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Wackin' Whitefish in Wonderland

Whitefish, like this beauty that Liam Whetter caught in Lake of the Woods, are among the most widespread and plentiful sportfish found across Northern Ontario • Credit: Gord Pyzer
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Wackin' Whitefish in Wonderland

Learn where to look and how to catch whitefish in Ontario from a fishing pro

You don't have to convince buddy JP Bushey that it is "better to be lucky than good."

The whitefish wizard was fishing his home waters of Lake Simcoe recently -- The Whitefish Capital of the World -- when he snagged a small zebra mussel that was glued to one of the rocks on the bottom. After picking the tiny clam off his hook and tossing it onto the snow, he noticed a piece of shell, no bigger than a pinhead, stuck to his snow pants. He flicked it into the hole and watched his sonar screen wide-eyed as the biggest whitefish of the day came roaring up a dozen feet off the bottom to eat it.

Now, as Bushey will tell you, he may have been born at night, but it wasn't last night. He quickly reckoned that the whitefish wanted a "smaller footprint", so he cut off the lure he was using and tied on a tiny jig that was better suited for catching yellow perch.

The rest, as they say, is history.

JP Bushey, shown here with a beautiful Lake Simcoe whitefish, says you can’t ice fish for whitefish without a good sonar unit to monitor your jigging cadence and lure speed. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

"That incident showed me the fish's upper limit for chasing a bait that day," says the Cabela's Canada pro-staffer. "And it highlighted the fact that good electronics are essential no matter where you fish in Ontario.

"You simply can't ice fish without sonar," says Bushey, who uses it to constantly monitor and adjust his jigging cadence and lure speed. "Lake Simcoe is ultra-clear and popular with anglers which makes it a finesse game that requires you to pay attention to detail. My friends and I use our sonar units the way your dentist uses his or her instruments. Once I identified the tiny kill zone, jigging outside of it was a total waste of time."

Bushey also recommends setting your sonar unit on split-screen, so you can zoom in and monitor the bottom for whitefish on one side while keeping an eye on the entire water column with the other side.

Always set your sonar unit to split-screen so you can zoom in and monitor the bottom for whitefish on one side -- see the whitefish -- while keeping an eye on the water column with the other side. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

"That way, when you spot a lake trout or a cloud of herring swimming 20 feet under the ice," says Bushey, "you can reel up quickly and catch it. On Simcoe, too, I'll often see a pod of smelts move across the screen and then, like clockwork, a couple of seconds later, I spot a ghost whitefish."

If using sonar to monitor your presentation and spot whitefish is one-half the battle, presenting your bait properly is the other half of the game.

And it is here that Bushey does a whole lot of shakin'.

"Whitefish is one of the few species that feed off the bottom," he says, "so stirring up the sediment with your lure is critical. They'll swoop down to investigate the silt cloud thinking it is a feeding whitefish. But you have to maintain a tight line so you can feel them bite. No other fish hits so fast and yet so lightly. If you have any slack in your line whatsoever, you're out of touch with the fish. It's 100% a touchy-feely game."

Feast your eyes on this magnificent Northern Ontario whitefish that television host Tom Gruenwald caught while ice fishing with Gord Pyzer in Northwestern Ontario’s Sunset Country. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

After using his lure to whisk up the bottom, Bushey ever so slowly raises the bait up and out of the fog. Then, he holds it motionless for at least five to ten seconds.

"Almost every fish hits on either the lift or the pause," says Bushey, explaining that he catches very few whitefish while he is stirring up the bottom. "Braided line is also non-negotiable because you have to be in touch with your lure at all times. It is also great for making those dainty little lifts and subtle shakes. I use a 20-pound test Maxima Braid tipped with a 10-pound test Maxima Fluorocarbon leader. It is by far the most ice-free braid I've ever used. The heat-fused outer skin sheds water like mono and I prefer the high-viz yellow so I can easily monitor my line."

If you think Bushey is particular about his presentations, he is just as fussy about where he drills his holes, acknowledging that Northern Ontario whitefish are creatures of basin flats and gently sloping ledges where the depth changes little.

There is no better time to enjoy ice fishing for whitefish in Northern Ontario than right now when the sun is shining brightly and the fish are biting big time. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

The message: don't get locked into deep water.

"I am catching them right now as shallow as 22 feet deep," says Bushey, who notes that last winter he caught whitefish in shallower water still. "Too many people fish out over 100 feet, but the shallows give you more options. Shallow water is ripe with food for the fish and it ramps up as the days get longer, the snow cover is stripped away and the smelt and perch start staging."

And while the whitefish season closes on March 15th on Lake Simcoe, it remains wide open for the entire season across nearly all of Northern Ontario.

So, now that you know where to look and how to catch them, you can savour the rest of the winter whacking whitefish.

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