Day of the trout

I realize I’m cursed to be the tortoise of this group. While everybody else is welcoming spring with days by the river and a sack full of crawlers, my ice fish season is really just getting started. The reality in the Far North is that while we have six solid months or more of winter, only a portion of it truly fishable.

A few years ago I may have been tempted to go fishing in -30 C temperatures, but I just don’t have the moxy to do that anymore. It’s just so much easier to stay inside and watch Youtube fishing videos with the kids. And after a miserable March that featured negative double digit temperatures for weeks on end fishing was even less on my mind. But by and by the days began to warm and then that fine, thin sliver of truly enjoyable winter arrived. Long, sunny says, mild temperatures. Ravenous, arctic fish daring me to plunge holes through four-feet thick ice and tempt them whichever way I could.

All winter I’ve been staring at field reports from biologists purporting rare and unusual ciscoes inhabiting waters at my back door: Lacustrine ciscoes, a member of the C. Artedii complex that have been measured at half a metre and more than five pounds in weight; the exquisitely rare shortjaw cisco; and the fabled googly-eyed cisco, a type of least cisco with huge eyes that lives at abysmal depths. Could I catch these fish? Am I dreaming to even try? After all those videos watched on particularly cold days, of anglers standing around ankle deep in flopping lake herring, surely it must be possible. I had to try.

Afield guide to Great Slave Lake ciscoes http://www.glfc.org/pubs/SpecialPubs/2011-02.pdf

But even though the likely spots are literally a mere 20-minute snowmobile ride away, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. For one, as I already mentioned, it was bloody, friggin’ cold most of March. The middle of Great Slave Lake is not a kind place to be on a sharp, cold day. Secondly, it’s no easy decision to spend an entire day on an experimental quest for species I was far from assured of securing when myself, a father of two in need of upgraded living quarters, have such little time to spare. Up until a couple weeks ago, I had gone ice fishing a grand total of three times all winter. Fishing opportunities are precious and I hate to waste them on frivolous pursuits.

Nonetheless, I had marked April 2 as the date to go a-big lake ciscoeing. As it turned out, I couldn’t have picked a more glorious day. Temperature highs were above zero most of the week. The forecast called for light, southerly winds and relentless sun. My only concern was that the lake access point would become too mucky to cross with my truck.

I had another dilemma. For once, people wanted to come fishing. I was fully prepared to hop onto my snow machine and head out solo. Now the gang, including my neighbour with guests visiting from the Netherlands, wanted me to take them somewhere fishing. I thought of a compromise. I wouldn’t snowmobile to the known cisco spots on the map but instead take an ice road to another likely location some 30 miles to the east.

The ice road more or less followed my boating route to the East Arm, and part of it followed almost exactly my trolling path when the ice comes off in June. We have caught some monster inconnu and lake trout in this place and the ice road went right over it. This was also the place where I had many sonar observations of masses of school fish at a transition zone from 30 feet of water to 90 feet. “No-bite-ums” I called these mystery fish. I assumed they were lake whitefish … or, maybe ciscoes.

Anyway, this is where I intended to try. I had earlier made some homemade cisco rigs with flashing blades tied to micro jigs in anticipation of this day. I endeavoured to even try at some point for a deepwater sculpin so futilely attempted the year before, so I brought some worms and something to rig them down deep.

The road ice was a skating rink. The warm late winter sun had blasted away whatever snow had remained on it, rendering the road quite treacherous. We had to pick our way across the lake, occasionally jumping huge pools of water that crossed the road. The ice itself was still plenty thick, and difficult to cut. Several times, my auger bit got stuck trying to punch through. Fortunately, a bobcat machine had cleared some snow near the road and left a perfect trench to plot holes.

It was slow going at first but by and by, I began marking fish on the MarCum. Aside from fishing my silly little cisco lures, I had also set up a heavy ice rod with a cisco sitting directly on bottom in 60 feet of water. It was hooked with a cool, quick-strike type rig tied with a technique I had learned from Eli a few years back. A mark about 10 feet from bottom suddenly bolted at my micro jig but only bumped it. A few minutes later another mark appeared higher up the water column. I reeled up to it and it immediately gave chase. This time a bite and a heavy fish on the line. Cisco, it must be a cisco, I thought as I gently steered it toward the opening of the hole in the ice.

Yahoo! Lacustrine cisco! … Er, maybe not quite.

Apologies for the pic but I didn’t think to take a picture myself of this quite obvious lake whitefish at the time even though it was a milestone of sorts, being the first whitefish I have caught through the ice on Great Slave. At least I knew there were some coregonids down there.

Meanwhile, as I was dealing with a mess of flopping whitefish and my dog trying to eat it, I heard the click of braided line zing from my Okuma Excalibur reel parked a few feet away, the one attached t the cisco planted at bottom. I rushed over, waited a second and then struck back hard. All I could feel below was unmovable resistance. There was something there, heavy for sure, but it didn’t seem to care I was heaving hard against it. I knew right away it was a big trout. I slowly pumped it toward the hole. It didn’t want to come. It took considerable effort to move it my way but it wasn’t until the fish neared the ice that it went nuts. Now the reel screamed, and the cue stick rod doubled over. Two hundred feet of line instantly melted from the reel. What followed next was one of the most epic ice fishing battles I’ve ever had. The fish did not want to give up. After 15 euphoric minutes, the fish was finally near the hole. But the battle was still not over. I could see it down there and it was not coming up. Only after gently coaxing it up toward me, like an obstetrician luring a hideously obese infant through an impossibly long birth canal, was I finally able to grab a hold of the fish and pull it above the ice. My ice fishing PB lake trout for sure!

