Tactics and Equipment for Catching Winter Ciscos

Recently, a novice cisco angler asked me to give him a list of tackle needed for cisco fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This article is the result. Instead of simply emailing him the info, I decided to write up a formal article so that others might benefit from it, and add their own suggestions and tips.

For readers not familiar with the Boundary Waters Wilderness (also called the BWCAW or "B-Dub" for short), it's a 1.3 million acre area that contains thousands of lakes, most of which are connected by rivers and rough trails. It lies along the US/Canada border in northern Minnesota, and is complemented by the even larger Quetico wilderness on the Canadian side.  Waterborne canoe routes stretch for over 1,500 miles. Inside the wilderness, the forest and waters are maintained in a primitive state by federal law. Modern conveniences such as motors, wheels, sails, and aircraft are not allowed. The area is rich in Coregonid (whitefish and cisco) species, as well as other coldwater species such as Lake Trout and Burbot. It is the most heavily visited wilderness in the USA, and a spectacular and popular destination in the spring, summer, and fall. 

Not so in the winter. While a 5-mile canoe trip is a breeze, a 5-mile trip on snowshoes or skis in sub-zero weather can easily break a man. Thus, this place is all but empty in the winter, with only a few serious dog-mushers really making any headway into the wilderness after freeze-up. In the winter it is an empty white land, ruled by the densest population of wolves in the world.  A fisherman going into this area can hardly afford to keep a team of huskies to drag all his gear into the wilds, so he's forced to fall back on human muscle and ingenuity. Generally this means travelling on skis or showshoes, keeping to the ice, and towing a sled full of winter survival gear.

Dog Mushers:

If you've got the money, you can hire a dog musher with a team of huskies to take you back into the wilds on a fishing trip.  It's not technically a guided trip, since the musher isn't going to know anything about ciscos.  But the thrill of racing into the giant white emptiness at high speed behind a pack of freakishly powerfull dogs is an experience to be remembered.  Besides, everyone should support their local dog mushers.  Someday, you might need them.


The following equipment and tackle will work for cisco fishing anywhere, but special consideration for BWCAW trips is given here.

Here's a list of the tackle necessary for targeting ciscos:

  • Sonar: Any ice-fishing type sonar will work. Yes, sonars are legal to use in the BWCAW. Don't ask me why wheels are too high-tech for the wilderness but modern electronics are not. You're going to want a sonar with a good battery (or even a spare), as there will be no way to recharge it in the B-Dub. The sonar is used to locate the schools of ciscos, find out what depth they are frequenting, and position your bait at the same depth as the fish. I'm a pretty minimalist fisherman, straight from the old school, but for targeting ciscos the sonar is indispensable. I would rarely bother to drop a line down the hole for ciscos without first marking them on the sonar.

  • Auger: Obviously, if you're fishing outside the B-Dub, use a power-auger. Your back will thank you. In the wilderness, a hand-auger is your only option. Get the smallest double-bladed screw-type ice auger you can find. Unfortunately, this is probably going to be a 5 or 6-inch auger, which is still much bigger and slower than I would like. I once owned a 4-inch hand auger which could cut through two feet of ice in ten seconds. It's now resting in peace at the bottom of Forest Lake. The smaller the auger, the easier it is to cut ice with it, and ciscos are long, skinny fish so you do not need a big hole to fish for them. If I could find a three-inch ice auger I would be overjoyed. Unfortunately the ice-fishing industry does not cater to backwoods cisco anglers, so nobody sells a three-inch auger. If anybody knows where a fellow could acquire such an instrument, I'd be eternally grateful for the tip. In the meantime, look for a 4.5 or 5 inch model and keep it wickedly sharp. UPDATE: Strikemaster now makes a 4-inch hand auger.

