I do take fishing success and failures quite seriously. A trait of great vs. good anglers is the ability to evaluate and understand failures, then take steps to mitigate shortcomings to achieve success. Without doing so, an angler is stuck either randomly trying new things without a benchmark for comparison, or finding the occasional success that doesn't lead toward future consistent success. What I want to achieve is to find equipment, techniques and locations that consistently offer success.
You see, Lake Whitefish presents a unique challenge. Their upper jaw and skull is hard and difficult to bury the hook past the barb, while their lower jaw and corner of the mouth is soft and easy to tear hooks out. They often bite a bait or lure in a lifting action, that is, as the fish bite it would swim (or lift) itself a little bit higher. Thus, the bite is often registered as a loss of line tension instead of a "thud". They may suck a lure or bait in so softly that it simply feels like a "doink" on the light action rod. As if it wasn't difficult enough, once a whitefish is hooked, it would immediately swim upward in the water column before attempting to head back to bottom again. This rapid upward motion is the reason a lot of whitefish are lost within the first few seconds of the fight. Whitefish diet often consist of small prey items less than 2" long. In order to imitate their forage, you need small lures which requires light action rods.
Without the proper light action rods, all these factors will affect your success in tempting, hooking, fighting and landing a whitefish. This is the exact issue I had this winter with my new gear.
This weekend, we were fishing on the same northern lake again. We were hoping to give the Burbot another try. On the first night, we fished a little shallower in 36 feet of water and found no bites. We didn't even mark much on the sonar. So on the second night, we decided to fish the same 44 feet of water where I caught two Burbot last weekend. In fact, we found the exact same holes where we fished!
These were the exact same two holes where I fished last week. And a week later, I was fishing in the same position in these holes until they were frozen over.
How do I know they were my holes? Last week, my chair broke while I was packing up. I didn't know the foot of my chair had broken off until I was home drying the chair. Well, I found that broken piece at these holes. Yep, these were my holes from last week.
Anyways, the Burbot fishing sucked on the second night as well. We did mark something on bottom at night, but they were not biting. Were Burbot eating our chum? We won't know for sure. But by the size and duration that these "fish" were lingering below my holes, I'm tempted to say so. It was strange that they did not bite my lively minnow suspended just an inch off bottom though. Burbot are not picky or wary. They usually don't refuse a struggling minnow.
During the day, we fished for Lake Whitefish and Lake Trout. Well...I fished...Michael caught. After 2 days, Michael had caught 3 Lake Whitefish and 2 Lake Trout. I had lost 3 possible Lake Whitefish. I say possible because they bit like whitefish and fought like whitefish and I lost them in ways that you usually lose whitefish...the few seconds after setting your hook. While Michael got his whitefish bites jigging, I got mine by deadsticking a lively pinhead minnow on bottom.
So now we're into the dying hours of our trip. Our trusty morning/afternoon spot was not producing the bite it had in the past. We were just looking to catch some Rainbow Smelt in shallow water when Michael hooked and landed two Lake Whitefish a few minutes apart. This was over 11 feet of water and apparently, it is possible, even typical, on this lake. After seeing Michael's random success, I was jigging for whitefish when the smelt school was not present. When the Rainbow Smelt appeared again, I would switch back to smelt fishing.
It was on one of these occasions when my screen was filled with smelt. I was using 1/128oz jigs and a light action rod to catch some fine eating swimming fish sticks (aka smelt). The smelt was so thick that my sonar screen was almost completely red. Smelt bit very lightly and often they attacked the bait from the side, causing a loss of line tension. I had just landed a smelt and dropped my line back down. Within seconds, my line lost tension indicating another bite. But this time, I set the hook into something bigger. By the way it was fighting, this was no smelt.
Since I was using a light rod, it was completely bent over and I could only put so much pressure on the fish. In hindsight, this was a saving grace since any more pressure and I might have pulled the tiny hook out. The bend of the rod also cushioned a lot of the headshakes to keep the line under pressure at all times. After the first minute, we already guessed that this was a Lake Whitefish. When I saw the silvery body under the hole and got a visual confirmation, my heart was pounding even more. Throughout this icefishing season, I hadn't even come close enough to seeing a whitefish circling under my hole.
