Jul 11, 2021

My Natural Habitat

      As I am writing this, it's now July of 2021. The Pacific Northwest is still reeling from and dealing with one of the craziest heat waves I ever remember experiencing. Where I live, it's common for temperatures to dabble in the low triple digits a few times per summer, but we're setting records for high temperatures and general consecutive days over 100 degrees left and right this summer. And worse, it peaked at 117 degrees! And now the fires have begun. But at least the smoke provides a little shade from the sun. 

     What I'm getting at, is that this seems like a great time to daydream of cooler times. So let's talk ice fishing. 

     I try to get out as much as possible if the ice is thick enough to stand on, and this past winter was no exception. 

My fleet of tiny rods ready for action. Far left and far right are my two favorites.
This bright green one is called a Radioactive Pickle. It's by far my favorite perch getter.
It works ok.

      I've been trying to catch a tiger trout through the ice for a few years now at my home lake. I can catch them from my boat just fine, but through the ice they've eluded me. I kind of checked that box this winter with this tiny tiger. I'll get a bigger one next winter. You'll see.

My first ice fishing tiger trout. More of a tiger cub, but still pretty.

Brook Trout, invasive (at least in the Western US) but beautiful.

      As you may or may not know (you two faithful readers surely already do), I am always trying to catch new stuff, or catch stuff in different ways. So I began seriously looking into a quasi-nearby lake which is home to catchable populations of both Lake Trout and Burbot. I had caught both of those species before, but never through the ice. For previous Burbot and Lake Trout excursions, see the following links: Initiation, and Inappropriate Wintertime Activities, or Just a Special Kind of Crazy?

I actually have a pretty good open water Burbot spot. Here's a limit of them from This past January.

My first (and only) Lake Trout. Big enough to count as a caught species. But for a species that can reach sizes of 50+ lbs, certainly nothing to brag about.

     My Burbot spot is consistent, but not great for big fish. I catch quite a few 2-4 pounders, but that's about where they seem to top out. I wanted a bigger one, and I of course wanted a big lake trout. My previous best of of around 2 pounds would be hard not to beat if I managed to catch one at all. 

     The lake I was eying is a hike-in lake during the winter, and Burbot are often best caught at night, so I decided to make a camping trip out of it! I have a good pop-up shanty, a cot, and a heater. Good enough for me! So I picked a weekend, loaded up my sled, and began the hike to the lake!

     Once I got there, the first order of business was to catch some bait. I headed to a certain rocky point on a tip from a buddy, and sent some tiny jigs down to do some work. I soon began seeing likely looking marks on the vexilar and it didn't take too long to get the feel for the bite. I soon had what I deemed enough bait for the evening.

Peamouth Chub. Another ice fishing first for me.
Adorable little Peamouth.

     A buddy joined me for the evening, and we had grand plans and dreams of three foot Burbot. We of course promptly caught... nothing. I saw a couple swim by on my underwater camera, but they didn't show the slightest interest in our jigs or bait. Oh well. My motto is that you can't catch them if you don't try. My buddy stuck it out well into the evening hours, but then headed home for the night as most sane folks would do. I on the other hand, assembled my cot, and settled in for the night. Some time later, I was busy snoring away under my fur hat and sleeping bag when I was confusedly awakened by some jingling. It took me a long moment to realize what was happening. Then I frantically extracted myself at least from the arms up from all my layers, sat up in the cot, and grabbed the pole out of the holder and hung on. Before going to sleep I had set up a rod with some bait and a bell about a foot from my head, hoping I'd wake up if it started jingling from a bite. I didn't necessarily expect it to work, but was pleasantly surprised that it did!

Not the three footer I was looking for, but I was on the board anyway! And this is one of my better Burbot pictures I've ever taken. They don't like holding still, or laying on their sides!

     With the burbot box at least somewhat checked, and the action quite slow, I changed gears and headed to what I thought might be a good Lake Trout spot on the lake once it got light the next morning. I was somewhat disappointed to find that I was not alone. But I was able to get some good tips from some of the other guys there. I set up shop in around 110 feet of water, and began jigging as enticingly as I could manage whenever I saw fish on the flasher. I saw several of what I'm sure were Lake Trout based on how they moved, and the size of the mark. I did see several lakers iced nearby, but couldn't buy a bite myself.

