lake simcoe whitefish 101
Whitefish Tips and Techniques
The Mighty Whitey
One of the most sought after winter sport fish in Lake Simcoe, the abundant Lake Whitefish provides ice anglers with a challenging but rewarding proposition. An opportunistic feeder that can be finicky at times offers up a decent fighting challenge and great table fare. In Lake Simcoe, the MNR stocks approximately 100,000 to 150,000 juvenile whitefish annually and has been doing so for many years now (See the current stocking table). Although stocking occurs, there is a healthy population of wild, natural reproducing fish as well. Recently, MNR surveys have shown an increase in wild fish captures versus stocked fish.
Despite the healthy population of Whitefish in Lake Simcoe, anglers can easily be skunked without the proper know how. Dialing in a pattern and consistently catching these bottom feeders can be a challenge. Getting skunked targeting Lake Simcoe whitefish is a sobering but realistic occurrence. However, by understanding their diet, their location and movements, and using the proper equipment, you can keep those skunked days at bay and catch your limit every outing.
Whitefish Anatomy and their diet
Whitefish are a bottom oriented species and use their underslung mouth to root on the bottom and scoop up a wide variety of food. Because of this burrowing nature, whitefish have a keen sense of taste and smell, and have eagle-sharp eyes. While whitefish are a bottom-oriented species, with a snout designed for scooping up food from the bottom, they will often feed much higher off the bottom, sifting up hatching midge larvae or chasing shiners or smelt.
In Lake Simcoe, a whitefish diet consists of a wide variety of aquatic organisms including rainbow smelt, shiners and smaller herring. In addition, tiny organisms like amphipods (scuds), mussels, snails, insect larvae and benthic invertebrates make up a good portion of their diet. Within the last 5 years, It can be said that one of the more recent and abundant food sources for the whitefish has been the invasive round goby. The round goby has proliferated throughout much of the lake and the whitefish are binging excessively on these abundant little fish.
Whitefish are opportunistic feeders and eat a wide variety of organisms - these are the organisms that Simcoe Whitefish feed on.
Artificial Baits for Whitefish
In the past, if you asked seasoned Simcoe anglers their favorite whitefish presentations, they would most likely say a Williams spoon, or a 3 way spreader with live or dead minnows on bottom. These two presentations are still being used today and make up a fair share of Whitefish catches. However, there has been an evident shift towards a different type and style of bait. This bait is one that mimics the invasive and abundant little fish that now roams all of Simcoe; the Round Goby. The most popular Goby style baits that are available locally include the Badd Boyz, Meegs, Vibrato, lipless crankbaits and soft plastics like the STH Drifter and the Magz Goby. Whitefish will readily take these baits in most areas on Simcoe, but especially shallower shoals and areas with higher numbers of Gobies.
Minnow style baits like the Williams spoon, lipless crankbaits, a tube jig, Vibrato, swimbait or Jigging Rapala do a great job of imitating pelagic forage fish species like shiners and smelt. These baits work well where larger schools of bait can be found such as in Kempenfelt Bay and parts of the main lake. It is important to fish the whole water column when locating whitefish. It isn't uncommon for a whitefish to race off bottom and chase a bait 5, 10, 20 feet off bottom and absolutely destroy your bait.
Midge Larvae (Chironomids/Blood Worms)
In the Spring, whitefish feed heavily on the emerging midge pupae hatch in May and June (See Fishing Lake Simcoes Midge Hatch for Whitefish article). A midge imitation fly works great when fishing in the spring. You can usually catch Whitefish in May and June in much of the same locations as in the winter. Not only do Whitefish feed on midge in the spring, they scour the larvae throughout the winter in the softer sand and silt bottoms in Simcoe.
Whitefish feed heavily on emerging midge flies in the spring. In the winter, midge larvae will be buried on the lake bottom and provide another feeding option for Whitefish. In the spring, they will ascend from the bottom on a bubble of gas tucked under their bellies and emerge in swarms as non-biting midge flies where they will complete their life cycle.
