by John Whyte
By nature Lake Trout are very aggressive and feed 12 months of the year. With the help of technology an ice angler can learn as much or more about trout than they could fishing in open water.
Sonar or fish finder technology has come a long way over the last decade and has become an intricate part of an ice anglers ability to find and catch fish. With enough hands on or eyes on experience the angler can learn the characteristics and moods of fish and their state of aggression. Ice offers a stable platform that shows an accurate account of a fishes movements without being distorted by drifting or wave action one might encounter on open water in a boat. The only movement is what is under you. This is a perfect environment to learn the stages of aggression and how you should react.
Lake trout have incredible focus and seem to be able to lock in on a target ignoring everything around them. They are the most curious fish and even when not feeding aggressively they are aware of everything in their surrounding environment and investigate things that seem out of place. The screen below shows a trout swimming through a thick school of baitfish to have a look at an artificial bait. One might wonder how the fish could even see the artificial bait through the mass of baitfish.
In Example (1) the trout was not ascending very quickly and as soon as the swim bait was moved the fish turned away. In this case the fish is not feeding aggressively, just very curious until spooked by the reaction of the bait.
After watching the same sonar patterns over and over again throughout the years you get a feel for the way a fish will act. Chances of getting hooked-up increase dramatically the faster the rate of assent. I call this action going vertical. A vertical charge almost ensures a hit. The trout is moving so fast the sonar can barely display the signal fast enough so there is only a faint line before the strike. Nothing is going to keep that fish from getting its target in its mouth.
Example (2)Going Vertical – Most aggressive state
Note: When fishing in close proximity to other anglers with sonar there will most likely be some interference as is the case in the above example. The vertical lines are signals from another unit but the bait and fish are still visible.
The pattern above shows once again a trout’s ability to choose a target and focus on the prey. The crank bait probably looks like a baitfish in trouble and any fish will take the easy meal first. This illustration also demonstrates the benefits of current LCD sonar over flasher technology for deep water applications. Even with the cloud of baitfish it is possible to see the brief history of what has happened and the charging fish and bait through the cloud. Although, once the school of baitfish reaches a certain density there will be no warning, just screaming line. In this case the fish hit the bait more than 60 ft. off the bottom. There are times that a fish will turn away from a bait while going vertical but this is unlikely. Finding the outside edge of baitfish is the ideal location to place your bait.
Trout that are not feeding aggressively can still be caught. One advantage an ice angler has is that trout are so curious. Often they will investigate a bait because it looks like it doesn’t belong in the environment. Sometimes they will ram a lure or tail whack it just to get a reaction. If a bait is moving away from a fish the fish will want it to stop it until it has finished investigating the intruder. The key here is to always keep your bait moving away from the fish. A sudden jigging or reverse of direction back to the fish could spook the predator when they are not aggressive. If the fish turns down from the bait don’t drop it immediately. Wait a few seconds then let it drop. Often a fish will move away and then charge back at the bait.
Example (3)Semi Aggressive
This is also a typical pattern for younger fish and it is these fish that are likely to react with their mouth. Sometimes they will charge, retreat, and charge all the way to the hole before finally striking the bait before it gets away.
Example (4)Neutral state
The image above shows an all to common pattern when trout are in a passive or neutral state. The tenancy is to move the bait closer to the bottom and jig more to get attention. This can be the exact opposite of what might provoke them to strike. In my experience the further a trout has to travel to see a bait the more committed it becomes.
This is a more common pattern during mid season or the February blahs. The lazy ascent means the fish is mildly interested but it is defiantly going to take some trickery to get it to bite. More often than not this is what you see when you leave your rod for a moment. Sometimes the fish will actually bump the bait or mouth it for a split second. During the fishes ascent it is important not to change the action of the bait. Curiosity already has the better of the trout and you don’t want to change what attracted it in the first place.
These peek and retreat patterns can be very frustrating so when this happens there are techniques you can try to increase your odds of success. The first is to simply size down your bait. Trout will often eat smaller objects even without being hungry. Small grubs or tubes or even perch size baits will work. If the fish was curious enough to examine the bait then there is still a chance they will eat it. Remove any extra hardware around the bait like trailer hooks. If you do not have a Fluorocarbon leader on add one and reduce the line weight. On many pressured lakes some experienced ice anglers use 4 pound test or less when targeting large fish. The trick is to get the fish to put the bait in its mouth.
The other option to try is to be more aggress with flashy baits like spoons or lipless cranks. As inactive as it may seem some times there are a few aggressive fish and all you need to do is get their attention.
The opportunity to change a low percentage hit into a reaction bite is very short. You have to time the movement of the bait at the time the fish is right on the bait. The movement should be very slow with no jigging, just move it away very slowly. If the fish pursues the bait keep reeling and speed up a bit. The further the fish follows the better chance you have of getting hooked up. Don’t stop doing whatever it took to get the fish to follow. Just keep reeling and get ready for the strike. It’s important to reel up instead of lifting your rod. If you lift your rod and the fish hits at the top of the upstroke you will have no room left to set the hook. Getting hit while dropping back down to a fish that has just finished a chase is a low percentage tactic but it does happen. When it does happen, even experienced anglers are surprised. If the fish turns up at the bait again, repeat the process from the start of the chase.