     Having a two pole endorsement pays off quite often though, and this was one of those times. My bell again began jingling over in the corner of my shanty. I ran over and set the hook into what felt like a much nicer fish. I was of course hoping Lake Trout, but not sure. Bringing it up from 110 feet took a little while, but I eventually saw that it was by far my biggest Burbot ever. I use an 8 inch diameter auger, and this thing filled the whole thing and barely fit through the hole! I snapped the picture below as my insurance picture, then walked over to my pack to get a better camera out, and while doing that, the fish flopped it's way back to the hole! So I didn't get any official measurements, and only have one crappy picture for proof, but I had caught my big Burbot! My best guess was that it was somewhere in the 7 lb range. They get bigger than that, but that's a good one for me!

Not to be too cliché here, but the picture really doesn't do this fish justice.


     With one of two itches scratched at that point, and not seeing any other action at all, I headed home. The laker would have to wait. This of course bothered me, but if they were easy, everybody would do it and it wouldn't be exciting. 


     I talked strategy and tactics with some online buddies for the next week. Then, with some new tips and tricks in hand, I mustered another trip the following weekend. This trip was to be a Lake Trout or bust kind of trip. I'd jig my jigs until they jigged up a Lake Trout, or I'd go home defeated; nothing in-between.

     I dragged my butt out of bed well before dawn and hiked out there and set up not too far from my spot the previous weekend and began jigging in 150 feet of water and watching for marks. This time I had a new strategy though. I'll call it the "fleeing baitfish" strategy, and that's all I'm willing to say. I missed a promising looking bite early in the morning, then went back to my routine of not getting bites at all. At 10:00 one of the guys next to me came over to chew the fat with me. We were busy pontificating about what really goes on deep in the inner psyche of a Lake Trout, when I noticed a solid mark 80 feet down. My jig was on the bottom at the time, so I quickly reeled in 70 feet of line to bring my jig up to it, and was almost startled when I immediately felt a solid tug at the other end!

     I like to joke about some of the tiny fish I happily catch, but I have also caught my fair share of bigger fish too: Salmon, steelhead, sturgeon etc. What I haven't done though is pull a big fish out of an ice hole. My biggest ice fish was a 25 inch cutbow from Henry's Lake in Idaho (see Ol' Hank for details). But this fight was entirely unlike anything else I'd ever caught or experienced while ice fishing and an experience that I will not soon forget. It was not unlike catching a salmon, complete with bulldogging drag screaming runs, and huge head shakes, but all playing out directly beneath me while attached to a three foot pole. My helpful neighbor watched the whole thing play out, and I was appreciative of his help when the head finally somehow popped up through the hole. He pulled it onto the ice and I honestly didn't know what to say.  I believe my exact words were something poignant and wise like, "Holy Crap".

I might get this framed.
The motor.

And the business end.

Kind of unusual muted coloration on this old girl. It didn't have the typical distinctive white spots that most Lake Trout do

Catching a fish longer than the pole I caught it on is a life goal of mine. This is about as close as I've come. A few more inches would have done it (story of my life).

     The final stats were 36 inches long and a skinny 13 lbs (post-spawning female). Huge for me. It's crazy to me to think that even this "monster" isn't a particularly large Lake Trout. Again, they can reach weights of 50+ lbs. This blew my mind again. Before leaving that afternoon, I also landed another 7 pounder which was quickly released, so no pictures, but I was still riding high from that first one. This particular lake doesn't always have safe ice every winter, but suffice it to say, when it does, I'll be back! And by the way, if you're reading this, and you figure out where this lake is; for the love of Mike, keep it to yourself. Hot spotting doesn't help anybody.

     One final, but crazy side note here: warning, the following may get a little nerdy, so proceed at your own risk!

     I knew that Lake Trout can reach very old ages (for a fish), and though this was only my second one that I had caught, I had a hunch by the general look of it that this fish was pretty old. Looking through the literature on the subject, I learned that lake trout have been aged at over 60 years old, but that most don't typically live past 25 or so. I decided to check this one out a little closer. Aging fish is one of the things that I do for work pretty routinely. So I stayed after work one day (off the clock *disclaimer*) and processed the otoliths from this old gal. Otoliths, if you don't know, are the inner ear bones of the fish. They develop yearly growth rings as the fish ages. If you cut them just right, you can count the rings just like you do on a tree trunk and see how old the fish was. So I did that. I figured she was old, but didn't expect her to be the same age as me! By my count she was at least 37 years old!  Pictured below is half of the cross section, of the otolith showing the growth rings. The top right portion of the picture is the center of the otolith, or the part that the fish grew in it's first year of life (think of that like the center of the tree trunk), then as it grew, it added a layer each year just as a tree would (denoted by the red dots).

You might have to click on it to zoom in to see the smaller layers, if you're into that kind of thing.

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