Ontario Fishing Network
Sixty seven feet below my boots, I started the hollow, plastic fake into its rhythm once again. Never darting or falling the same way twice, and rotating while at rest, it had already produced two big, wild trout in the first two holes I'd cut that morning, and the strike in hole number three caught me totally off guard, and I missed it.
Right on cue, after about twenty seconds of steady shaking in place, I watched my line tighten over to the corner of the hole and the little spinning reel belched that sweet, tinny note one more time.
It's tough to fish a tube jig wrongly for any species of fish at any time, icefishing for lake trout is much the same. This one had gently approached my jig while it was basically motionless, and sucked it in like a small perch would. The first lake trout of the morning had almost pulled my shoulder out of its socket when it cracked the tube mid way through a sharp lift thirty feet off the sand bottom.
When metal or lead jigging lures stop producing, it is absolutely amazing to watch how tubes can bring lakers out of their funk. There are lots of times when regular jigging baits keep the fish biting, and changes to their action, size or colour keep the day rolling right along. But the tube works great when the trout are really aggressive, and is unbeatable when times are tough. Trout will actually engulf and swallow these lures, just like livebait. If you're going to leave your line in while you pour a coffee, open your bail!
Just like big pike and whitefish, uniform winter water temperatures open up a much larger range of dietary options for lake trout. Many people would be surprised to learn that in addition to smelts, herring and alewives, lake trout also search soft-bottom areas, in water less than ten feet deep sometimes, for suckers, mud minnows, perch, ling, insects and in particular, fresh water shrimp. Tubes can be tailored to imitate all of these prey items. That's one of the beauties of soft plastic lures. Size, shape, colour and scent are infinitely customizable.
On trout water like Lake Simcoe or Georgian Bay, you can cover miles of water in a day. Holes in eighty feet of water might go dead after a flurry, but fish are ready and waiting for you in twelve feet on the next spot.
Size, sound and colour are important. No matter how active lakers are or how diverse their diet is at this time, it's very common for one specific lure style to get hot for a while, then fade away. Salmon and trout can be very selective, whether you're dowrigging for salmon on the Great Lakes in August or working wintering steelhead in a tributary in January. They can really lock into hot lures and patterns. I've stood over a hole in the ice ten feet away from people fishing a bait only a little bit different from mine and cleaned up on them. I've also had the same done to me!
Three and a half inches is probably the most common tube length for smallmouth, and it's a consistent size for lakers, too. I've caught lots of fish on five inch flipping tubes and lots on one-inch micro versions but day in and day out, this is the best all around size. It's also the easiest to buy, and comes in the widest range of colours. Solid pearl, smoke, and glow are three patterns that can cover it all. White is as universal as it gets for open water fish, be they lakers, walleyes, pike, muskies or bass. It matches the offshore feed well, and I think white is also very underrated as a deep/dark water finish. Smoke or salt and pepper tubes down to one inch long can be incredible when the lakers are chasing clouds of freshwater shrimp. They'll sometimes completely gorge themselves on them, and will regurgitate them in your holes. Of course, cicoes, smelt and whitefish also feed heavily on them, completing an excellent food chain. Microscopic little creatures can drive the location and activity of huge fish, in these cases. It will only take one big laker to make you a believer in little rubber baits the size of a push pin, fished slowly and patiently. Little smoke crappie tubes have fooled some of my biggest winter trout.
It's a big misconception that all lake trout lakes are gin clear. Ontario's north is peppered with smaller trout lakes that have dark water. Hot chartreuse, bubblegum and black with gold fleck all work. Fish from these lakes are gorgeous, with deep gold flanks, ash-coloured bellies and jet black backs.
