There is an element of mystery in all types of angling, but ice fishing truly has a mystique of its own. When we go out and drill a hole in the ice we are creating a window into another world, and there is this tremendous sense of having pierced the veil. Down through that small hole at your feet, is a realm hidden in shadow, where perhaps there be monsters.
While fishing through the ice for smaller quarries like bluegill and perch is worthwhile, there is something magical about struggling against a heavy weight on the end of your line and then looking down to see an eye as large as your own staring back at you from the darkness. It’s almost like ice fishing was intended for just catching big fish. Many anglers head out onto the hardwater with big game intentions, and many are left disappointed. Like anything else worthwhile, targeting trophy fish through the ice takes a lot of preparation, patience, and, above all—using the right techniques.
One of the biggest reasons that ice anglers don’t pull a lot of real monster fish through the ice is that they are fishing in the wrong places. Now, I don’t just mean they’re not setting their tip-ups or jigging in the right spots, but often they’re fishing in the entirely wrong body of water. Just because a lake, river, or reservoir has species like pike, lake trout, or muskie, which can all grow to gigantic sizes, doesn’t necessarily mean that they do so in the water you’re fishing. Often a place just doesn’t have the necessary forage or habitat to allow these species to grow to true trophy sizes and to expect one is almost a waste of time. So to find the right spots, you need to do some research.
“For me, the key to success when I’m targeting trophy fish is making sure I’m on the right lake,” Jay Siemens, host of the Canadian Angle, said. “There’s big fish in small lakes, sure, but I generally target larger bodies of water, and then I do a lot of E-scouting. I’ll check out some online fishing forums, check out some message boards, or trophy sections a certain body of water has. You can even find and talk to some fishing guides or tackle shops around a place and see what they have to say.”
One of the greatest tools for finding water with trophy fish is the internet. Just Googling the name of a certain water body can give you information on everything from the species it holds, how big they get, where they’re being caught, and even what bait and lures to use to catch them. Don’t choose a place because it has some fifty-year-old, once-in-a-lifetime fish record, but rather one that produces trophy-sized fish consistently.
Whenever you’re fishing bait or lures for really big fish, having the right fishing gear is absolutely essential. You’ll want to use medium to heavy-action jigging rods paired with a large frame reel that has a solid drag. String the reel with 20- to 50-pound braided line that won’t be easily frayed on the ice around the edge of a hole by a massive struggling fish. Tip-ups should have an adjustable drag setting on the spool so that large-live baits struggling against the hook won’t accidentally set them off, giving you false hope and running you ragged on a day when you might not be getting a lot of strikes.
Leaders for both jigging rods and tip-ups should be made of heavy 15- to 30-pound fluorocarbon fishing line. Depending on the size of the fish you’re after and the mainline you’re using, going up to as high as 40- or even 50-pound fluro isn’t entirely unreasonable. You’ll want to attach these leaders to your mainline with heavy barrel swivels as they are going to create more solid connections than using line-to-line connection knots.
Additionally, you should also always attach a length of bite wire or wire leaders to any set-up when targeting toothy critters like pike and muskie. These voracious predators are known to inhale both the bait and the leader when they strike and have left many an angler with a waving tip-up flag but an empty line.
Live bait is almost always going to be your best fish producer in almost any angling situation. The natural movement of a minnow struggling against a hook will be detected by the lateral lines of large predatory fish and draw them in to at least take a closer look. While the struggles of smaller minnows will draw in fish of all sizes, from massive lake trout to petite crappie, to get the attention of the real big boys, you’ll want to use baits that make an impression.
Though there are a few exceptions to this rule, such as when you’re ice fishing for big bass, which seem to prefer smaller offerings during winter, generally using baits that are simply too big for smaller fish to eat is one the best ways to ensure you’ll only be catching trophy fish. Two of the best big fish ice fishing baits are large 6- to 8-inch gold shiners and 8- to 12-inch white suckers. Both are readily available at most bait shops, or if you’re ambitious, you can actually catch them yourself before the season, giving you the best bang for your buck. Big baits like these will be eaten by almost everything from walleye, pike, and lake trout to sturgeon and even catfish. Using these baits in such large sizes assures that only true behemoths will be bothering with them.
If your local shop is out of or doesn’t sell such large live baits or you haven’t had a chance to catch them yourself, using a medium-sized 8- to 10-inch panfish like a perch or a sunfish that you’ve jigged up is also an option. Oftentimes these will actually work better than store-bought baits because they’re more of a natural food source for large predators in certain lakes and large rivers. Before you do this, double-check that it’s legal to do so on the body of water you’re fishing, as such actions are against the law in many places.
When fishing a large live bait, large 2/0 to 4/0 wide gap bait hooks which can be hooked through the bait just below and slightly behind its dorsal fin are your best bet. This will ensure that the bait not only survives but also hangs in the water at a slight downward angle when suspended beneath a tip-up or on a dead stick jigging rod. Hanging at this angle will allow the bait to struggle and present a large profile to any passing predators while preventing it from swimming too hard and setting off the tip-up. Additionally, large fish tend to swallow their prey head first, and hooking the bait further back will prevent the fish both from feeling the hook and dropping the bait, and also from swallowing the hook too deeply should you want to release it. Add a few ¼- to ⅛-ounce heavy split shot to the line to get the bait to the desired depth and to hold it in place, and then just let it swim.
