Confession time: I am a night owl, not a morning lark. I can stay up until the wee hours and suffer no ill effects. But I detest getting up in the dark, early in the morning. Oh, I'll do it, in order to get to the duck blind, tree stand, or out on the ice before the sun rises. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy it.
My grandson, Liam is even worse than I am. He will sleep in until the crack of noon every chance he gets, so we work well together as a team. But what about the fish, especially in the winter? Do they bite better in the morning, evening or middle of the day?
Best time to fish? Depends on the species
While I have no scientific evidence to prove this, I have spent more than 50 years ice fishing across Northern Ontario, and I’ve noticed that it varies greatly among species. Walleye, for example, are notorious dim-light feeders, concentrating their activity around the first- and last-light periods. And while early morning is just as good, and often better in the open-water season, when it comes to winter, nothing beats the last hour of daylight. In fact, I’ve said many times that you can give your ice fishing friends the entire day to fish ahead of you and you’ll beat them every time if they give you the last two hours of daylight in the afternoon.
Something magical happens around 4:30 PM every day right now—and throughout the winter— when the sun hits the horizon. It stirs the walleye into, if not exactly a feeding frenzy, at least a good old fashioned food fight.
Lake trout, on the other hand, are at the opposite end of the spectrum. As a night owl, this infuriates me, because lakers may be my favourite fish to target when the water gets hard. Many times, I've dragged my sorry butt out of bed in the dark, and stumbled down the shoreline, shining a flashlight to pick out a telling landmark, so I drill my holes in the best spot. And while there is definitely a last-light laker bite in the afternoon, it rarely equals the early-morning breakfast rush. Not surprisingly, I find that brookies, rainbows and splake also take direction from their lake trout big brothers.
I tend to think of yellow perch as the most civilized fish to chase across Northern Ontario in the wintertime. These delicious yellow-and-black striped bandits are proven sight feeders, so while the morning larks and night owls may experience fun fishing at first and last light, jumbo perch bite well throughout the remainder of the day.
black crappies at night, fisherman's delight
Black crappies, on the other hand, are particularly interesting characters, as I have enjoyed many of my best catches prior to eating a sandwich around the obligatory shore lunch campfire. And yet, on popular crappie waters that receive intelligent ice fishing pressure, some of my best bites have occurred not in the afternoon, but at night under the cover of darkness. It's especially true when the crappies are relating to relatively shallow weed edges. They stay tucked into the vegetation during the day, and only venture out into the open when they can hide themselves in the dark.
Northern pike? Afternoon is right!
Finally, of all the big toothy critters we’ve caught over the years— trophy northern pike bigger than 25-pounds—I can only recall a single fish that we landed before noon. There was even a crazy time in my ice-fishing life when a buddy and I were so obsessed with catching big water wolves that we targeted them every chance we got—at least 50 to 75 times each winter—for six or seven years in a row. I mean, we were totally obsessed with the hulking green giants. And we landed the vast majority of trophies—and every single pike over 30-pounds—after 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon.
So if, heaven forbid, you only have a limited amount of time to ice fish on your favourite Northern Ontario lake this winter, pick your times accordingly!