bigger than the others I had landed, but I wasn’t expecting him to fill the entire augured hole. What a beauty! I quickly remove the hook and take a picture. With a little finessing, this chubby trout squeezes back down the hole.
I spend the remainder of my day drilling holes in new areas on the 373 square kilometers of this lake. There is plenty of structure, with underwater drops, humps, and weed flats. They extend for hundreds of meters where lake trout can be found from depths of three to 50 meters.
Each time I ice fish, I continue to learn about location, techniques, lures and bait presentation. I know that the more I fish Cold Lake, the better the chances that I will be staring down an augured hole seeing the dark, piercing cold water with a bent fishing rod in hand.