Since I was fishing for smelt with the small jigs, and smelt don't get too big or heavy, and it was difficult to tie on these tiny hooks, I simply used a double granny knot to tie the hooks on the line. Now it presented a real issue. Will the knot stay strong? With that worry in mind, I backed off the drag and played the fish gingerly. If I had bigger hooks and used a proper knot, it would have been game over for this fish already.
After another 3 diving attempts by the Lake Whitefish, I finally got the head into the hole. This is where a lot of whitefish are lost as well. When you have the head of the fish just out of the water, while the body is hanging vertically in the tunnel of the hole, either a sudden loss of line pressure from a dreaded head shake, or an attempt to grab the slippery body, could cause the hook to fall out or pull out. I could now see that the tiny jig was barely grabbing the upper bony jaw. It wouldn't have penetrated far into the bone. So I reached down and pinned the fish against the side of the hole and on the second attempt scooped the fish out in one go.
FINALLY!!! In the dying hour of this icefishing season, I redeemed myself for this season's failure.
The bonus was this beautiful side profile picture. I had been trying to get a good picture for my lifelist. But Lake Whitefish often continues kicking once landed (similar to tunas) and they often get their fins torn or coat themselves with snow as they wriggle around. These fish also bleed profusely if they were hooked with bigger hooks. But this time, conditions were just right and the fish even cooperated by spreading all her fins.
Yes, I know it was a female since she had eggs inside.
What a completely unexpected catch! This Lake Whitefish was suspended amongst a school of Rainbow Smelt almost 8 feet off bottom and it took a 1/128oz jig with a chunk of pinhead shiner.
This single Lake Whitefish is the most memorable catch for me this ice season. Having gone through so much frustration this season, I finally found reasons to my failure and will be taking steps to get another lighter rod for next season. Since I jig with a lighter rod, I relegated the heavier rod for deadsticking. Most of my bites this year had came off deadsticking and the heavier rod just couldn't keep the Lake Whitefish hooked during the fight. I was either pulling the hooks out or allowing the fish to shake the hook out with the stiffer and less responsive action of the heavier rod. Next year I'll use the light action rod for deadstick and hopefully that will solve my ongoing frustration with these wonderful fish.
Before I finish this fishing report, I want to share a little bit of my constant adventures. After all, this is MuskieBait Adventures.
We were getting off the ice late in the day. Since the afternoon temperature was close to 10C on this day, there was serious slush all over the lake surface. Michael's snowmobile had already overheated once during our 5km run back to the launch. We were within 100 metres of the launch when the snowmobile was stuck in a foot of slush. You see, when the snowmobile had recovered from overheating, Michael was trying to take the shortest way toward the launch. However, the shortest way had all signs of disaster written on the surface. Needless to say, it was a fun time pulling the 500lb machine out of its death trap. Here is a picture once we puled the snowmobile out of its deepest trouble. The hole behind the track was what we were stuck into.
It took a lot of grunting and pulling to get it out. It was difficult to even get a decent foot hold in the watery slush. In the end, we got the snowmobile onto some snowy slush. Once there, we were able to get the snowmobile moving by having Michael controlled the throttle while I lifted the back end to reduce the weight on the soft snow. If you simply throttle up, the weight of the snowmobile would dug itself deeper as the track ran and removed more material from under it. Once the soft snow was removed, you'll be back in that watery slush again. It wasn't an easy task, but at the same time, we were surprised how quickly we got it out of the danger zone once we got the machine moving. I had the fun time of getting sprayed by slush while lifting the back end.
This stuff is reserved for airboats and hovercrafts ONLY!
I think the icefishing season is officially over :(
We were lucky that once we got the snowmobile out of the worst slush, it wasn't too much trouble with the rest of the 100 metre run. We were lucky we were stuck close to the launch and not in the middle of the lake. Had we been stuck badly in the middle of the lake, dusk was approaching and we may have been trapped there for the night. Night time would bring freezing temperatures and the snowmobile would most certainly froze into the ice overnight. There was no good solution to get out of such situation in that case; since we would then need to wait for the ice to thaw into slush again the next day, and we'll be traveling in bad slush again. You have to count blessings when they come your way...and this time we were truly blessed.
The lesson here? No matter how good the fishing could be, no matter how desperate it was to finally catch the first whitefish of the season at the final hours of the season...always think about how you are going to get off the lake...