Midge larvae (Chironomids) can be found on the lake bottom during the winter period. They will be in a segmented worm like stage are usually red in color (due to storing oxygen in their blood) and are often referred to as blood worms. Whitefish will feed on these larvae throughout the winter. Try using anything that resembles a small larval midge like a fly or small plastic worm.
How to Use a Goby style bait on bottom
Goby baits including the Meegs, Badd Boyz, Humpback Creeper, Set the Hook Drifter and hair jigs (just to name a few) have been super productive in bringing whitefish topside. There seems to be an overriding consensus on a specific technique that maximizes bites. It should be noted that these goby baits work best when fishing shallower water with a harder bottom as you need direct contact and feel with the bait and need to know when its banging bottom. In addition, gobies are attracted to the shallow structure areas with harder bottoms and these whitefish will be keying in on goby looking baits.
When you initially drop a bait like a Meegs, keep an eye on it on the sonar. When it hits bottom, reel it up 10 to 15 feet then let it fall back down to the bottom. Do this 3 or 4 times right off the hop to attract any whitefish nearby. This will get the attention of any willing whitefish pretty quickly. If you are still not marking any fish, bounce the bait, then lift it up off bottom about a foot and begin jigging it and place back on to the bottom. Repeat this until you mark a fish. Jigging about a foot off bottom and then banging the bottom and repeating seems to be a good technique to lure in fish.
Once you mark a fish with this technique, immediately drop the bait to the bottom. At times, that initial drop to bottom can trigger a whitefish to pin down the bait right away. If it doesn't, keep the nose of the jig on the bottom, let the nose remain still and ever so gently rock the jig up and down but keep the nose on bottom. The key here is to not overwork the bait. Once you get the fish’s attention, resist the urge to jig or move it too much. It’s surprising how little movement is required to get bit and how more movement can be a repellent.
At this point, you'll need hyper focused concentration to anticipate a bite. This can be done by feeling anything slightly different. Keep a close eye on your line, often a whitefish sucks in or picks up the bait off bottom and your line will go slack. You'll almost feel a weightlessness and disconnect from the bait. Its at this point you'll want to set the hook. At other times, it may be a slight bump or large hit. It will depend on the mood of the fish and how they came in to take the bait.
The key is to not overwork the bait. Once you get the fish’s attention, resist the urge to jig or move it too much. It’s surprising how little movement is required to get bit and how more movement can be a repellent.
Location, location, Location!
There's a misconception that Whitefish are only found in deeper water (>75 feet deep). Although this is true during the hot, summer months, this isn't always the case during the ice fishing season. More times than none, they can be found in water depths ranging from 5 to 50 feet. Whitefish typically spawn on shallow, near-shore cobble substrates in October to December and are found spawning in water depths as shallow as 3 to 10 feet. This means that at the beginning of the ice fishing season, you're more likely to find them still around their spawning area's. In addition, with the explosion of the round goby population, whitefish are feeding more shallow than ever. Round goby are attracted to shallow, rocky and gravel substrate to hide from predators and feed on smaller organisms. This habitat includes rocky shoals, rock/gravel/sand transitions and weedy areas. If you can find the gobies, whitefish will not be far behind. The general rule is as you move into mid-winter, whitefish may move to deeper habitat in search of new food sources. Additionally, as the ice season progresses into March, whitefish may move to shallow water again.
With the explosion of the round goby, whitefish have been feeding more shallow than ever.
Don't be afraid to fish shallow
Whitefish can roam real shallow throughout the winter and have been regularly caught in water from 5ft to 50ft deep. Try starting shallow early morning and on top of humps/reefs or shoals. If you don't mark anything within 30 minutes, you can either stay at the same depth but try a different area or begin moving deeper at 10 to 20ft increments until you start marking fish.
Rocky structure will attract and hold Whitefish!
In Lake Simcoe, gobies love to hide in rocks and boulders and the whitefish have keyed in on these little critters. Rock, cobble and gravel shoals provide an abundance of food and shelter for baitfish and subsequently whitefish, if you can find these spots on Navionics, you'll find whitefish close by.
