Working the Water Column for Winter Lakers

by James Smedley

I’m lying on my belly on the ice, peering into the darkening depths. I clip on a 3-inch tube jig and lower it down about 15 feet so I can study its action. I watch the white soft plastic tentacles pulsate through the clear water as I wiggle the rod tip. I see it dart forward on a hard pull, and spin lazily on the downward fall. Armed with a variety of seductive jigging cadences, I’m ready to drop it down to the lake trout zone.

But before I even begin to lower the lure to the lake floor 45 feet below, I see a faint shadow sweep by. I continue to jig with my nose pressed close to the ice water. The shadow returns with the simultaneous vanishing of the white tube. It takes a second to sink in but I set the hook and the shadowy figure turns out to be the broad back of a 7-pound lake trout.

Not Always on Bottom

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An ice fishing shelter can help anglers concentrate on working the water column for lake trout.

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James Smedley with a nice Northeastern Ontario lake trout that hit a spoon jig well up off bottom.

After plucking several more fat suspended fish, my competence at lake trout hunting takes a giant step forward. As a long-time bait-on-bottom angler, the dramatic introduction to jigging suspended lakers leads to some assumptions that have stood the test of time: lake trout are not always near the bottom; they’ll cruise through the entire water column and take a crack at the right lure drawn within striking distance.

Today I continue to use a combination of bait and lures worked through a variety of depths to provide the best chance at intercepting wandering togue.

The fact that lakers suspend would seem to indicate that drilling a hole anywhere on a lake and dropping a line would mean action. However, even suspended lakers are not haphazardly swimming in the middle of the lake unless there’s something nearby to attract them. Lakers like the sorts of deep structure that attract bait fish and provide ambush points to attack those same bait fish. Favored areas vary depending on a lake’s features, but trout gravitate towards structure like rocky mid-lake shoals, long subsurface extensions of points, sheer plummeting rock faces and slowly deepening sand or mud flats.

Dual Approach

Once over a prospective area, drill a series of holes over a wide range of depths. For Northeastern Ontario lakes concentrate on depths ranging from 70 feet and up.

The effectiveness of bait on bottom is undeniable and with anglers allowed two lines it makes sense to cover all bases. Lively sucker or dace minnows work well, weighted with just enough split shot to keep them hovering just up from bottom.

Fight the temptation to set two lines of bait on bottom. There are times when an offering of meat just does not trigger an attack. This should not be taken as a sign that lakers are not feeding. Could be that the fish are nowhere near our bait because they’re suspended and looking for action. This is when lures deliver.

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Francine Dubreuil jigged up this lake trout with a white tube jig.

Given that lakers will be as deep as 70 feet or more, there’s a lot of vertical water to cover. The primary tool in the search for suspended fish is a medium-heavy action 28 to 36-inch jigging rod that will handle lures up to 1 ounce. A good companion reel is a bait caster or spinning reel spooled with 12 to 20-pound test monofilament or low-stretch super line like Sufix 832.

Lake trout will often show a marked preference for a particular style of lure, which will vary with things like the forage base and water clarity of the lakes they call home. Finding the right lure is simply a matter of experimentation with proven presentations. These include flashy spoons like the Williams Wabler and gliding lures like tube, airplane and bucktail jigs.

Choose a lure, lower it to the bottom and start jigging. Work the bottom for a few minutes then reel up about five feet and jig for another few minutes. The idea is to angle the entire water column from bottom to just under the ice. Good visibility in clear water coupled with the voraciousness of suspended trout means that, if there are any fish in the area, there will be a dramatic interception somewhere between bottom and surface.

Electronics Have Their Place

Jigging through the depths is an effective search technique for suspenders and electronics make it even more efficient. Flashers made by Humminbird or Vexilar are great for angling suspended fish because they show the entire water column.

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Terry Grozelle hoists a nice Northeastern Ontario spoon-eating lake trout.

With a flasher it can be as easy as marking a fish and lowering down to it. Often a laker will streak up to meet a falling lure before we can even jig it. Sometimes it’s that simple but usually it’s not. For instance, a pod of lakers could be hovering just outside of the flasher’s range and we need to systematically jig through the depths to draw them in. As a fish approaches our lure the flasher gives us advanced warning of the strike.

In the case of tentative fish cruising in for a look, we’re able to ‘see’ it on screen and gauge its reaction to various presentations, enabling us to entice a strike from a cautious observer. A common scenario sees a laker watching a lure jigged in front of its face only to attack when it’s pulled up and away, simulating the hasty retreat of a prospective meal. In other instances lakers will only take a lure on the free fall, imitating a wounded or stunned baitfish. They may also brush past it once or twice before eating it. Watching the interplay between fish and lure helps us determine the jigging strategy that puts grey trout on ice.

Where, when and how often lake trout suspend varies per lake but the fact that they’re not always hugging bottom should inspire anglers to do the same.