Editor's Note: This article was first published in 2014 during one of Ontario's most excellent ice fishing seasons!
How many of us, for example, would have enjoyed watching Babe Ruth stand at home plate in Wrigley Field in the 1932 World Series, when he pointed to the bleachers in far centre field, called his shot, and then hit the ball 440 feet to the deepest part of the park for the last home run he ever hit in postseason play?
Well, guess what?
Well, guess what?
Right now is the Golden Age of Ice Fishing because there has never been a better time to catch the fish of your dreams. Nor, a better place to do it than in storied, fish-filled Northern Ontario.
It is the perfect storm of conditions.
The frigid temperatures this January may have rattled even the heartiest Northerner, but it has also made the ice conditions exceptional. Many fishing guides are reporting that species volume and activity are well above average -- these fish are hungry!
But it's not just about the right weather conditions for great ice fishing.
The whole culture of ice fishing in Northern Ontario has evolved, and a large assortment of outfitters and guides are now specializing in every kind of ice-angling adventure. These passionate sportsmen and women are doing excellent work to both promote the sport and preserve what makes it so wonderful. Meanwhile, experienced anglers of all sorts are discovering (and sharing) new strategies and new toys to keep the sport lively.
While veteran Northern Ontario ice anglers have known about it for years, newcomers to ice fishing are often surprised to learn that winter is not only one of the best times of the year to catch big numbers of fish but it is also the ideal time to ice the biggest fish of your life.
As a matter of fact, cold water-loving species like lake trout, speckled trout, rainbow trout and whitefish find winter conditions totally to their liking. Did I mention that Northern Ontario has a disproportionate number of the world's lake trout lakes and that the world record speckled trout was caught in the province?
Walleye, sauger, yellow perch, black crappies and northern pike, on the other hand, haven't seen an angler for months so they're mellow, relaxed and feeding aggressively all day, all winter long.
Still, the thing I like most about ice fishing in Northern Ontario is that you can tailor your adventure to suit your style. For example, when my hardcore ice-fishing buddies pay me a visit, we like to run our snowmachines into the backcountry, travelling mile after mile over the most beautifully groomed trails on Earth and across picture-postcard spruce- and pine-studded lakes, covered in fresh powder snow, where you never see another soul -- except an occasional moose, deer or family of otters.
It is so breathtakingly beautiful, we often find ourselves whispering as though we are in church or some comparable hallowed hall. Except, of course, at noon when our shore lunches centred on freshly caught lake trout, walleye, crappie or yellow perch, washed down with piping hot coffee or tea brewed over a crackling wood fire are the highlight of the day. The finest restaurants in the world take a back seat to a meal out here.
On the other hand, the best part of introducing ice fishing to youngsters or adults is keeping things simple, picking an easily accessed spot, drilling plenty of holes, setting outlines and building a big wood fire on the shore where everyone can relax, roasting hot dogs to perfection while the kids -- young and old -- skate on natural ice, snowmachine across the lake, cross country ski, snowshoe or explore the wonderland of animal tracks in the woods. At least, that is, when they're not running out, giggling and competing with each other to grab the line as the tip-up flag flies signalling another fish.
If you think it can't get any better than this, you're right. Especially this year because the ice and snow conditions right across Northern Ontario are the best they've been in more than a decade.
In fact, on that note, let's quickly swing across Northern Ontario from east to west and highlight what each region has to offer.
Ideal: Anglers visiting from Toronto, Ottawa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.
Northeastern Ontario has a rich ice fishing tradition based on some of the most famous fisheries in the world including storied Lake Nipissing and the French River, Lake Temagami, Kesagami Lake, Lake Nosbonsing, massive Georgian Bay and the North Channel of Lake Huron.
Within easy reach of anglers in Southern Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, this region offers fantastic ice fishing opportunities for walleye, northern pike, yellow perch, lake trout, whitefish and herring. And if you're wetting a line down a hole in the North Channel, there is even a chance of catching a Chinook, Coho or Atlantic salmon!
Ideal: Anglers visiting from Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Northeastern Ontario
Algoma Country, on the other hand, is all about location, location, location. It is so easy for ice anglers from Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and southern Ontario to access this winter wonderland centred around Lake Huron and Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world teeming with giant lake trout, whitefish and rainbow trout (steelhead). Just don't forget about the spectacular northern pike, yellow perch and black crappie fisheries that also offer world-class ice fishing opportunities, especially in lakes like Wawa Lake, Wakomata Lake and Basswood Lake.
Sault Ste. Marie is the biggest city in the Algoma region and a great place to experience some world-class ice fishing near city limits while enjoying all the amenities of the city. In the Sault Ste. Marie district alone, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) stocks up to 120,000 fish annually, with some of these locations within kilometres of the city limits.
Ideal: Anglers visiting from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Manitoba
Sunset Country, on the other hand, is an ice angler’s dilemma. I mean, how do you decide between more than 70,000 lakes and rivers filled with almost every freshwater fish imaginable including walleye, sauger, northern pike, yellow perch, black crappie, lake trout and speckled trout?
And the waterways, like Eagle Lake, Crow Lake, Wabigoon, Lac Seul, Rainy Lake and especially Lake of the Woods read like a "who's who" list from the Hall of Fame. That is good news to anglers from Manitoba, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan who revel in the phenomenal opportunities in lakes like Minnitaki, Clearwater West, Pipestone, Cedar and the Indian and Seine River chain of lakes where they typically ice fish all day long without seeing another angler.
Thunder Bay (the biggest city in the Northwest Region) has a rich trout fishing tradition and is home to the world record speckled (brook) trout, a massive 14.5-pound behemoth caught in the Nipigon River in 1916. In fact, the Nipigon strain of speckled trout is so remarkable in its growth capabilities that it is the source of fish used by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to stock the myriad of small and medium-size lakes throughout much of Northern Ontario. And you can often enjoy these gems all to yourself when you ice fish here in the winter.
While trout are the principal reason anglers from nearby Minnesota, Wisconsin and Manitoba are drawn to this fishing fantasy land, don't make the mistake of overlooking the wonderful walleye, northern pike, yellow perch and whitefish opportunities on lakes like renowned Lac Des Mille Lacs.
Folks, trust me on this one, please.
Spend a day or two this winter ice fishing with your family or friends in Northern Ontario and you'll rediscover the meaning of "quality time". It is the Golden Age of Ice Fishing when conditions have combined to create a climax of truly epic proportions.
See you out on the ice this winter.