There is a pattern that is easily missed particularly when your sonar is zoomed in on the bottom. I call it a high plains drifter. The name (an old Clint Eastwood movie) is symbolic of a nomadic dangerous loner ready to do some damage. These fish and patterns are typical during last ice when trout cruise high in the water column chasing herring (cisco) that are running under the ice. These are very aggressive fish on the hunt.
Example (5)Ultra Aggressive Hunter
High Plains Drifters are very likely to strike and are typically big fish. If you see this pattern quickly reel up to the depth of the mark with your rod tip low. Get ready to set the hook and hope there is enough line on your spool. The reason you keep your tip low is because you are likely going to get hit and the fish is going to scream towards the bottom, but since the initial hit could be from under the bait pushing it up you don’t want any slack and you won’t be able to reel fast enough to keep the line tight. These are the type of fish that spool you so if you are getting close to the end of the line tighten the drag but be sure to loosen it a bit when the fish is close to the hole. Big fish like this can make several line screaming runs. Just when you think they are ready to come through the hole they scream towards the bottom again. One fish like this can make your day.
Timing is Everything
During early ice fish can be aggressive all day long. They are still on the post spawn gorge and you will often see several fish together. But when the season drags on and the bite slows you may only have short periods of aggression. Typically these times are early morning and again in late afternoon. This isn’t a rule etched in stone and a new low pressure system can certainly increase the all-day activity. But on those perfect bluebird days in February during the middle of the day the bite can get extremely slow and under some conditions fish just stop moving around and shut down completely. The techniques that worked just a few weeks or even days earlier are no longer effective. The off bottom baits and jigging motion that caused a reaction bite now spook those weary trout. It’s finally time to head to the bottom.
Example (6)Negative state
Once fish are glued to the bottom it is advantageous to use some whitefish techniques. Subtle moves with more lift than jig motions. Trout like most fish react to objects falling to the bottom or shooting off the bottom. They are also attracted to disturbances on the bottom.
The plumage of debris is caused by a Sebile Vibrado jigging spoon. The two tweble hooks on either end are perfect for grabbing the bottom and creating the clout. Once the cloud has been produced the bait should be lifted several inches off the bottom and dead stick the bait for several seconds. This is when you are most likely to get bit.
Below are the two most effective bottom baits I have used. The Sebile Vibrado and the BadBoyz
Precision and tempo are the key.
Veteran Simcoe angler Jim Nightingale writes;
“In my opinion the best way to fish Simcoe is with your jig or lure IN CONTACT with the bottom. Keep it simple, all you need is a Williams Ice Jig (half and half hammered) #60 and a few Bad Boyz.
Why only two lures?? All jigs require a different technique and it is easier to master two proven fish catchers than mess around with several according to Nightingale. The Williams works best right on the bottom. Twitch it three or four times so that the jig BARELY lifts from the bottom, give it a sharp lift of six inches to a foot, let it flutter freely back to the bottom allowing it to make definite contact but follow the descending line with your rod tip so you don’t impede the fluttering action. However you want to remain in-tune enough with your lure to be able to detect a strike that which may only indicated by line stopping prematurely. So – lift, flutter down, twitch, twitch, twitch, repeat. Trout will grab it on the way down so you want to set the hook immediately.”
“Whities tend to pick it up when you are twitching it on or just off the bottom. The Badd Boyz type jigs should be tipped with a 1.5 inch micro tube, preferably in matching or similar colour to the jig. Presentation is quite different to the Williams. Set the jig so it is millimeters from the bottom at rest. Then DROP (not lift) the jig as little as half an inch around five times ensuring it frequently touches the bottom with its’ face. Then lift it smoothly six or eight inches, pause for a split second, let it drop back to your original starting position just off bottom and repeat. The cadence is Lift, Drop, Tap, Tap, Tap, Tap, Tap, repeat.
The bottom rows represent the subtle up down tapping whereas the top row is time intervals in seconds. The total lift in the time interval is only 6 to 8 inches from the lower position. The mistake most commonly made is over working the bait. Slow subtle moves are the key.
Now this is really a precision type of presentation. Don’t expect a jarring hit. Most of the time all you’ll notice is the line going slack when doing the tap, tap routine. Usually this is a whitey sucking in the soft micro tube, lifting it slightly off bottom. SET THE HOOK AS FAST AS YOU CAN! Otherwise the whitey will spit the lure back out. Once your timing develops the whitey will be hooked right in the horn part of the upper lip almost every time. The lift and drop part of this routine is effective on trout as well. Again the trout may grab the jig as it descends and you’ll just notice the line slack without any great indication of a hit. Finally, after setting the hook, do not be in a hurry to get the fish to the hole. Take all the time you can while maintaining a tight line and you’ll ice a lot more fish. Hope this helps.”
Baits for Stages of Aggression
My Favorite Lake Trout Baits
The video below demonstrates a very effective swimbait technique for any lake and most stages of aggression..
Other Lake Trout Stories
Lake Trout Spring Basics by: JP Bushey