Not long ago, whitefish weren’t even on my ice fishing radar. I considered them a disappointing incidental catch while targeting lake trout. That changed in a hurry when I discovered how big whitefish get, how hard they fight, and how much fun they are to target.
My whitefish awakening came while searching for lake trout not far from my hometown in northwestern Ontario. Good friend and local fishing guide, Colin Gosse, had taken me out with the promise of big lakers. Armed with typical lake trout sized offerings of spoons and tubes, we prepared for battle off a reef in the lake’s main basin.
While jigging in the middle of the water column, I noticed a red streak shoot up from the bottom on my flasher. “Here comes one,” I called out, and began reeling up, trying to entice a game of keep-away with the would-be laker. In a matter of seconds, the fish covered the distance and inhaled my fleeing tube jig. “Fish on. Feels like a good one too,” I said confidently.
The fish felt heavy and fought well, putting a big bend in my rod. As it neared the bottom of the ice, I pulled my transducer out, then steered its head into the hole. Fully expecting to see a lake trout appear, I looked down and was amazed to see the biggest whitefish I’d ever laid eyes on.
We did catch trout that day, some big ones too, but it was the monster hump-back whitefish that I remember most. It forever changed my view on whitefish. Every winter since, they’ve been near the top of my list of fish to chase through the ice.
Lake trout tactics
My previous experience catching whitefish was with small live minnows on a spreader rig, set on bottom. When I wanted to shake things up, I’d place a drop-shot hook a few feet up the line with another live minnow. Fished with a tip-down, it worked, but lacked the wow factor or any type of excitement.
After confirming the fast swimming, hard-hitting, predatory nature of whitefish, I revamped my approach to mimic what I previously reserved for lake trout. Upsized baits, fished aggressively through the water column, have proven to be an effective and attention-grabbing way to pry big whitefish from beneath the ice.
Another similarity to lake trout fishing is the use of sonar or flasher technology. Whitefish can show up anywhere in the water column and on-ice electronics help ensure your bait is in front of every fish that enters the area.
3 Top Trigger Techniques
1. Flashing the column
When I’m fishing a new hole or area, I like to start with something I call “flashing the column.” This attention-grabbing technique involves dropping your bait to bottom and reeling it all the way up again. By repeating this drop-and-reel procedure several times, your bait is noticed quickly, no matter where fish are in the water column. It’s not uncommon for a fish to appear, chase, and strike during your bait’s fall or retrieve.
Eliciting a chase from whitefish is a big triggering technique, as it is for lake trout. When I mark a fish, the first thing I do is start to reel up. If the fish follows, I keep reeling as long as I can see it following on my flasher. The best reeling speed can vary from slow and steady to fast. Simply increasing speed can be a triggering technique, and whitefish can swim a lot faster than you can reel. This fleeing baitfish technique gives the whitefish 2 choices: chase and hit, or risk losing an easy meal. It’s not unusual for whitefish to inhale moving lures, just as they would chase and eat a smelt that’s trying to escape.
Another triggering technique I’ve had success with is dead-sticking baits in the middle of the water column. This may not sound like an aggressive approach, but when a fish appears on your electronics far below your bait and covers the distance in seconds, you’ll realize the true nature of this tactic. In clear-water lakes, whitefish can detect your bait from a long distance, and cover 30 or more feet in no time. For the final take, lift the bait up slowly, just as the mark on the graph comes close.
Other times whitefish will smash baits without moving them at all. The dead-sticking technique works best with horizontal baits like tube jigs, jigging Raps and Lindy Darters, as they mimic a lone baitfish that’s been separated from the school.
Traditional lift-and-fall jigging techniques also work for attracting and triggering whitefish. Large upswings followed with a slack line fall usually result in hits on the fall or just after the bait settles. Experimenting with different jigging cadences will help determine the best way to entice hits.
Increase the odds of having your bait noticed by jigging for a few minutes at a time in different depths of the water column. I like to start on bottom, then reel up 10 feet, jig, and repeat, until I’m just below the ice. Whitefish will cruise near the surface and this part of the column shouldn’t be ignored.
Locating whitefish is a bigger challenge than catching them. They often travel in large schools, and finding them typically means catching them. If you’re marking fish or baitfish, it’s a good sign that rods will soon start bending and whitefish will make their way topside.
I remember fishing with Gosse on another occasion when the usual honey-hole was dry. We headed across the lake on snowmachines in search mode and tried a couple of other spots without success, until we stopped along a stretch of shoreline in between a bay and a prominent point. We drilled a handful of holes between 30 and 60 feet of water and started to fish. Neither of our baits made it to bottom before being intercepted by hungry whitefish. The next few hours were a blur of catch-and-release action that saw us pull up too many whities to count. Moving around until we found them really paid off.
In northwestern Ontario, I’ve had the best luck in 30 to 50 feet of water.
In northwestern Ontario, I’ve had the best luck in 30 to 50 feet of water. But, keep in mind that every lake is different; in some areas whitefish are routinely caught from 80 to over 100 feet of water during the winter. The best fishing, no matter where that is, will normally be on structure associated with a main lake basin and deeper water. Basin structures such as reefs, humps, and deep flats, as well as points, islands, and shorelines with quick access to deep water, are all likely candidates. Bottlenecks that separate 2 larger areas are also high percentage spots where whitefish can be intercepted as they travel from one area to the other.
Contour maps can help identify deep-water basins, as well as structure in and around the basins. Look for areas where contour lines run close together, indicating a quick change in depth. Alternately, try areas where contour lines are spread out and indicate flat areas with a consistent depth.
If the deep-water bite dries up late in the winter, try going to the other extreme — shallow. I’ve had luck in front of creeks in 30 feet when smelt are staging for their spring spawning run. At times, the smelt have been so thick that my electronics marked the top of the school as the bottom of the lake. The whitefish will be around, picking off smelt from these massive schools.
More extreme yet, I’ve caught whitefish during late ice in less than 10 feet of water while targeting pre-spawn walleye and pike. It goes to show the versatile nature of whitefish and their willingness to inhabit all depths and areas of the lake during winter. This further illustrates the point that a run-and-gun approach will increase your odds of locating whitefish.
This winter, try upping your approach for contacting big whitefish. Aggressive techniques that actively cover the water column will quickly replace finesse presentations as your preferred way to ice trophy whitefish.
This article first appeared in the November – December 2014 issue of Ontario OUT OF DOORS. Subscribe now.