  • Flasher Spoons Ciscos are schooling fish, attracted to the movement and flash of other ciscos. Knowing this, anglers have devised the “Flasher Rig”, which consists of a large, hookless spoon tied into the line a foot or so above the actual bait. The benefits of this system are twofold. First, the heavy spoon sinks quickly and is easily visible on sonar, so you can get right down to the fish and can see when you're in the zone by looking at the spoon on your sonar. Second, the movement and flash of the spoon attracts ciscos from a considerable distance. Buy a selection of heavy, reflective spoons (Kastmaster, Buckshot, Krocodile, Swedish Pimple, etc.). Silver is probably the best color. Any spoon will work, but heavier ones are best. Remove the treble hook and replace it with a swivel. Make sure there is a swivel on the front end as well, because the spoon will otherwise twist your line and cause tangles. Tie the spoon to your line, then tie another section of line to the back swivel. That's where you tie your cisco lure.  A good way to prepare this tackle is to pre-rig a number of spoons with 4-pound dropper lines and a variety of ice flies.  Tie a simple snap-swivel to the end of your fishing line.  That way, if your rig become fouled or you'd like to switch to a different fly, just unclip the spoon from your line and clip on a pre-rigged spoon and dropper.  It's much easier to do this than to re-tie your whole rig, especially during a hot cisco bite.

Andy's Tip:

While the flasher rig is a traditional and proven fish-catcher, it's usefulness was mainly for anglers without electronics. The flasher "calls" ciscos in to your bait. However, if you have a sonar unit and can find and see the marks of fish, I have found that dropping a small, light ice fly baited with a waxie to them works fine. If it is fairly deep water, I use a smaller dropper rig with a forage minno for the spoon to get it down there fast. Stop your offering a foot above the fish, and jig it a few times. They will usually rise and take it. If they rise but don't take, reel it up a few feet and jig it more aggressively. Ciscos will chase a lure all over the water column at times, and often only respond to a very aggressive presentation.

  • Lures: Teardrops and ice flies are popular, along with small jigs, bare hooks, and regular trout flies. These lures are mainly intended for catching bluegills. Keep it small, unless you know the fish are running large, in which case a white curly-tail jig might be worth considering. Certain crafty Canadians swear by the white curly-tail jig.  Where fish are finicky, turn to a small baited hook. All lures should be tipped with bait. 

  • Bait: Waxworms and Maggots. Waxworms are larger. Maggots (also known as Euro-larvae) are available in a wide variety of colors. It might make a difference. Other baits to try are Spring Wigglers (Hexegenia mayfly larvae), freshwater shrimp, or salmon eggs. Some crafty cisco-chasers simply cut open the bellies of whatever ciscos they catch and use the contents as bait.  Oftentimes you'll find mayfly larvae or shrimp inside.  Any natural bait will probably work as long as you keep it small. When fish are small and/or finicky, switch to a single eurolarva on a tiny plain hook. Keep the bait inside your jacket to keep them from freezing solid.

  • Rods and Reels: Small panfish-style spinning rods are ideal, when it's warm enough (near freezing at least). If it's cold, though, the spinning reel won't work. When you're fishing fifty feet down in sub-zero weather, all the water accumulated on the line will end up in your rod guides, where it will freeze solid. In these conditions, use simple jig-sticks or just forget about the reel and land the fish hand-over-hand. You'll want to use light line for the dropper, typically 4 pound test. Cisco can be light biters. Pay close attention to the rod tip as bites are sometimes easy to miss.  If possible, use two lines to double your chances.  The second line can be rigged on a freeze-proof bobber with a fairly heavy weight (to sink quickly) and a plain ice fly.

  • Bobbers:  A couple of ice-proof bobbers are a good idea if you're going to be fishing a second, stationary presentation next to your jigging rod.  The yellow and red, foam "ice-buster" slip bobbers are the only way to go here, and they're cheap.  You'll need a packet of beads and bobber stop-knots to make them work. 


This section will describe in some detail exactly how to approach a cisco lake. For starters, do your research. Make sure the lake has ciscos in it, if at all possible. For some of the more remote lakes in the Wilderness, you're not going to know in advance. Most cisco lakes are over a hundred acres in size and over 50 feet deep. Some cisco lakes are known to produce “dwarf” cisco – where none of the fish will grow to more than six or seven inches in length. This is mainly due to the food supply of the lake, since when transplanted they attain normal size. Avoid these lakes, as fish in that size range are very hard to catch with angling gear.