A large group of Lake Simcoe Whitefish keying in on rocky structure. This type of structure can house smaller organisms including round goby. Photo credit, John Whyte.
What if I dont have an ATV or Skidoo to get to the more productive locations?
Don't fret, there are many options on Lake Simcoe if you don't have a skidoo or ATV. Obviously, you have a HUGE advantage if you have access to anywhere on the lake. This allows you to fish less pressured whitefish schools, productive shoals and reefs that can harbor active and aggressive fish. However, you can still locate Whitefish close to shore and can have a great day on the lake without a means of transportation other than your feet.
Tip #1: Use Navionics and google maps to steer clear of community spots and into new whitefish locations.
You'll need to do some virtual foot work here and get on the web. You can access Navionics Web App (for free!) just by going to their website. A good starting point is to look for primary and secondary points that lead into deeper water (lots of these points are available for walking anglers). Whities will use those deeper drop offs and the sloped contours as a feeding lane and may travel up and down these zones all day.
An added bonus is if you can find transition lines/zones where the bottom goes from soft to hard, like from sand to zebra mussel lined bottoms or sand to rock. Whitefish can be found travelling these transitions, looking for all kinds of different prey.
Primary and Secondary Points leading into deeper water can attract Whitefish.
Look for places where contour lines are close together. These are indications of drop-offs, ridges or deeper structure. Whitefish can use these steep drop offs as main pathways looking for baitfish, gobies and bottom dwelling organisms. Alternately, try areas where contour lines are spread out and indicate flat areas with a consistent depth.
Break down the Point and fish multiple depths and areas until you mark fish.
Breaking down a point and fishing multiple depths and areas is a great way to locate fish. The red X's indicate area's to drill and fish as a way to break down a point and locate fish. Try the flat's along the sides of the point as well, whitefish will scour these flats for food at certain times of the day.
Tip #2. Avoid pressured community spots, unless its first ice.
A quick google search will help you find classic Simcoe community whitefish spots. Some of these include Innisfil Beach, Big Bay Point, Jacksons Point, Willow Beach, Bear Point and Oro to name a few. Every year, right in front of these access points, a small city of huts will appear as the season progresses. Hundreds to thousands of fishermen gather at these access points and its usually not because the fishing is stellar, but because they are easily accessible by foot. These spots get hit hard, very hard but some of these spots can be a good choice when the ice first forms. The fish in these areas are more willing to take a bait as they haven't seen too much fishing pressure at the beginning of the season. However, as the season progresses, the fishing gets tough. Either because the fish have moved off that area, or the fish are still there but just not interested in your offering.
That's when you need to find fresh locations and fish that haven't seen every lure in your box. Fishing pressure is a real thing and fishing success dramatically drops off in areas where fishing pressure is greatest. Try to move off and get away from the crowded area's. Even walking an extra 20 to 30 minutes can get you into a quiet spot and may harbor some active fish willing to bite.
Even walking an extra 20 to 30 minutes can get you into a quiet spot and may harbor some active fish willing to bite.
Tip # 3. If you're going to fish pressured community spots, put the odds in your favor.
Get up early and on the ice before the sun comes up. Pressured whitefish on Simcoe may shift their feeding patterns to low light periods just before sunrise or sunset. These fish may be more active and less spooky at these times and be more willing to take a bait.
Scale down your bait size, spooky or pressured whitefish will be more likely fooled by a smaller bait than something too large. A spooked whitefish may be willing to take a snack but not a full meal. Small minnow, goby baits or even nymph insect baits can buy you some extra bites.
Get away from the traditional baits and use something out of the ordinary. These whitefish will have seen all the traditional Simcoe jigging baits - you'll have to get creative and brave enough to throw something they may have never seen - it could be a significant color change or a completely new bait.
Get stealthy and downsize your fishing line. Throwing on a smaller diameter leader such as 4 or 6lb test fluorocarbon might get you a couple extra hook ups on those shy and weary fish. Couple this with a smaller/micro bait and you may find a hot new pattern.
