A young man holds a fish from within an ice fishing tent.

Kakagi Lake, Nestor Falls | Gord Pyzer

Your ice fishing dreams come true in Ontario

A young man holds a fish from within an ice fishing tent.

Kakagi Lake, Nestor Falls | Gord Pyzer

The pleasant dilemma of ice fishing in Ontario is that you will find so many staggering options: it is often difficult to decide where to go and what to catch. 

Some ice anglers, for example, would like to hook more fish than they have ever caught, while others want to capture the trophy of a lifetime.

For hardcore ice fishing enthusiasts, hook up the portable shelter to the back of a snowmobile or ATV and head deep into the beautiful backcountry where you are likely to be entertained by a whiskey jack landing on your hand to eat the offering of bread pinched between your fingers, or a moose, deer, lynx or family of otters.

Until you have enjoyed a day ice fishing on a wilderness lake, where it seems that you and your friends are the only people on earth, it is hard to imagine such a place still exists. It does in Ontario.

You will even chuckle finding yourself whispering in hushed tones, so as not to disturb the tranquility and serenity. Until that is, you hook into a giant lake trout, walleye, northern pike, whitefish, speckled trout, rainbow trout, splake, black crappie or yellow perch and your rod buckles over and your line screams away. The rush of excitement is pure exhilaration.

Still, other folks love the fact that you can ice fish on easily accessed lakes — where you can often drive your vehicle to the fishing grounds on a plowed ice road — while your family and friends skate on the lake, snowshoe and cross-country ski across freshly fallen snow, or build a campfire on shore to roast hot dogs and marshmallows …. or that delicious fresh fish you just caught. In Ontario, there are so many ways to enjoy fishing.

Lake trout are plentiful

Lake trout are arguably at the top of the list for several reasons including the wonderful places where they live. Magnificent lakes scattered across the rugged Canadian Shield feature the crystal clear water that trout need to thrive.

A few of Ontario’s most famous lake trout lakes include Lake of the Woods, Clearwater Lake, Minnitaki Lake, Lake Superior, Lake Nipigon, Lake Temagami, Lake Muskoka and Lake Simcoe. But that hardly does justice, when you realize that Ontario has more lakes to catch trout than anywhere else in the world.

 A much-favoured spot to set up for the heavyweight giants of winter is at the end of an underwater point that juts out from shore or a picturesque island — like a finger pointing to a pot of gold.

High rock walls and sheer granite cliffs are two other winter hot spots sought out by eager lake trout anglers. The features obstruct the silvery baitfish — ciscoes, smelts and shiners — that travel in large schools, causing them to swim around in a confused circle, as the lake trout shoot up from their ambush locations and gobble them up. Drop your lure into the frenzied activity and a trout is sure to mistake it for a wounded baitfish. Set the hook and hang on.

Winter walleye wonderland

If you tire of catching lake trout — if that is even possible — you might consider going after walleye in the afternoon as the sun approaches the horizon.

Walleye ice anglers know that the first hour of daylight in the morning and the last hour in the afternoon are the two best times of the day to catch what many consider the finest tasting freshwater fish. It is because walleye enjoy a weird quirk of nature. They have amongst the biggest and most reflective eyes of any animal in relation to their body size. And they are negatively phototactic which means that they can see better in dark shadows and dimly lit surroundings, even at night, than in bright sunny settings.

Being the most popular fish in Ontario, however, means that most ice anglers aren’t going to wait for the two short peak periods. They like to ice fish throughout the day and are highly successful by simply following the shade line around the structure they’re fishing.

These same winter walleye aficionados are keenly aware of another Ontario ice fishing secret. The big plunderers like to prey upon small yellow perch, so ice anglers favour 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jigs, spoons and Jigging Rap-style baits that are painted bright yellow, orange and chartreuse. In other words, yellow perch look-alikes.

Trying to pick just a handful of popular Ontario winter walleye waters is an impossible task — there are literally thousands of lakes to choose among — but Rainy Lake, Lac Seul, Eagle Lake, Mille Lacs Lake, Lake Abitibi, Lake Nipissing, Georgian Bay, Lake Muskoka and the Bay of Quinte all have their devotees.

Ontario is rich with trout 

If you love ice fishing for brook (speckled) trout, rainbow trout and splake — the dazzling beauties of the trout family — prepare to have your mind blown.

Ontario offers arguably the best ice fishing opportunities for trout, and not just in one or two, or even a few dozen lakes. But rather in more than 2,000 of the most scenic bodies of water from Sunset Country in Northwestern Ontario, through the famous Superior, Nipigon, Algoma and Temagami regions, all the way down into the Muskokas and Haliburton Highlands surrounding Algonquin Wilderness Provincial Park where you will find the most southerly, naturally sustaining population of brook trout on earth.

And while the trout fishing is phenomenal in all the Great Lakes — as well as Lake Nipigon, the largest inland lake in Ontario — the vast majority of brook trout, rainbow trout and splake lakes are picture-postcard waters less than 80 acres in size, making them ideal for the backcountry ice angler.

