by Daniel Kiazyk
Every season, I'll stumble upon a fishing situation I haven't yet encountered. It's strange though, when you fish as much as I do, that fishing can take on as ubiquitous a quality as snow is to a winter landscape. But, winter landscapes have their own charm and fascination once you start to look at them with a different set of eyes.
The lake in this reflection is a mid-sized blue-green lake, and not an especially fertile body of water. Large pike, walleye, perch and suckers inhabit this lake. Walleye have gone through a cycle of abundance/size to near scarcity. The population has seemingly bounced back to healthy levels (see article: "Eye can see clearly"). Pike on the other hand have always been present in good numbers and good size. It's surprising more pike hunters don't frequent the lake but a separate license seems to be enough of a deterrence to anglers that there isn't much "pike" pressure on this lake ---This I don't mind as I'll pay the extra $ for a shot a real good one!
But interestingly enough, the larger part of the time I've spent on this lake of late has not been for any of the aforementioned species. My forays of late have been directed towards another not too well appreciated species – the common whitefish. Little fished and not overly appreciated by anglers, the whitefish, is every bit as "gamey" as any of those species already mentioned. It goes without saying that seeing a school of Whites coming in to investigate your offering in the crystal clear waters where they'll usually swim is a unique and exhilarating experience. Moreover, as table fare, the whitefish has its virtues, baked or filleted and finally smoked --- there is no fish quite like ‘em.
Catching these " torpedos" is another type of fishing. Whitefish have a small soft mouths… they are omnivorous; nymphs, snails, shrimp, perch etc are all a part of their diet. They tend to be easier to contact in the winter as greater numbers approach water that was either too warm or seemingly too shallow in summer. I've seen them as shallow as 1 ½ feet in the winter (and at this depth on a regular basis). In the summer I've caught them as deep as 75 feet. These fish travel in schools and seem genuinely curious in flashy items, but they'll bite more often on the smallest jig or hook. This is one curious fish, not often targeted by many weekend anglers or for that matter by anglers in general.
In the winter, if you can find larger flats near an inflowing creek, whitefish (if present in a lake) will be there is considerable numbers. But that is at once a frustrating and fascinating side to whitefish. The fish will circle, swim over and under your offering, on occasion these fish will bump into (and not bite) your offering…. argh! On some lakes, where it is permitted a second line can be used to attract whites to your "hooking hook". The technique involves jigging a large flashy hook (which no whitefish would ever bite except maybe a big ol' pike!) which seems to draw in the fish and then we'll use a smaller hook to finish the job.
Hooks need not be overly complex in most cases. I have been out in a boat and have caught 20 in a row on a simple jig with rubber tail and my partner who was using a similar bait (jig and minnow) caught only five. His five fish didn't really indicate the success he was having. The fact of the matter, however, was that having to bait up after catching a fish or after having a bite was robbing him of valuable time in the water (where fish were biting).
My own favorite lures are small jigs, pimples, hooks with split shot and yarn or rubber tails attached. Size is significant in some instances as these fish seem more receptive to smaller lures – but have hit and have been brought to the boat on a 7 ½" long crank bait. The most important concept I would suggest is movement and a generalized semblance to forage in the lake. In this particular lake there are large numbers of whitefish and perch minnows (we've also found stomachs of cleaned fish full of perch minnows) minnows. It stands to reason that a bait in the same colour range will offer something that fish might be willing to bite. 1/16 oz jigs with different colored rubber tails are my favorites. Small flash spoons e.g. crippled minnows or pimples are also effective,
Locale Through The Seasons
As for the "where" for whites, seasonal factors seem to influence location and approaches. Early spring has many whites on or near too the first break line in proximity to deeper water. Summer puts them on larger deeper flats (in some instances near to weed beds) or deeper down (40-80ft.) and finally winter seems to put them in shallow in bays especially near to any incoming water source: Creeks or streams, or rivers. Fall is spawning time and whites will be on rock piles or in areas where rock substrate predominates.
In open water, I've used the following techniques to boat a few whitefish. Jigging is one of the most productive techniques I've used. Drifting doesn't seem to be as effective as sitting and jigging. But saying this does not mean that you sit in a spot all day. If, after 15 minutes, you're not bit, move on to anther spot. Trolling with small OO spinners is another option, especially if your trying to locate fish – besides you never know what you'll catch on a spinner! Another not so common option includes using a fly. Anyone who's done it knows what I'm referring to – whitefish will bite well on a fly.
As for tactics on ice, your options are limited to a fixed location (or a series of fixed locations). Depending on the depth of where you're fishing I've used tactics from a simple hook embellished with a bit of yellow yarn to a coloured hook as being effective. Perhaps the latter two examples are significant as whitefish are drawn to a locale by lots of movement /flash but they're usually caught by using something quite small. But, whitefish will bite larger jigs as a friend of mine pointed out just recently. If the fish is hungry enough/aggressive enough, they'll hit lures as large as a Rapala F-18. I like small jigs as I can facilitate a whitefish's bite by lowering the jig to the bottom and giving it small lifts. Whitefish have a mouth which is turned down and they can more aptly get at a jig worked in such a manner.
It's surprising how winter's white is quite ubiquitous to us who live in the north country. We'll often take for granted the beauty of the snowscape which covers many of our lakes. Just as this snowscape is taken for granted above ice, below the ice swims an untapped "ubiquitous white" resource. However, once you get to know these fish, you'll look at these little angled for species with a more appreciative eye. Whitefish are a "gamey" fish which require a level of skill and effort. Simply put hey are challenging to catch and they do fight well ……Hmmm even more to do during a long cold "white" winter …. Good stuff eh!