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 is 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.
A field 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, has 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.
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.