Here in Northwestern Ontario, it’s starting to look like the ice may never depart our waters, but warmer weather is on its way; the long days and the bright sun, with some help from the wind, will eventually open things up. While the walleye season doesn’t open until the third Saturday in May each year, usually there is plenty of open water in advance of that, and excellent fishing opportunities exist for several other popular game fish species. Here are a few tips on finding and catching these three species early in the season.
Smallmouth fishing is excellent all season long, but the first couple of weeks after the ice goes out offer arguably the best fishing of the whole year. Smallmouths form large schools and winter together on offshore points and humps, then move shallow together before dispersing for the rest of the open water season. If you find where these big groups of fish move shallower together, you can literally catch fish after fish.
The spots to look for are isolated rockpiles in shallow bays or shoreline structure like points or flats, either just outside of shallow bays or even inside of them. Some smallmouths will hang around in the deeper water for a couple of weeks, but many fish will move shallow immediately after ice out. I have had some of my best days fishing in 4 - 10 feet of water in these bays while the main basins of some of our bigger lakes, like Lake of the Woods, are still ice-covered.
When it comes to lures, smallmouths are not all that picky. But they seem to be focused on baitfish early in the year, so baits that can be fished higher in the water column are often best, like suspending jerk-baits, grub, and small swimbaits.
The key is to cover ground, and once you catch a fish, expect to find more with it. Usually, a pattern can be formed once a few fish give away the locations of others. Across the region, the bass season is open year-round, but it remains a catch-and-release only on most waters until July 1 to protect them during the spawn. So go have fun catching them, just remember they must be immediately released.
Pike are a spring spawning fish that move into shallow, weed-filled bays as soon as they are clear of ice. The best part about fishing early in the season is that you have an excellent shot at catching a trophy fish, because large fish that spend much of the open water season out in the deep water can be found shallow, and they are girthy because they are ready to spawn.
There is nothing too complicated about catching ice-out pike. You want to get in the warmer back-ends of the shallowest bays on the lake, then cast weedless baits, like large soft plastic jerk-baits or spinnerbaits, through old pencil reeds or old clumps of weeds from the previous season. These clumps of old weed hold heat, which attracts baitfish and in turn, pike.
Fish your baits slowly, because pike will be kind of sluggish in naturem but you will have a chance at catching trophy fish in the 40”+ range. You’ll also make contact with plenty of smaller fish to keep things interesting. If you have kids who are good casters, this is some of the most fun fishing you could ever share with them—they will love it!
Lake trout are a coldwater-loving species that are aggressive early in the season, when they can be found in shallow water before moving deep for the summer months. Some of my best memories fishing as a kid were going on lake trout trips early in May with my dad. I can even remember portaging into a few back lakes, only to get in there and find the lakes were still ice covered! The deep trout lakes across Sunset Country are the last to lose their ice, so that is something to keep in mind early in the year.
While I rarely do it later in the year once they move to deep water, I love trolling for lake trout early in the year when they are up shallow. The best baits are minnow-imitating crankbaits or large, flashy spoons. Trolling is a great way to find fish, then you can get on top of them and often catch them jigging.
As a kid, my Dad used to take me “beer-canning”—which is a less popular technique now than it used to be because trout will swallow the baits quite often. We would catch suckers in a creek in the morning on our way to use for bait. We’d cut a strip of belly meat from the sucker and put it on a treble hook, which was then cast out from shore and allowed to sink to the bottom. We would lay the rods down on the rocks, on free-spool, and wrap the line around a can. When a fish took the bait, the can would tip over and it would be game on! I haven’t done this for years, but it’s fun if the weather is crappy because you can start a fire on shore and stay warm.
Lake trout are a fragile species, and many waterways across the region have lake-specific regulations, so make sure you know what they are before you wet a line. Some lakes do not permit the use of barbed hooks or the use of fish parts for bait—just something to keep in mind. There are a bunch of phenomenal lake trout lakes across the region where you can catch a bunch of fish.
The First Step
If you call around, there are camps that open up early across northwest Ontario that would love to host you early in the season before the big rush of anglers come to visit, and you might even be able to find a hot deal! If you don’t mind the chance of cold weather, I promise that you’ll catch some fish!