• Ice Fishing Salmon on Georgian Bay

    Grey-Bruce is renowned for many of its outdoor features and opportunities. The area has a National Park, an escarpment, two major water bodies, caves, cliffs, shipwrecks, ski hills, and excellent fishing. In terms of icefishing, Grey-Bruce offers something incredibly special, the opportunity to fish for salmon through the ice. There are very few places on earth where this occasional window for icing a salmon exist and the Owen Sound area is one of them.

    Dan Gravel of Owen Sound shows off the season's first hardwater salmon. The Chinook (Left) and Coho (right) were landed in Owen Sound Bay a few weeks ago on a Hotfish Spoon.

    To someone who cares little about icefishing, or salmon fishing in general, this may seem only semi-spectacular. On the other hand, if you are an individual who fancies winter fishing, the accomplishment of targeting and landing salmon through the ice is second to none. Living in our geographical portion of the Great Lakes and having access to our two local bays, Colpoys and Owen Sound, provides the opportunity to be able to ice fish salmon, but many stars must align for this to happen, and often local anglers go a number of winter seasons without having the chance.

    For starters, Georgian Bay, specifically Owen Sound and Colpoys bays, must freeze. Wind, warm winter weather fronts, and water temperature usually keep solid, fishable ice from forming on the bays. When it does form, ice-breaking vessels often leave a solid section of ice looking like a corner-store slushy after opening shipping lanes into Owen Sound Bay. Winds are by far the biggest enemy of safe, local ice on the bays. A change in wind direction can cause miles of ice to quickly blow out and away into open water out on the lake.

    This winter, ice cover is not an issue, as the Great Lakes are seeing the greatest ice cover in recent history. However, ice is not the only factor at play in the terms of icing a salmon. Local anglers have experienced plenty of winter fishing over the past few decades with decent ice but no salmon.

    The highly migratory habits of salmon provide a very difficult quarry to pattern under the ice. First, salmon are pelagic for the most part; this means they roam the upper sections of the water column, often over deep water (100 feet plus). In their constant search for baitfish, large schools of Georgian Bay salmon can be over 100km away one week and on the other side of the bay the next. The metabolism of winter salmon is believed to be low, and actual feeding activity for these silver speedsters is minor over the winter period. Despite this, salmon follow their preferred prey restlessly regardless of the season. Smelt, alewife, and shiner populations are not exactly peaking on Huron, and therefore the location of baitfish is paramount in locating the predators. Unlike the late summer/fall when salmon return to local rivers and concentrate in local bays, in winter fish roam the mass amounts of cold water throughout the huge lake. So standing on ice, covering a tiny amount of fishable water during the winter seems very unproductive in terms of being in contact with a roaming quarry.

    Every so often during winter seasons with fishable ice, a population of baitfish will end up in Owen Sound Bay, Colpoys or areas along the Peninsula. Behind them are undoubtedly salmon. Thankfully, both bays can act as funnels for the baitfish to seek shelter and food during the winter, and the same funnel features of the bay set up a prime place to corral bait for a salmon. When migratory baitfish wind up in the bays, these locations provide the perfect opportunity for anglers to get on top of active salmon during the frozen water period, an opportunity that only exists in tiny pockets across the Great Lakes. The depth contours in the bays act as highways for the salmon and schools of fish will concentrate just long enough to allow them to be caught in any number.

    When all the variables fall into place, some of the most exciting and coveted icefishing exists. Case in point was just over two weeks ago when I got a call from my good friend and ardent angler Dan Gravel. Gravel had decided to go for a morning of icefishing on the bay. For nearly a month, anglers had been plying the hardwater in Owen Sound looking for salmon, whitefish and lake trout with only minor success with lake trout and whitefish and absolutely no salmon being caught. That morning something changed. Within less than an hour Gravel had iced a pair a lovely Coho salmon while jigging a spoon in Thompson’s Hole, the first of the season. By the time I arrived he had a Chinook salmon to add to the pile at his feet. Within a matter of hours, the both of us managed to land a two-man limit of the hardest fighting fish under the ice in Ontario. Coho ranging from 2 to 3lbs and Chinooks pushing 8lbs were on the menu at both our households over the next few days. The Coho were an added bonus, as numbers of these fish are not overly abundant in Lake Huron and local clubs and the MNR do not have a Coho stocking program. Often misidentified as small Chinooks, the Coho exhibit blood red meat full of healthy omegas from the wild.

    Word spread quickly about the arrival of the fish and within two days the City was removing snow from parking lots along the bay to accommodate a few hundred travelling anglers who heard the news. The fish showed up out of nowhere, obviously following a small batch of baitfish, and they left just as quick, only providing steady action for a few days. Since then local anglers have landed a number of salmon, but those numbers are spotty as the concentrations of fish have left. All is not lost however, since the ice seems to be here for a while, odds are they will be back and the chance to tangle with these incredible sportfish will return.

    If the fish are in the bays, connecting with winter salmon is not really that difficult. A decent fishfinder with either an electronic flasher or icefishing mode is a major benefit as it allows the angler to see what depth at which the fish are cruising. Salmon are hard fighting and once hooked they can prove to be very difficult to land. A medium heavy ice fishing rod, a quality-spinning reel with a smooth drag, and 10lb superline or braid is the major terminal gear best suited for salmon. Flashy jigging spoons such as the historic Williams Wabler, Whitefish and Ice Jig are standbys. Many winter salmon also fall victim to the locally produced Hotfish Spoon and soft plastic baits such as tube jigs. Winter salmon fishing provides anglers with an option to catch a salmon without a large boat, downriggers and expensive equipment; this levels the playing field and becomes a great equalizer in terms of angler opportunity.

    If you want to experience an outdoor activity that is unique to our region, take advantage of the opportunity to land a salmon through the ice. It may not be a guarantee and requires a little luck and cooperation, both on Mother Nature’s part and the pursuing angler’s. However, nothing compares to standing over 100 feet of water battling a lightning fast, line sizzling, salmon as it tries to jump through the ice in an attempt to evade capture . . . sort of like fire on ice.
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