Fish live-baits on multiple tip-ups so you can cover a lot of water at once. Trophy fish can be found in a variety of different areas and at a variety of different depths, but the best spots to fish these live baits are in areas of depth transition. Most trophy-sized fish are roving predators that travel between shallow and deep water looking for things to eat. So, your best bet at hooking up with one is by setting your live baits in spots where these fish are patrolling like along the edges of sharp drop-offs, off the points of islands or peninsulas that are immediately adjacent to deeper water, or at the mouths of creeks, inlets or shallow bays. Use electronics or a bathymetric map to find these areas and set up accordingly, covering a variety of depths along the transition zones until you find the sweet spot.
Dead baits are another great choice for ice anglers looking to land a monster. They can be left to soak on a tip-up all day while you fish other holes without the baits being changed, and can lead to your biggest catch of the day. While many anglers may think that dead baits aren’t as effective as live ones, the truth is that they can often be more effective at times. This is especially true during cold snaps when predatory fish are more sluggish.
“It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s true, ‘big baits catch big fish,’ and I will always be laying a big dead bait on the bottom when I’m after something truly monstrous like a big lake trout or a pike,” Jay said. “Big fish under the ice like that aren’t going to waste a lot of energy chasing food around. They’d rather just come up on a big dead bait and inhale it. You also just deter a lot of smaller fish too because they’re not going to bother with a truly big dead bait.”
Dead baits are also great options for anglers who don’t have a live bait shop close by as salted and brined baits can be found in most sporting goods sections. You can even find effective dead baits at the grocery store. Because they’re dead, there’s no worries about them escaping the hook and becoming an invasive species. Whole fish like mackerel, tilapia, and even trout from your local seafood section can be a great bait option.
Personally, I like to use big dead baits. I’m talking at least 10 inches, but often somewhere in the realm of 12 to 15 inches. Baits that can only be eaten by something truly monstrous. The best way to rig these slab baits is by using a stinger rig. These can either be purchased or even made with two large 3/0 to 5/0 treble hooks, which both increase the chances of a hookup and allows the bait to hang horizontally in the water, making it look as natural as possible in the water.
To set up a stinger rig, tie one treble hook to your leader, and then depending on the size of the bait, take a 4- to 8-inch length of heavy 25-pound monofilament (or bite wire if you’re after pike or muskie) and tie it to either the eyelet or one of the shanks of the hook. Tie the second hook to the end of that length of line or wire so that the two hooks hang vertically. Attach your dead bait to the rig by hooking the topmost treble hook through the center of the back so that it will hang horizontally in the water and look more natural. Finally, hook the bottom treble just behind the bait’s head so that it sits just above the gill plate, and you’ll be ready to drop it in the hole.
Set your dead baits in deeper water off points of structure. These can include underwater humps, weed beds, rock piles, and reefs which will draw in and hold roving schools of baitfish, which in turn rings the dinner bell for large hunting predators. In places where it’s legal, you can even chum these spots with pieces of cut bait (sliced-up fish chunks) to draw baitfish and smaller predators into the area. Set your baits on top of and along the outer edges of these points of structure by either suspending them just above the bottom or laying them directly on the bottom, and then you just have to wait for a monster to move in to feed.
Jigging can also be a very effective strategy when hunting trophy fish. Plus, it gives you something to do between tip-up flags. But just like when you’re using live or dead baits on tip-ups, if you’re jigging for trophy-sized fish, you’ll want to use large lures that draw a lot of attention.
Large flutter spoons from 6- to 8-inches long like the Magnum Flutter Spoon or the Big Daddy are great options for fishing deeper water or when targeting aggressive predators like pike. To make these spoons more enticing, you can tip them with either a whole dead shiner or minnow or a big chunk of cut bait just to put a bit of blood in the water, which can be the perfect thing to draw in a big one.
Heavy ¼- to 2-ounce jig heads are another excellent and extremely versatile trophy fish option. These can be tipped with either cut bait, whole shiners, or soft plastics like a 7- to 10-inch Hogy, or a 6- to 8-inch Grub Tail. These jigs can be used in a variety of depths but are most effective in relatively shallow water from 6 to 20 feet deep. When fishing them, it’s often best to use electronics like LiveScope or another live feed fish finder, or an underwater camera which can help you both find the fish and show you how anything coming into your jig is reacting to your presentation. Often you may have to vary your jigging cadence or speed or even suddenly lay your jig on the bottom or rocket it back to the surface to trigger a strike.
Fishing for trophy fish is all about patience. Being successful often means fishing for hours and sometimes even days without a strike. It can be a struggle, one that often sees you wandering aimlessly around the ice, building snowmen, burning up data on your phone, and basically doing everything but catching fish. Yet when you’re really after a monster, sticking it out to the very last second will often see you rewarded.
“Even under the ice, a lot of big fish aren’t feeding under the high sun, so that makes the Golden Hour of sunset and sunrise primetime for big ones,” Jay said. “So many of my biggest fish have been caught at last light, so if you’re after a real big one, just stick it out and stay out an extra hour longer than you’ve planned. Be the last one to leave the ice.”
Being persistent and enduring the cold is the real key to success when targeting trophy fish through the ice. It’s something you truly have to be patient with before you can reap the rewards, but in the end it will all be worth it. No matter how frozen your toes get, how far you have to drive, or how enticing that Lazy Boy in your living room may seem, if you stick with it and use the right technique, ice fishing for trophy fish can answer that question that enters your mind every time you look down into the darkness of an ice hole and wonder just what lies beneath.
For more ice fishing tips and to watch Jay catch the monster laker in the feature image, click here.