Unfortunately, though I wanted to send her back, the big trout would not go back down the hole. It had simply fought itself to death. Luckily, there were some hungry Dutchmen happy to take it off my hands. I got just under 23 lbs standing with it on my bathroom scale, 40 inches long with a 21.5 inch girth.

Fishing was relatively slow after that, although Steve hooked and released a nice trout of his own.

Sometime later, as I watched Steve fight a nice burbot to the top, I heard my reel tick once more. A moment later I was once again locked into another massive battle. These lake trout on Great Slave Lake are without a doubt the hardest fighting fish I’ve ever encountered in the North. I’ve never fought a Pacific salmon before but I imagine the fight is not unlike tangling with these large pelagic lake trout. After finally getting the fish topside I was confronted by a laker that was almost a cookie cutter for the one I had caught earlier, a bit smaller. Dead-baiting ciscoes is certainly the most boring fishing known to man but if anyone knows a better way to get into some monster lake trout, please let me know.

This one, after a quick picture, I was able to get back down the hole.

Steve's burbot

That turned out to be the final fish of the day. No weird ciscoes, no deepwater sculpins, but some spectacular lake trout and a fine day for ice fishing. Only three more weeks ‘til spring! Maybe.

 

Species List: 
Burbot
Trout, Lake
Whitefish, Lake

Comments

Eli's picture

That big mother looks way heavier than 23lbs. Scale calibration might be in order. Look at that hump behind her head! Too bad she was eaten by some European perverts, but I guess that's just the way she goes sometimes.

Epic shit, man. I miss soaking ciscoes up there at the treeline. That was some steady fun action.

D.T.'s picture

Wow! What an amazing time that had to have been. I know I've said it before but you got mad skillz in your writing talent. Great read. And what are you feeding that little girl? Growin like a weed.

the bearded angler's picture

Excellent write up and beauty fish!!

Moose439's picture

Seeing pictures of Lake Trout like this being caught in Canada every year makes it hard to get excited about the ones we have down here. Those are dream fish dude. Tell your buddy with the whitefish that I hope he Stubbs his toe tomorrow morning when he wakes up.

Mike B's picture

Eli -- I know. When I got it to the top, there were a lot of shouted appraisals like, "man, that's gotta be 40 lbs! No, 50 lbs!" That number worked its way downward throughout the day until Gord and I decided on 28 lbs. Nope. The scale is accurate. In fact, it checks out perfectly with online length X girth calculators too. It was probably around 24 lbs when it came out of the ice and then lost a bit of weight sitting around outside all day.

I think this concludes that 30 lbs -plus lakers are exceedingly rare, even in GSL. I mean, it takes decades to get that big and these fish live punishing lives. I've caught a laker over 30 lbs only twice. And I've caught a lot of trout. There's a lot of "record lake trout caught in Lake Superior" type videos on YouTube and they're all like the one I'm holding in this post. It's hard to crack 30. Your 44 incher likely made it. That was a really special catch.

D.T. -- thanks man, she's four already.

Moose -- thanks too dude but you realize I'm the one holding the whitefish, right?

 

Moose439's picture

Dick.

Susquehannock's picture

They may not have hit thirty,  but those Lakers are still brutes. The whitefish and burbot are cool to.

Speechless...except to say your daughter deserves an honorary As Big As Me award! Hope someday she'll honor her dad by landing an over-30 GSL laker!

Hengelaar's picture

Wow, man, I think you done got bit by the Inspiration Monkey when you put these words to screen. Loved it.

Dude, those Lakers. So you're saying a 40 inch Great Slave Laker fights harder than those 40 inch(+) Pike from The Jam??? Holy heckery. That's gotta be rad.

 

Also good to see Skipper out and about, and Steve not falling face first into a campfire.

 

Seems you can't get away from Dutch people! I wonder if they brought any stroopwafels...

FP4LifesDad's picture

I always enjoy reading your reports Mike, awesome fishing!  You guys are some tough dudes living up that way, I can't stand cold weather even though this winter was pretty mild.

Now there is tough and then there is Mike B tough.  2nd from the last pic with the two pickups in the back one looks like it has skis on top, I'm assuming that's when the snow gets too deep for the truck, Mr. B flips it over and tows his truck by hand to the next spot!!  Now that's tough! LOL

Great pics and report man, thanks for sharing!!

Goldenfishberg's picture

Sick report once again! frickin ay those are some choded up beef cakes man! 

 

Stroopwaffles are gawt danged delicious!!!

Jason E.'s picture

Holy smokes!  Monsters! 

Mike B's picture

Thanks guys! Dutchman, I should clarify my words on hardest fighting fish in the North. Pike, especially big pike, are the scariest, most vicious fish that swim these parts. And they have the most explosive power. They are right at the top as far as prefered quarry go. But when it comes to overall strength and endurance nothing here beats lake trout. I was rigged up with a heavy rod and reel with 80 lbs power pro, and I had the drag dialed down tight, and the fights still went on for nearly 20 minutes each. They just kept running.

And yes, my other new Dutch friend (his wife is friends with my wife) is always offering me disgusting, salty, tart, chewy yucky shit from the Old Country.

FP4lifesDad -- haha, I think those are holders for ladders. Those guys are roofers by trade.

Divemaster's picture

Some monster fish, Mike! How'd you get some of them through a hole with four feet of ice haha.