The following appears in the December issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY DENNIS MUSGRAVES
Shuffling across the snow-covered ice in the early-morning darkness had us feeling confident about our arrival time.
The overloaded sled we dragged behind us slid smoothly across the frozen surface, doing little to slow our quick pace. We were determined to reach a spot on the lake, set up and begin the pursuit for lake trout before sunrise broke over the horizon.
Shawn Johnson and I were up early on another outing for lake trout on the ice. We both knew from our past experience that getting out before daybreak would allow us a good opportunity to catch a prized laker, since fish seemingly become most active during the transition periods of the rising and setting sun.
After arriving at our previously selected area, we punched through the thick surface of the ice-covered lake with a power auger, set up a portable thermal shelter and turned on a propane heater to warm the inside. Three 10-inch holes situated side by side, with about 2 feet between each hole, allowed Shawn and I to fish on the ends and place a transducer from a flasher unit in the middle.
Before the heat built up in the fishing hut, we had already dropped our plastic tube jigs down into the depths and eagerly began watching the screen of our Vexilar sonar situated between us. The specialized ice fishing sonar device allowed us to see everything that moved in the water column below us, including our lures.
We worked in unison watching the vertical depth trying to attract fish. It took about 45 minutes for the first sign of life to mark on the screen. A glowing orange mark appearing near 80 feet on the monitor, about 20 feet under Shawn’s lure.
Our reaction was immediate and simultaneous, alerting each other with the same words, ”There’s a fish!”
Since Shawn was the closest, he released the spool catch on his reel, quickly lowered down to the mark and began short jigging motions to try and entice the fish to bite.
It did not take much action in the tentacles of the plastic tube for the light on the screen to react and charge. The light on the screen turned bright red, which told us that the fish was directly under the transducer and sizing up Shawn’s offering.
“He’s right on you!” I shouted out, just before the strike came. Shawn quickly raised up on his stout heavy-action ice fishing rod to set the hook as he felt the fish slam his bait. His rod doubled over, bowing and flexing from the resistance of the fish.
The battle had begun and our early-morning start was paying off. As he held on tight to the bouncing
fishing rod, he looked at me with a wide smile.
“I think it’s a lake trout,” he said.
CHASING LAKE TROUT DURING Alaska’s winter season can test even the most seasoned ice angler’s patience. The moments of glory are infrequent, and hoisting fish after fish is uncommon since the cheetahs of cold water can seemingly be the most elusive fish species to catch during winter in the 49th state.
If you’re up for an ice fishing challenge, lake trout certainly can test your resolve and resiliency. Contributing factors making Alaska’s lakers tough to catch include a limited number of accessible roadside locations where the fish are present, low reproduction, slow growth rates, and the fact that Alaska does not currently have the species included in the sport fishery hatchery or sportfish stocking plan.
I have learned how to increase my odds ice fishing for lake trout in Alaska by following a few simple rules:
OBTAIN BATHYMETRIC CHARTS
A bathymetric chart is an underwater version of a topographical map. They allow fishermen to have a visual reference for structure, shape and depth of a lake bottom.
This information can be used to locate likely places where lake trout can be found. ADFG has many bathymetric charts of roadside lakes in Alaska available to the public. I like using the charts as a historical reference, chronicling locations where I catch fish, and marking the chart for future outings so I can return to productive areas.
USE A FLASHER
Modern-day fishing electronics is the number one tool that will assist you in the deep-water hunt for lake trout. A flasher unit will allow you to see fish swimming under you and give you instant feedback on how fish react to your presentation.
Additional advantages include having accurate water depth, and being able to know what the water depth is before you even drill a hole (since units can send a signal through the ice). Although the devices can appear to be overwhelming for a first time user, they are very easy to operate and mastering the concept of using one is not difficult.
If you’re failing to mark fish with your flasher or the action is limited, you need to be on the move. A change in depth in a new location can be all the difference in locating active fish. Lake trout are the wildcats of the deep, and unlike suspending species like northern pike, lake trout are constantly moving in search of food.
Since ice fishing is vertical fishing, covering a body of water is much more difficult rather open-water tactics when trolling or horizontal casting. Vertical jigging can only cover the column from the surface; more often it will take several moves in order to find fish.
FILL YOUR FUNNEL
The best thing any angler can do to catch more lake trout is to go fishing more often. Filling your funnel with more ice fishing outings will eventually bring you a payout. The cliché is never more true in this instance: “You can’t catch any fish unless you go fishing.” Make sure you get your fishing line wet, and do it often.
Applying any of these suggested recommendations in your own approach or adding modern tools to your equipment arsenal won’t guarantee hooking up with a lake trout, but it will certainly increase your odds. All it takes is one fish to the surface in order to fully grasp and understand the addiction for pursuing lake trout in winter.
I am not ashamed to admit that most of my trips end without a single fish hooked up, which I am fine with. It only makes the lake trout I do catch through the ice much more glorious. ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on Dennis Musgraves’ fishing memories in the Last Frontier, check out alaskansalmonslayers.com.