Tip #4. A spot that sucks now, might be good later.
Whitefish are incredibly mobile, which is why you may find them using a structure one day and then gone the next. They're on a constant search for food so you have to be mobile. Don't completely rule out a potential spot that you think might harbor Whitefish. If there's no fish in the morning, try in the afternoon. You will need to put some time in to figure out a migration pattern. The more time in, the easier it'll be to find fish time and time again.
A spot that holds Whitefish at the beginning of the season, might not hold many as the season progresses. As the days get longer and the season progresses into March, whitefish can suddenly migrate and disappear from an area and move on. Alternatively, spots that didn't have much whitefish at the beginning of the season might start to produce fish toward the end of the season. Experimentation is key here, trying to look for seasonal and daily patterns in a specific spot will help you in the long run.
The Proper Ice Fishing Rod can make a HUGE difference
This is often overlooked but you absolutely need the proper action rod for whitefish. In laymen's terms, you don't want a rod that is too stiff nor too noodle like, something in between is what you're looking for. Using the rod power and action diagram, you are looking for a rod in the ball park of medium to medium heavy power and moderate fast to fast action. A quick breakdown of rod action and power will help you understand why this specific rod type is beneficial for whitefish.
For Whitefish, you'll want a fishing rod in the ballpark of Medium to Medium Heavy with a Moderate Fast to Fast action.
A fast action rod will bend in the top third or less of a rod blank. Fast action rods offer a high degree of sensitivity and shut off faster meaning the rod bend ends higher on the blank. This means you don't have to move the rod as far on the hookset to get into the stiffer part of the blank. This fast action will help you feel those subtle whitefish taps or pick ups and allow you to drive that hook into their mouth. However, you don't want a rod that is extra fast or extra heavy like a broom stick. Sure, it may provide some sensitivity, but you'll lose a lot of fish when fighting them, hooks will tear out and the rod will not have enough forgiveness to absorb the fishes headshakes when battling a fish.
On the flip side, a super slow action rod will bend in the lower third of a rod blank closer to the butt section. They are very flexible rods. Great for absorbing headshakes and crazy twists, turns and runs, especially right at the ice hole. This absorption helps to keep that hook pinned in the fishes mouth without tearing it out. The problem with too slow action of rods is the loss of sensitivity/connection with your bait, and the loss of power and overall hook setting ability in deeper water.
The combination of a fast and slow action rod provides a fantastic all around set up for whitefish. In terms of rod length, anywhere from 25" to 50" lengths are used on Simcoe whitefish. Many anglers are moving to a longer rod because it offers improved hook up ratio's, improved leverage when lifting the fish to the surface and better absorption. There's also something more enjoyable about fighting a fish on a longer rod.
If your a walker, a Smitty sled can really help
Mobility is key when ice fishing on Simcoe. You'll want to have the ability to get up and move often and walk great distances with as little effort as possible. We recommend buying or building a smitty sled to transport your gear on the ice. The sled skis and clearance allow for a much easier pulling experience especially in heavy snow. Its almost night and day when you pull a smitty sled versus a typical jet sled. This can be the difference between settling into a spot not because its a good spot but because you are tired of walking instead of targeting the locations you really want to hit.
Is it a wild or stocked whitefish?
The MNR stocks approximately 100 to 150k juvenile whitefish annually into Lake Simcoe and has been doing so for many years now. With wild reproduction also taking place, there is a good mix of both stocked and wild fish. You can tell the difference between the two by looking for fin clips. A fin from a stocked fish is clipped off to indicate it is a stocked fish and it can also tell you the specific year that fish was stocked. Keep in mind, when identifying the fin clip using the table below, position the fish with the belly down and snout faced away from you (ahead of you). At least one of the five following fins are clipped to mark a stocked fish; Left Pectoral Fin (LP), Right Pectoral (RP), Left Ventral (LV), Right Ventral (RV), Adipose Clip (AC).
We hope the above tips and techniques will help you land more Whities this upcoming season. Good luck out there!
The Lake Simcoe Fishing Team.
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