Lake Nipigon and the Nipigon River is where Dr. JW Cook caught the 14.5-pound world record speckled trout at Rabbit Rapids. Today the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry uses the same strain of brood fish in its massive hatchery system to stock millions of trout across Ontario. You never know how big the next fish you hook is going to be.

With so many trout opportunities available you can ice fish for brook trout one day, splake the next day, and rainbow trout the day after that. And because so many of the lakes are small and medium size gems, they freeze up first, allowing you to be ice fishing in early December. Talk about a Christmas present.

Black crappie central

Ontario offers the best black crappie ice fishing in the world. From Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods and Wabigoon Lake in Sunset Country to the phenomenal waters along the north shore of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, between Sault Ste. Marie and Blind River, to southern Ontario’s famed Kawartha’s Lakes. Ontario is Crappie Central in the wintertime.

Most visiting ice anglers will tell you that catching 10 or 15 crappies is a superb day. But Ontario crappie anglers are disappointed if they don’t catch and release twice that many.   And 50, 75, even 100 crappie days are possible.

Having a good sonar unit will aid your crappie ice fishing success immeasurably, as the fish love to tuck themselves inside the weeds during the day. But when the sun gets low, they slide out into the open areas. And they are giddily easy to catch using tiny ice jigs tipped with small soft plastic grubs.

But don’t forget to two-time. Remember, you can use two rods and holes in Ontario, so many ice fishers will cut a pair side-by-side. With their holes spaced only a foot apart, they will vertically jig a flashy spoon in one hole to attract and trigger any curious crappies. But, if they don’t take the bait, they will devour the tiny jig, tipped with a small soft plastic larvae suspended in the nearby second hole.

Going for gold in Ontario

If you want to start a fun fishing debate, suggest that Lake Simcoe is the world’s finest yellow perch ice fishery. It has earned the reputation — but the winter perch fanatics who fish in Black Bay on Lake Superior, on Lake Nipissing, Rainy Lake, Lac des Milles Lac or Lake of the Woods will protest.

In truth, Ontario may offer more superb winter yellow perch opportunities than any other species. They are found in so many of Ontario’s 400,000 lakes that it is likely no one has ever counted the exact number.  And they’re often gigantic, giving new meaning to the term “jumbo perch”. Foot long perch that are considered big elsewhere are apprised as modest in many Ontario waters, where the “average” perch is over 13-inches long.  Many more are approaching 14-inches in length and two pounds in weight.

And the yellow, black and orange panfish go crazy when they see a bright shiny spoon or tungsten ice jig tipped with a wax worm, maggot or pinched head of a salted shiner. Just lift your lure, pause and then let it flutter back down to the bottom. And hold on tightly to your rod.

Icing knee-knocking northern pike

Few fish excite the winter ice angler more than the giant northern pike that grow to monstrous proportions in Ontario. Especially, in the tens of thousands of lakes across the northern three-quarters of the province on the Canadian Shield.

Anglers from around the world come to Ontario in the open water season to catch the pike of a lifetime, but it is even more fun in the winter.

The big fish waters like Rainy Lake, Winnipeg River, Eagle Lake, Lac Seul, Lac de Milles Lacs, Lake Nipissing, Georgian Bay, Lake Abitibi, Lake Temiskaming and Lake Simcoe are renown for good reason, but many of the biggest pike are caught every winter in “secret” lakes that fly under the radar. If you have a favourite pike lake that you fish in the summer, come back in the winter for even more explosive fishing.

And one of the hottest Ontario winter pike fishing tricks is jigging a large lipless crankbait in the latter half — March and April — of the ice fishing season. Just be sure to spool your rod with a premium 20-pound test braided line with a titanium leader. The pike strikes are so savage they have been known to snap ice rods in half and knock anglers off their feet. We grow our pike big in Ontario.

Ontario’s winter whitefish wonderland

We grow our whitefish big too. Especially, in Lake Simcoe where for over a century it has been regarded as the finest winter whitefish fishery on earth. The lake is amazing and the whitefish grow to gigantic proportions.

Although the whitefish anglers who visit Georgian Bay, Lake Muskoka, Lake Nipissing, Lake Temagami and the many bays along the north shore of Lake Superior, between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie will whisper in your ear that their favourite haunt is equally supreme.

Historically, winter whitefish anglers have used tip ups and spreader rigs to catch the fish, but over the past decade, nose heavy Meegs-style jigs have stolen the scene and revolutionized the way winter anglers target the wonderful whitefish.

It is a finesse game best played by zooming in your sonar screen to highlight the bottom of the lake where whitefish feed by sucking in silt, filtering the crustaceans and insect larvae and spewing out the leftovers. So, when you stir up the sediments by tapping your jig into the mud, any nearby whitefish will swoop in to investigate believing it is another feeding whitefish.

It is so effective that Ontario-based ice anglers will often catch and release 30, 40 even 50 or more whitefish a day. And the delicious fish — smoked whitefish is a worldwide delicacy — will average close to two feet in length and three, four or five pounds in weight.

We’re living in the gilded age of ice fishing — and Ontario is where your winter dreams come true.

Last updated: April 18, 2024

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