• Outdoors Column for Jan. 13, 2014

    With the recent blast of winter and following warm spell, conditions could not be better to get outdoors and enjoy the ample angling opportunities in Southwestern Ontario. Temperatures reached a frigid low of -30C just over a week ago, but then Mother Nature shed a layer with temps surpassing +5C over the past few days, knocking down the snow pack just a little bit.

    Within our province, no other angling destination can compare to the frozen waters of Lake Simcoe. In fact, Simcoe often receives national acclaim as the country’s top ice fishing destination. Located just under a two-hour drive from my front door, Simcoe has been on my winter angling hit-list for nearly two decades. Jumbo perch, whitefish, and lake trout are the desired quarry for anglers looking to ice a few fish during the winter months. Simcoe receives the efforts of tens of thousands of ice anglers each year, and when the mercury plummets early in the winter season, the angler traffic on the big lake can be astounding.

    At the heart of the winter angling scene on Simcoe is the long standing tradition of ice hut operators that can be found throughout the entire lake. If you wish to target the famed yellow perch of Simcoe, you can find numerous day hut operators in the southern portion of the lake in Cook’s Bay. If you are looking to ice the larger targets such as whitefish and lake trout, operators exist in the deeper portions of the lake such as Beaverton on the east shore, and Oro, Kempenfelt and Innisfil on the western portion of lake. Anglers wishing to “go-it-alone” and target Simcoe’s bountiful fish populations without an operator or guide usually experience little difficulty in securing a successful outing on the big lake. Anglers have been chasing fish on Simcoe’s hardwater for over a century, and it just keeps growing in popularity today.

    I love to lay boot tread on Simcoe each season in search of jumbo perch to meet the hot oil of my deep fryer for some of the most scrumptious table fare known to man. It sure is hard to beat a televised NFL playoff football game while dining on fresh cold-water perch fillets. Simcoe’s perch are no secret, with populations and average sizes not seen in many other angling destinations across the globe. Winter perch are a fairly easy target too, proving to be simple to locate, and not overly difficult to catch.

    Perch on Simcoe are usually found in the lower half of the lake, off proven locations such as Lefroy, Innisfil, and Gilford on the east shore, in depths from 10 to 30 feet of water. As the winter season wears on, the large schools of jumbo perch (12 inches or larger) begin to flood into Cook’s in preparation for the spawn which takes place soon after ice-out in early spring. Artificial baits such as small spoons, small plastics, and jigging baits ice pails of perch, and big jumbos find it hard to pass up a simple, small emerald shiner on #10 bait-holder hook fished just off bottom.

    Perch are a family friendly fish if there is such a thing. The schooling nature of perch and their willingness to bite with aggression make them an easy choice for those looking to introduce the sport of fishing to new anglers. Kids love perch fishing, mostly because it is an action filled day on the water with plenty of fish coming up through the hole and making an appearance in the hands of the angler. Big kids love perch fishing too, as many grown men and myself can attest to spending far too much money on gas and equipment chasing the little fish across the frozen water.

    When it comes to the hardwater kings of Simcoe, the lake trout and whitefish take the cake. Lakers and whities take up residence in the deeper reaches of Simcoe. The waters just out from the City of Barrie in Kempenfelt Bay are some of the most storied lake trout and whitefish grounds. These winter brawlers can often be found within a kilometer or less from shore during the winter months in depths of 60 to 120 feet of water. During the winter months lakers and whities are suckers for jigged spoons, such as a Williams or Mr. Champ, as well as the simplistic white tube-jig.

    Both the lake trout and the whitefish populations in Lake Simcoe rely on the stocking efforts of the MNR, with over 100, 000 fish being planted each year. Some natural reproduction of both species appears to be taking place, as water quality improves and the food chain within the lake continues to change. The lake-herring fishery on Simcoe was closed down by the MNR some years ago in an attempt to take pressure off the dwindling population, but numbers appear to be rebounding lately with incidental catches becoming the daily norm. Big lake trout love to feed on herring, and as the population of this bait source rebounds, the overall size of Simcoe lakers will increase. Average size lake trout on Simcoe push the scale to 10lbs with 20lb fish becoming a more regular occurrence. A solid Lake Simcoe whitefish will range from 5 to 7lbs. These deepwater fish are tough customers, and will put the drag to work on an angler’s reel.

    There is an unfortunate downside to fishing Simcoe. Over the past few years there seems to be the growth of an unpleasant trend regarding restriction of public access to the lake. I have noticed far more “no parking” signs on streets bordering the lake in popular fishing areas. The towns of Innisfil and Oro have increased their efforts in applying parking tickets on the windshields of travelling anglers. Areas that were once permitted parking lots for winter anglers are now posted, and existing parking areas are now full of anglers before the sun comes up in the east.

    I’m not sure that I exactly understand this trend. Ice fishing is big business for the communities surrounding Simcoe. Before the ever-growing expanse of the GTA reached the shores of the lake, locals seemed to welcome anglers with open arms. Now the times appear to be changing, and communities seem to be sending the message that the traveling angler’s money is no good to them. This really is too bad. Aside from being an inconvenience while I’m searching for a parking spot in the wee hours of morning, history has proven that turning away the fishermen will directly effect these local economies. During winters when ice is scarce on Simcoe (such as that of 2012), small towns feel the pain, with gas stations, bait shops and small motels feeling losses or even closing up shop.

    Yet, despite the shrinking availability of public access, myself and thousands of other anglers still sample this winter fishery and I can assure you, with winter in full swing and plenty of ice on Lake Simcoe, now is an excellent time to take advantage of the opportunities available on southern Ontario’s largest lake. Instead of taking a trip to the ski-hill or the shopping mall with the kids, try renting a hut on Simcoe for a trip filled with frozen adventure, perch, whitefish and lake trout. At day’s end there will smiling faces, and a pail of tasty treats in the form of perch fillets. Ice fishing is a Canadian tradition, something we Canucks can call our own. Hit the hardwater this season and make some memories that those close to you won’t forget.
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