Late Season Lakers Tactics -for Big Fish by John Whyte and Ryan Hare

As we approach the final days of lake trout season in most of southern Ontario’s lakes, it’s time to prepare for late ice- big fish. There are two aggressive periods for winter laker’s, first ice and last ice. Early ice might be the best time for quantity but last ice could be best for size. Laker’s feed aggressively all winter long but they really put on the feedbag post spawn through December and January.  As we move into February there is a lull in the action and fish come easier at certain times of the day. The lull or February blahs as we call it could be more perception than reality because trout move away from early season haunts and disperse throughout the lake.

As we approach ice out the feed bag goes into high gear again and that’s when the big girls show up. These fish hunt and cruise aggressively high in the water column and it’s common to see large trout gliding just below the ice. Big fish are chasing larger lake herring (cisco) and smelt closer to the surface, using the ice like it is the bottom of the lake. If you have ever flashed a small spoon 20 to 40 feet below the surface in 80 or more feet of water on Lake Simcoe, you are probably going to catch large cisco, and that’s the target for large trout.  


Where to find them
Having a good understanding of the lakes structure is an essential tool for tracking down big fish. Using Lake Simcoe as an example, there is a deep basin area of Kempenfelt Bay with deep water near shore, and relatively flat muddy/ sandy bottom of the main Lake. The deeper ridges of Kempenfelt or any structure on the main Lake are target areas for most of the year. Rock piles, humps and ridges are all great areas to hold bait and where there is bait the trout will be close. Understanding of what shoreline areas attract bait late in the season is a good way to track down aggressively feeding lake trout. Often around ice out, shiners and smelt move close to shore attracting feeding herring and perch. This is a lake trout buffet and they will move in and out of the shallow water gorging on easy prey.


Lake Trout are cannibalistic and you will find small trout close to the bottom in very deep water avoiding big trout in shallower water or close to the surface.

The small trout above was caught in 50 feet where large trout are feeding. Note the teeth marks as this little guy got a second chance.


Often times big trout will be cruising and not adhering to structure at all. They simply hook up behind a school of Cisco and follow them for days picking off the weak. Schools of bait like this can attract a lot of fish and the trout will often stay on the side of the school and coral them. A large school of Cisco might stay in an area for a week or more simply swimming in circles flanked by feeding trout.  


Large trout have been known to pin bait fish against the ice using the ice like other fish use the bottom.



End of season hunting is no time to finesse with small lures. This is the time to bring out the big hardware with a lot of flash, flare and rattle. Years ago, anglers would lure large fish to cut-outs in the ice with large decoys and either catch them with live bait or spear them. Herring DecoyToday spearing is illegal in most lakes but decoys are still used although their true value is realized as collectors art.


Learning to fish the upper half of the water column can be very rewarding but does require some patience. Since your only targeting large fish you have to resign yourself to catching fewer fish. Spending most of the day fishless isn't a confidence builder and most anglers eventually get drawn to the bottom and take what they can get. Award winning outdoors writer Gord Pyzer of Outdoor Canada and In-Fisherman fame, says he rarely fishes below the top third of the water column for laker's. All of his biggest Lake Trout have been caught close to the surface.  His best results have come on a large lipless crank baits such as Live Target Golden Shiner or Rapala's Clack & Rap. Gord's techniques are not subtle as he reefs the crank as high as the rod will allow creating flash and working the rattles, then works it down.


Pyzer believes an alternative bait such as a white tub are important because a fair number of fish are caught on the "easier to catch" dead stick tube after chasing the flash bait. Our personal favorite’s are the Bass Magnet 3.5 inch finesse fry tube in pearl or the Simcoe Pearl series. rThe tube head should have the eye on the top in the middle so the bait stays horizontal in the water. Trimming the tail can help keep the bait horizontal as well and reduce missed hook sets.

Alternative baits that will allow both baits to be worked more effectively are some of the new paddle tail swim baits. These baits were intended for slow retrieve horizontal applications in open water. But when falling or rising in deep water they achieve the same results and something falling to the bottom or shouting off the bottom triggers strikes.

During a recent trip to Lake Simcoe where 4 of us caught 36 trout, 28 of those came on these new swim baits.



Bass Magnet 5.5 inch Shiftr Shad




Having the right gear for the job is very important. It’s easy to handle smaller fish on light gear but the day you hook into a really big fish it could be a dream breaker.  Bigger fish have very toothy, tough mouths so getting the hook set is important. Using 8-10lbs suffix ice braid with a 12 lbs fluorocarbon leader is a good start. Your small ice reels may not have the line capacity so at a minimum a 1000 series reel is a better choice. Many who target big fish opt for 2500 series reels. Typically lakers don’t take big runs but large fish can empty out a reel in a hurry so don’t get stuck at the end of an empty spool when you finally hook that dream fish. Shimano have several lines of reels that resist bail ice up. Just as important is a good quality rod. Something with a bit of backbone helps with hook sets. The initial strikes can be extremely violent and can easily fold over too light of rod. Rods in the 32-36” range in medium heavy action are great for handling large fish. Use good quality hooks and make sure they are sharp and straight.


Cover water but be patient

Many experienced and successful ice anglers know one of the most important keys to success is to cover water. Sitting in one place without catching fish is simply not productive. You may chance into fish at some point in the day but it can be a long time between fish. If fish are not moving you have to move to them. But there is a difference between distances moved during last ice as opposed to mid season ice. During the mid season blahs when fish move very little, moving 100 meters or less might make all the difference.  But during last ice when you are looking for big fish you should at least double the distance you move. Big fish feeding in the upper half of the water column are hunting and moving constantly so they can cover an area pretty quick. They can see or sense a flashy, noisy offering a long way so if they don’t show up after 30 minutes then it’s time to move. You can always return to the same location later.There is no real formula that can be applied to distance and time spent in one spot. It might take a little longer to attract big fish to your offering, after all there are other things to eat down there and you might just have to wait your turn.


Don’t be afraid to go shallow

Many of the older experienced lake trout anglers not only fished near the surface with decoys, they fished shallow water of less than 50 feet, particularly late in the season. As the days begin to warm the ground water runoff attracts smelt and shiners, which in turn attracts bigger cisco so its very common to see the largest trout in less than 20 feet.


Many of the biggest lake trout in Southern Ontario lakes are caught by chance rather than design. The average angler jigging a spoon on the bottom can happen upon big fish from time to time. Many feel that staying away from the crowds will increase your chances and yet big fish cruising just under the ice and under the feet of a group of anglers may never see or be interested in baits presented on or close to the bottom.


The average ice angler with limited free time probably doesn't want to risk a fishless day by concentrating only on big fish close to the surface. But there is nothing more exhilarating than tagging into a really big trout and it turns on the after burners and rips your line to the backing, only to be worked to the hole and run to the bottom again.


Lakes to Fish for Big Lakers


The most convenient from the GTA with most access points is Lake Simcoe. The trout population has never been better and fish over 15 pounds are caught daily. Trout season opens Jan. 1st and closes March 15th. There is a 2 fish limit for a sports licence.


Parry Sound is an excellent trout fishery with a lot of big fish. After 15 years of rehabilitation the sound is brimming with natural trout with fish over 20 pounds common. Trout season closes March 15th and there is a (1) fish limit for a sports licence.


Lake Joseph is a late season favorite, opening on Feb.15th until September 30th. This under utilized fishery has a healthy population of all year classes of fish with lake trout over 20 pounds common. There is a (2) fish limit for a sports licence.


Here are a few of the more effective baits that can be used anywhere for last ice, but are also effective all season.



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