The same insert heads used for bass are fine for lakers. Carry a good selection of weights, from 1/64 to one ounce, and use thin, sharp hooks. Jig makers today are pouring with top-end hooks like Owner and Gamagatsu, and they're worth every penny. Overweight tubes that really drop, thump get down quick and can be just as deadly as the lighter ones. My favorite heads are light. I'll take a knife and shave down a ¼ ouncer so that it drops slow with and exaggerated spiral. This also forces me to fish slower. Last winter, feather-light tubes worked better than heavier ones, and I caught two thirds of my fish stictly by line watching, usually after shaking the bait or hanging it perfectly still. Lakers were able to swim up, mouth the bait and bump my line. I was catching them totally by surprise most of the time. This called for sitting down, keeping my back to the wind and really paying attention to my line for any direction changes, ticks or stalls. Lake trout have awful aim, and will sometimes bat at your tube, missing it. Sticky single hooks on tube jigs dig in and hold when these fish strike short and during their rolling, hard charging fight. Lake trout ore the heavyweight champs of winter, fighting circles around pike, walleyes or whitefish. Have a look at the size of their pectoral fins. It's easy to see where the power and stamina comes from.
Rattling jigheads really work. You can buy them, or add a rattle to a plain jig yourself. Setting a glass rattle into the tube's nose before shoving in the jighead traps air and creates a louder jig that spirals more wildly, and darts sharply when pulled upwards. I really like the newer, flat-eye designs, where the eyelet hole faces the hook point head on. Tie tubes directly, using a loop knot for optimal action and a natural profile while the lure hangs in the water.
Scent is a major key for lakers, and salted, scented or minnow-tipped tubes are that much deadlier. I've also experimented a lot with garlic oil, and have added lakers to a growing list of gamefish that like this stuff. I used to mash up smelts and pack my tubes with them or tip with small, pinhead shiners. A heavily salted lure, fished bare, works just as well. A small gob of Berkley's Trout Paste inside the lure's body or molded to the hook bend is another trick I use. Last winter on Georgian Bay, I got on a really hot run fishing a pearl salt tube with a splash of hot orange Power Paste. Orange on white is an excellent colour pattern for lakers, imitating one of their own.
I fish with a spinning reel and rods from twenty four to thirty six inches long. Just jig fishing from a boat, I like blanks on the stiffer side for good feel, hook setting and line control. St.Croix and Loomis are the rods I currently use, paired with walleye-sized spinning reels, all of which have solid anti-reverse and excellent drags. A twelve to fifteen pound lake trout can test a trolling outfit and a large net over the side of the boat. It's a whole other ballgame pulling that same fish up to a hole in thirty inches of ice with a short rod. Your rods, reels and line have to be in good shape.
Both monofilament and no-stretch lines have a place, and I use both. Four pound Fireline or six pound Power Pro is excellent for getting baby tubes deep faster, they really slice the water. Eight pound Trilene XT is a great mono mainline, and I use it all winter for walleyes as well. In both cases, I tie in a two foot leader off a black, ball bearing swivel. Tubes will twist your line beyond belief when you're fishing them straight up and down all day. Because lakers can roll and get wound up when you're controlling them around small hole with a shorter rod, the leader is always heavier than the mainline. Twelve to fourteen pound XT is what I normally use. It not only holds up to all the abuse around the holes, but it further slows the tube on its way down. I can definitely see hard-skinned, invisible fluorocarbon lines being awesome as a leader material here in some of the clear lakes.
Always fish tubes from the bottom all the way up to the hole, and use them aggressively and subtly to find what generates the most production. Lake trout will suck them off the bottom and swim away just as readily as they'll smash them while you're jigging away steadily well off the lake's floor. Long pauses, shakes, snaps and free-falls all get the fish going at one time or another. Tubes are very versatile lures! Their single hooks are great for Catch And Release, and you'll lose fewer fish that are skin-hooked, especially with monofilament line. And unlike open water jig fishing, breaking off on snags is very rare through the ice, which makes paying for premium jigheads easier to swallow. One hot tube jig can last you all season, but lakers teeth will damage the bodies. One of my killers a few years ago fooled thirty one lake trout before I had to retire it. The jighead wouldn't hold inside the ripped up body any more.
Lakers grow slowly, and take a long time to reach reproductive maturity, so it's critical to handle them carefully and release the larger ones. A small trout fried or grilled is a great way to cap off a day out on a frozen lake. Forktails and these rubber pipes go together like fillets and beans.
All Photos by JP Bushey
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