Even an avid angler may have a little difficulty landing the big one during winter months. Why? Because fish behave differently when it’s cold. The temperature changes their movements, their eating habits, and their location.
We’re here to break down the How-To's of ice fishing for your favourite Canadian fish species.
These best practices are based on popular opinion and the average experience. But, if you have the surefire magic recipe, we’d love to hear about it.
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Crappie don’t eat the same thing all day every day, so it’s important to bring a variety of lures so that you can test what they’re into when you’re out on the ice. Here’s what to bring:
- Minnow Lure
- Plastic Soft Bait Lure
- Tear Drop Jig
- Marabou Jig
- Spoon Lure
Use smaller (1/64 to 1/16 ounce) jigs and half inch spoons and soft bait. Crappie are slower when it’s cold, so you need slower moving bait that splash around a little to get their attention. Make sure your jigs are a variety of colours. Again, you want to test out the whole variety until you can determine what hits.
Whitefish love to feed at the nooks and crannies of freshwater lakes. To haul in your catch, hit them there first thing in the morning while they’re feeding. Here’s what you need:
- 3/8 hard bait jig
- 2.5” soft bait minnow
Start your day with the hard bait when the feeding is aggressive. As the day rolls on and the whitefish start to hover 10 to 15 feet off the surface of the lake, switch over to your soft lures.
Walleye swim deep in the frozen months, so your summer skills may not cut it. There are 4 lures that winter walleye experts swear by:
- Jigging Rap
- Lipless Crankbait
- Old Fashioned Jig
Your lipless crankbait has a bit of a rattle to it, and creates a vibration that really grabs the walleyes’ attention in flat open water. In closed water, set up the old fashioned jib on a tipper and let it sit in your second ice hole as your Plan B. Spend most of your time alternating between your spoons and jigging rap to see what the fish prefer that day.
Look for pike in the shallows and close to surface structures like points and breaks. As the temperature drops, look for them a little deeper as they chase their food. They typically don’t travel in groups, so you’ll have to be crafty if you want to cath one. Here’s what to use:
- Treble hook with 6-8 inch minnow
- Sinking Lure
There’s no proof that one works better than the other, it all depends on your style. Tie your treble and minnow (the larger the bait, the larger the catch) to a tip-up and wait for the good news. Or, use your sinking lure or spoon (minnow head optional) and jig away until you land the big one.
Largemouths and smallmouths behave differently through the winter months. Largemouth bass hang out in the soft-bottom weedy areas about 30 feet deep. Smallmouth bass are found a little deeper - 40 plus feet - around the hard bottom points.
- Jigging Spoon
- Water Bug
- Glow Jigs
Like many other species, bass are borderline comatose in the winter. The best strategy is to use smaller bait that grabs their attention - motion and colour - and place it right in front of their faces. They don’t want to chase their food. Look for drop offs and set your hook as close to the bottom of the lake as you can, and jig slowly.
Lake structures like points, breaks, and rock piles are a common source for muskie. You can also look for them at fast drop-offs where they have quick access to deep water.
- Flipping Jig
- Flash Spoons
- Gliding Baits
Muskie generally go after still bait. Jig your lure or tap the bottom of the lake (don’t overdo it) to get their attention and then let your bait settle so that the muskie know it’s time to take a bite.
The best time of day is within an hour and a half of sun-up or sundown, that’s when they’re hungry.
Unlike most of the other fish species on our list, trout like it cold. Look for them in the shallows and close to sharp drop offs. Your best bet is to find a soft ground oasis among the rocks. Trout are generally scattered throughout the water, but they’ll collect in areas like these.
- Minnows, Nymphs, Worms, and Maggots
- Bobbers for live Baits
- Horizontal Jig Baits
Trout are a little more aware of your line than other species. Make sure to take note of the quality of the water and use a line colour that blends in. Since trout are all over the place in regards to depth, it’s best to slowly bring your bait from a few inches off the bottom up the the hole, and back down again.
Salmon are cold-water fish and begin to venture out into the parts of the lake that are too warm for them in the summertime. Even in the winter Salmon put up quite a fight. Make sure to leave a good length (400-500 feet) of line to make sure that you have plenty of opportunity to catch your tip-up before the spool is out.
- Flashtrap Spinners for larger salmon
Salmon have more delicate mouths than other species, so slow and gentle is the name of the game. Alternate your direction and speed when jigging, and start your pre-sunrise day in the middle of the lake where depths and temperatures are at their lowest for the best results.
Being one of the biggest fish you can catch in Canada, halibut are sure to be on your winter hit list. Look for them on depth shelves close to deep water.
- Salmon Belly Meat
- Large Circle Hook
- 80 to 100 lbs Tough Line
If it’s halibut you’re after, make sure you’re up for a fight. This species is famous for letting you get it right up to the hole and then shoot right back down to the bottom. You could be wrestling with your catch for an hour or more, so you’ll have to be patient.
Sturgeon are night eaters, so you’re going to have better luck between 3 and 9pm. Sturgeon tend to hang out in deep river holes. This is probably a good place to dig your first hole. However, you may have a little more luck downstream where they swim to when they’re hungry.
- Large Snell
- 5/0 Circle Hook
- Shiner and/or night-crawlers
The status of the sturgeon population has fallen into question more than once over the past few decades. They only spawn once every 3 to 4 years, and can take up to 25 years to mature. So, consider releasing yours after you’ve measured and taken a few pictures for the record books.
Perch are known to be fickle eaters. They may stare at your lure from afar, or even nose right up to it without taking a bite. The right lure is key to landing this filet-friendly species.
- Swimming Jig Lure
- Flash Lure
- Straight Spoon
Test these 3 lures to see what works depending on the clarity of the water. You’ll find perch in both shallow and deep waters. Schools can get into the hundreds in large water, or just a dozen or so in small water. Either way, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding them.
When it comes down to it, all you really need to know is where the fish play and where they eat, and what lure looks like food to them. We’ve given you the tools, now it’s up to you to test your skills patience.
Keep in mind, catching fish is just half the battle. There are more than a few before and after steps you’ll have to take to really be successful out on the ice this winter.
Here’s everything else you need.
- Ice Auger and Skimmer: To drill your holes and keep them open.
- Electronics: Fish Finders, Sonars, and GPS systems to find where the fish are biting.
- Tip Ups: To know when you have a fish on the line.
- Live Bait Container: Some fish prefer the real deal.
- Terminal Tackle: Clippers, pliers, and grabbers to handle the fish once he’s out of the hole.
Check in often. We have plenty more hints and tips to keep your live-wells full and faces smiling.
Yours in Boating,