The external temperature gauge on my Dodge was reading -20C (-4F), while we were parked along the shoreline of Owen Sound Bay.
Two hours had to pass before the sun would peek its burning face above the frozen horizon to the east. Ice had finally arrived in our end of Georgian Bay. According to satellite imagery, record-breaking cold temps of the week before had locked up a massive chunk of Lake Huron for dozens of miles.
Safe ice wasn’t an issue; the locals knew what was going on and another truck was parked beside us contemplating the pre-dawn walk out to the deep waters. My number one angling companion, Dan, tipped back the remainder of his coffee and opened the door. . .
It was “go” time.
The walk out was not a long journey.
We only needed to drag the 2-man Fish Trap roughly 250 yards before we were above 80 feet of water. Quickly, we took turns boring 3 linear eight-inch holes with our hand auger through a rock solid foot of ice, flipped the hut over and turned on the Heater Buddy. Dan popped down the transducer of the Lowrance in our center hole and we both watched the unit start-up.
We both smiled; yes, they were here, red arches hovering just off bottom. We grabbed our rods and lit up our spoons before we could send them deep as quickly as possible.
At 50 feet in a free fall, Dan’s Williams HQ was met by a mark on the graph. His rod buckled as he drove the hooks home with authority. Within seconds his spool was nearly emptied of line as the fish sizzled off far away from us under the ice. Up, down, side-to-side, taking all the line it could until the backing knot to the 12-pound braid slid through the guides.
He never gained an inch on the fish.
The mono backing parted ways at the knot and we both sat there speechless at the sheer speed of what just happened. Good thing Dano packed more line, he had seen this before; the winter kings were here.
Ice fishing and chinooks don’t often come up in the same conversation.
Mention that you target kings through the ice to a crowd of Great Lakes salmon trollers and you often get asked what kind of medication you take. Kings through the ice is taboo.
Obviously walleyes, lake trout, perch, whitefish, steelhead, browns and the odd coho drive winter anglers, but chinooks? Yes, I do not lie, ice fishing chinooks happens almost every year in the Great Lakes but only a few will experience it.
Understanding where it happens and how to target them can lead you to an experience like none other when it comes to fishing the hardwater, that I can promise you.
When it comes to winter chinook fisheries for ice anglers the options are not widespread or common. My experiences can be restricted to only Lake Huron and Superior. The eastern basin of Lake Huron in Ontario, known as Georgian Bay, provides the most realistic opportunity for hardwater anglers to connect with kings.
The deepwaters adjacent to the Bruce Peninsula allow for the formation of fishable ice within walking distance of shore, but only some years.
This area receives dedicated angling effort when ice conditions allow but it is not always an annual event, since the huge expanse of water and major currents often prevent safe ice conditions. Locals who have been bitten by the hardwater salmon bug spend most of the winter praying to the fish Gods that the ice rolls in.
The waters along the north and western portions of Lake Superior also give up hardwater kings, but pressure is nearly non-existent due to the extreme cold temperatures and remote landscape. Some anglers who target coho along the American shores of Superior during the winter often fluke a few chinooks as well, but kings are not the norm.
Some wise anglers can build on these flukes by looking into the aspects of why the chinooks showed up in the catch, and locking down a pattern that can make them common in the creel this winter.
A chinook under the ice is a strange creature.
Just like the open water season, the mood of winter kings can be downright difficult to crack. Waves of fish can come and go out of major areas without ever finding the topside of the ice.
They are always swimming and on the hunt, here one day, gone the next. Feeding windows are often short, but if numbers of fish are around, it can be furious action.
Chinooks in the winter follow around bait as it is pushed around Georgian Bay via currents and seasonal timing. Feeding during the hardwater period is not overly prevalent as the majority of fish we slip a knife to are often void of stomach contents, yet there is no doubt they do eat now and then, deep down in the inky dark of mid winter, and their location is still dictated by baitfish. Alewives are practically gone from the Huron/Gbay food chain, so fish follow smelt, shiners, and growing numbers of ciscoes and deep-water chub species.
The proven winter chinook locations I know of all have something in common; they produce catches for trollers as soon as the ice comes off.
SW Georgian Bay, the North Channel of Lake Huron, and the NE corner of Lake Superior all have this in common. Logically, this also has to do with the fact that these salmon are setting up on baitfish. Often, these same areas have tributary rivers feeding into the end of a bay, spewing warming water as late winter rolls into spring. The best catches in SW Georgian Bay, year in and year out, tend to coincide with the first warming trends of late February and early March as melt waters begin to seep into bays and mix with offshore currents under the ice.
Find the depth breaks within the bay leading to a basin, and you will find the bait.
If there are salmon around your electronics will confirm their presence. Quality navigational charts on modern ice sonar provide anglers with all they need to get started. Begin looking on proven waters and the chore of nailing down winter kings becomes easy.
Normally, the vast majority of winter salmon jigging takes place over deep water.
Depths of 70 to 200 feet are the norm, and most often the chinooks are set up close to bottom, within 20 to 30 feet. Chinooks often group up in schools of multiple year classes during the winter. We have found it common to ice a few 12- to 14-inch shakers mixed in with fish in the 7 pound range as well as heavy-weight fish topping 15 pounds showing up at random. When winter salmon invade our bays, it becomes apparent that all age classes are present, and in high densities, alluding to the idea that a large percentage of Georgian Bay salmon may be in a relatively small region at one time.