Ciscos live their lives suspended in deep water. However, they do relate to structure at times. Good areas to target are the deepwater areas outside sharply dropping points, above underwater humps, and deep holes and flats. That doesn't narrow it down much, I know, but remember: finding the ciscos is the hard part. Once you find them, catching them in good numbers is usually easy. In a simple, bowl-shaped, smaller lake, you can't do much worse than to walk to the very middle of the lake and start there.  Another good place to start would be a sharp dropoff that ends in at least 20 feet of water and slopes slowly down thereafter. Drill a line of holes starting from the bottom of the dropoff extending into deep water, making the holes about thirty feet apart. Scan each hole with your sonar, looking for marks well above the bottom. When you see marks, drop your lure right down into the middle of the school by following the sinking spoon on your sonar. Jig it a few times, then lift it a few feet above the school and hold it, watching for the fish to follow it up. Usually, you'll be into a feisty cisco in no time.

Andy's Tip:

In areas like the BWCAW where you are limited to a hand auger, drilling holes to locate fish is a huge chore. To initially locate schools of ciscos, you can shoot through the ice with your flasher's transducer. Dig your boot into the snow to get to the ice, then pour a small puddle of water on it and set the transducer in the puddle. I have found that I can shoot through only about 16" with my old fl-8 vexilar, but other units may be more powerful. Those flashlight-type sonars supposedly shoot through pretty thick ice.

Cisco schools are highly mobile, so the pattern you'll often encounter is a flurry of activity where several fish are caught, then a lull in the action as the school moves elsewhere. They will probably return eventually, but why wait? Drill some more holes and locate them again. Eventually you'll have a network of holes you can visit repeatedly, catching fish whenever they pass beneath any of the holes you have drilled.

But sometimes, there are problems. Sometimes, the fish are scattered over a wide area and not concentrated in schools. This is often a problem early in the season. In these cases, you'll be looking for single marks, often moving fast. You'll need to quickly get a bait on the fish while it's under your hole. I've also run into situations where large ciscos were aggressively feeding right under my feet, only a foot or two below the ice. In these situations, they are invisible to sonar. If you are inside a dark shelter, you will see them cruising by and catching them is simply a matter of putting a lure in front of them!   Keep this in mind if you are having trouble finding fish. Another trick for locating the school is to rubber-band the transducer of your sonar to a long, straight stick. Submerge the transducer below the ice and tilt the stick in every direction around your hole. If you see marks, drill a hole in the direction your transducer was pointing. Another trick I've always wanted to try is to use a decoy. You could use a fake cisco, like a spearing decoy, and jig it. Or, put a cisco you've caught onto a large hook and suspend it beneath a bobber. Cisco are legal to use for bait in most places, but in this case you're merely trying to keep the school around by having a live cisco near your hole at all times. If a giant lake trout or pike happens to grab your decoy, then the real fun begins – especially if you took my advice and are fishing through a tiny 4-inch hole.

Andy's Tip:

Chumming can work in areas where it is legal. Specifically, shearing the scales off a cisco and dropping them down your hole. This creates a cloud of shiny, sparkly, fishy-smelling goodness that attracts fish from a distance.

If anyone has any more tips and tricks for fishing ciscos anywhere, please let me know and I'll update this page!


Outdoors4life's picture

1st off there is a lot of great info on this page!


  • I have found late in the ice season is the time I target them(Mid February-ice out) when many other species become difficult to catch.
  • With a smaller diamer hole the fish have a harder time getting off the hook in the hole.
  • Hali ice jig lets you have a heavy jig and a small dropper hook
  • Drill lots of holes and let your partner fish while you drill often times I have had the best action while one guy drilled like it calle dthe fish in.
  • Don't be afraid to hole hop till you find fish
  • If you are using a flasher do not put scales down the ice hole or you will be seeing "fish" on your flasher for the next hour or more.
  • A longer rod will give you more hook setting power for their hard mouths.


My flasher with a couple of cisco. Zoom is on the left.

It is all perspective!

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