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Northern Ontario's Under Your Boot Trout

In winter, lake trout are free to roam the entire lake. Check out shallower sections of the water column for gorgeous backwoods Northern Ontario lakers. • Credit: Gord Pyzer

Some things never cease to amaze me when it comes to fishing, and at this time of the year, it is the number of ice anglers who target lake trout down near the bottom of the marquis lakes of Northern Ontario. From Lake Temagami in the Northeast, through the trout-rich Algoma and North of Superior regions and right into Northwestern Ontario's fabled Sunset Country.

Now, it is a well-known fact that lake trout are a cold water-loving species which explains why, during the open water season anglers typically target them using downriggers, wireline and trolling aids that help get their lures and baits down to where the trout are dwelling in the deepest, darkest, coldest recesses of the lake.

But folks, let me remind you, it's winter, not summer.

And the fact of the matter is that some of the best lake trout activity we've been enjoying lately has not been associated with deep water, either in the relative or absolute senses of the word. Indeed, our very best lake trout catches recently have all come from water depths less than 45-feet deep.

In-Fisherman Television host, Doug Stange, landed this gorgeous lake trout for Ryan Haines, who was fishing on top of a shallow, submerged reef in Northwestern Ontario’s Sunset Country. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

In some cases, this means that we were set up and jigging close to shore, or submerged lake trout structures like underwater points, rocky shoals and reefs where the bottom of the lake was only 45 feet or so beneath our boots. At other times, however, we were out in the middle of the lake where the bottom was down 100, 150, even 200 or more feet. But, we kept our lures in the upper quarter of the water column where, as we suspected, we found the trout suspended.

If you're wondering why lake trout would float like butterflies in the winter in the middle of the lake -- both figuratively and literally speaking -- it is because of an intriguing mix of often interrelated reasons.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that the trout can breathe.

In mid-to-late winter, when the ice is thick and the snow is deep, lake trout will frequent much shallower water than most ice anglers are aware, no matter where you fish for them in Northern Ontario. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

This surprises many anglers who forget that lakes are complex and dynamic environments. Nevertheless, during the dead of winter, when thick blankets of ice and snow typically cover the surface of most Northern Ontario lakes and rivers, photosynthesis either does not occur or is greatly diminished. This means that the oxygen that was locked into the water prior to the lake freezing last fall is the only source available to the fish and other aquatic organisms until the surface melts in the spring.

Indeed, think of your favourite trout lake as a small room -- or space capsule -- in which you're confined for several months. In a worst-case scenario, you can use up all of the oxygen and suffocate. Fortunately, "winter kill" as it is known, rarely occurs in lakes in Northern Ontario and especially, not in deep lake trout lakes with huge amounts of water.

But, what does commonly happen is that the natural decomposition processes that are breaking down and converting the algae and dead weed growth lying on the bottom of the lake remove massive quantities of oxygen. Fortunately, as you might suspect, this is a "bottom-up" process, so the portion of the water column that is typically affected the most profoundly is the zone adjacent to the bottom.

Conversely, the middle of the water column all the way up to the underside of the ice typically offers the fish plenty of breathing room. Talk about a breath of fresh air -- and the lake trout know it.

Young Liam Whetter has his hands full with this beautiful Northwestern Ontario lake trout that he caught jigging a white tube jig along the edge of an underwater point in 40-feet of water. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

Indeed, not only the trout but the ciscoes, smelt, shiners, whitefish and other baitfish upon which the denizens of the deep devour. Talk about the perfect set of conditions, plenty of clean oxygen to breathe and all of the food in the lake.

When I explain this natural, mid-winter phenomenon to folks, I can often see it striking the "aha" cord. But, then, after a couple of seconds of reflection, it is almost always followed up with a predictable question: if the fish are suspended, how come you can't see them on your sonar screen?"

Even though television host, Tom Gruenwald was fishing over deep water in the main part of this Northwestern Ontario lake, he caught this trophy lake trout jigging his lure only 40-feet beneath the ice. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

The reason, believe it or not, is that the lake trout are often cruising right below your boots.

Think about how your sonar sends out its signal, in the shape of an inverted ice cream cone that spreads out in an ever wider circle the deeper it penetrates the water column. Indeed, if we assume the ratio of coverage to depth is approximately 30%, it means your sonar is showing you detailed information for less than three feet at the 10-foot deep level. Ninety feet down, on the other hand, you're seeing the results from a spacious 30-foot wide circular cone.

Which explains why, when you're ice fishing for lake trout in the upper portions of the water column confidence in your strategy is paramount. But, then again, when you're ice fishing for lake trout in Northern Ontario, confidence is highly contagious.

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