When local bays really get hopping, there are often a mix of chinooks, coho, browns and the odd Atlantic all prowling the same waters. Bands of coho and stray Atlantics (Michigan stockers) tend to suspend higher in the water column, picked up on the graph as high-flyers. These fish are usually “hot” and easily made to chase a jigged offering. Bottom hugging chinooks can be a little trickier to get to “chase” on the electronics. Rest assured, the time it takes to trigger the aggressive response is worth it.
Peak activity windows follow the open water season. Focus on the hours of dawn and dusk, but don’t rule out mid day options as the switch can fire and the fish can go on the feed for no apparent reason, often fueled by changing water currents or weather patterns
Just like a hardwater lake trout, winter salmon have a soft spot for chasing jigged baits. Most of the experienced hardwater salmon fishermen I know jig spoons. I have a few buddies who also take a good share of winter kings on soft plastics as well, such a tubes rigged with ½-ounce jigheads and paddle-tailed swimbaits such as Angler’s Choice Sniper Shads in pearl white.
Year after year however, the top producers are always spoons.
Williams HQ, Wablers, Whitefish and Icejigs harvest hundreds, maybe thousands of winter Chinook in Georgian Bay each winter. Other top picks include Krocadiles, Cleos, Pen-Tac BC Steels, and Suttons.
The search for the ideal ice rod for chinooks is still ongoing. Nothing in the Great Lakes has the power or attitude of a chinook once hooked. Steelhead, lakers, and browns just do not compare to the fire that is lit once hooked up with a king under the ice. To date, I rely on a Berkley Lightning Dave Genz ice rod from nearly 15 years ago. This 30” baitcast style rod is considered heavy action, and I pair it with an Abu Garcia Morrum round baitcast. My back up rods are a custom tied HT Tackle MH action 28” spinning rod, paired with an Abu Orra spinning reel in size 20.
Super lines are essential for solid hookups.
Chinooks have a bony and beak-like mouth, compared to the meaty trap-door that Lake Trout attack with. Salmon can smash a spoon yet totally miss the business end of the bait if you are a millisecond too slow on the set. Superlines such a Maxima Ultra Green braid and Berkley Fireline in 10- to 14-pound test are ideal and help jam the hooks in deep on a bony salmon mouth without any stretch. Added to the mainline is a micro swivel with 3 feet of Maxima Fluorocarbon leader in 10-pound test. If 3-year-old-kings are predominant in the catch, I like to bump up to 12- or 15-pound leader, as the hard battles around the edge of the hole can easily blow apart light line.
Mix up the jigging system.
Winter salmon can turn on and off like a light switch. One minute hard, fast jigging 15 to 20 feet off bottom may be the ticket, while the next school of fish across the graph might react better to a spoon jigged 50 feet above them. Hard rips, jiggles, free falls and speeding retrieves from the bottom of the lake to the bottom of the ice can all trigger aggressive reactions. Do not underestimate the speed and prowess of winter salmon. I have seen them rocket off bottom in 100 feet of water to crush a spoon after one aggressive jig down 50 feet. Normally, once you locate fish you don’t need to continue to move, instead, focus on triggering bites. Glow tape makes a big difference as an added attractor to off-the-shelf spoons. Upgrading the hooks on most spoons is a good idea too. I like to lock up the drag and really put the meat to fish. The longer a chinook battles under the ice, the greater the odds of blowing the catch. Trying to put the breaks on a 7-pound chinook with a tiny rod will give you a much greater respect for the power of a fish.
Salmon go nuts under the hard stuff; nothing on the planet even comes close.
Anglers hooking hardwater kings for the first time are often left speechless as they witness the fish ram the underside of the ice multiple times around the hole, as if they are trying to the break the surface. Great Lakes pack-ice conditions often make this the deal breaker, as jagged edges of under slung ice wreak havoc on leaders. I recall a visit from Lake Ontario charter captain and offshore tournament guru Casey Prisco last winter to the solid waters of Georgian Bay. Prisco was speechless after icing his first GBay hardwater chinook on the short rod, coming from a guy who sees oodles of Lake Ontario hogs during the summer, that says a lot.
If you are a diehard winter angler who plies the hardwaters of the Great Lakes you are going to want to try this. Surely a winter bite exists on the all the Great Lakes, but unfortunately barriers to success exist due to ice conditions.
The Ontario waters of Lake Huron, Georgian Bay and Lake Superior have proven to cough up winter chrome for anglers in the know. This is a sleeper fishery for the most part, only being sampled by roughly a thousand anglers per winter. For nearly a month over the past three winters, the waters of southwest Georgian Bay have yielded some outstanding catches. The locals know, and the secret has been out for a while.
I saw my first hardwater chinook in the early ‘90s, and have seen plenty of winters go by without safe ice. The past few years have been utterly frigid, providing us with ample ice to explore further offshore waters and sample some outstanding salmon fishing. If a road trip is on your winter hit list, pack the truck and start the search for winter salmon. Your arms will never forget the experience, and you can load the hut with some of the finest eating fillets on the Great Lakes.
Don’t forget to pick your jaw up off the floor of the hut. It happens to all of us the first time a rocket fueled chinook pounces on the hardware.
- written by Josh Choronzey