Thursday, March 10, 2016

Whitefish Redemption

The look of determination and frustration in this picture led my friend Lawrence Pyne to declare that if I had had a beard I would be a dead ringer for Captain Ahab.

As I write this, the ice fishing season in Vermont is over. The ice is no longer safe, which happened very quickly. I am alright with that. I finished the season strong. 

The Vermont Master Angler Program is a passion of mine and I am determined to be the first angler to catch all 33 species that are in the program. One species that has been a thorn in my side, as my last post can attest, is the lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis). That fish is the primary reason I have spent so much time on the ice. Working in a school system affords me a break every February to spend a lot of time on the ice. Last year it was very cold and difficult to spend the time on the open lake. This year was a different ballgame because I found a flip over sled which allowed me to spend more time on the lake without risking frostbite and greatly reduced the wind factor. 

Seeing the lake I love so much from it's hard water condition is a very different experience. I am so used to being on it's waters in the summer where lush vegetation and visible fish are the norm. When there is ice it is such a different ballgame. You aren't seeing the open water but you are able to access so many places that you would normally need a boat to get to. The sites and sounds are wildly different. There is a lot of beauty in the ice itself, the patterns formed and the cracks in it. The combination of ice and sky can be amazing. 

This year, on the Inland Sea (one of the few places with good ice where there are whitefish) the water temperatures dropped dramatically which caused a mass die off of alewives. It is a shame that it didn't completely wipe out this non-native invader but it did leave a very interesting phenomenon on the ice: tens of thousands of dead alwives in the ice and just under it. 

I had been doing my research on locations. My previous blog post elicited a response from a long time follower- thedeadfisher (and thank you so very much!!!) - who sent me a link to two videos from a gentleman in Ontario named John White. These two videos on tips and techniques for whitefish really gave me a completely new perspective on what was going on with the the fish. I adjusted what I was doing and how I had my rods set up. I was ready to give it my best shot.

Saturday morning I hit the ice very early. I had been in contact with John Whyte who had been very helpful with some suggestions of locations to fish. Navionics is an app that provides a bathymetric map of the lake contours and via email John gave me some places he thought would hold fish. 

I moved around a lot, checked out a few spots and by noon I was perched over a ledge on a drop off over 65 feet of water. The borrowed flasher I was using (thank you so much Mike Hoffman!) showed a suspended school of bait or insects or plankton). I was dead sticking a Swedish Pimple on the bottom with a 1" Berkely minnow smelt flavor about 18" above it drop shot style. I started to get taps. Then I had a fish on. I could tell it was not big but I was very excited to see a smelt come up through the hole. 

The smelt population in Lake Champlain has been in decline since the alewife has taken hold here. Smelt used to be one of the most popular ice fishing targets in this area with massive shanty towns built on the ice to catch these tasty, tiny predators. No longer the case. I was pleased to catch this 6" smelt. Another quickly followed it. 

Then around 1:30 I watched my rod tip dip about an eighth of an inch. Tiny bump. I set the hook. My ultralight fiberglass rod doubled over and I started reeling. Whatever was there had some weight to it and I was going to take my time getting it up to the hole. Knowing that whitefish have delicate mouths and that horsing them can mean a lost fish I was erring on the side of caution. as the fish neared the hole I saw a white belly and grey scales. I was hit with a combination of adrenaline and fear  of losing the fish. I had on 5 lb fluorocarbon tippet and this was a deep bellied fish. 

I threw back the cover on my flip over, exposing myself to the brilliant sun. I grabbed my homemade gaff because I did not want to take the chance of losing my first whitie. As I did that the fish popped up through the hole. It barely fit through the 6" hole because it was so wide. I dropped the rod and grabbed that fish with both hands and threw it on the ice. A whitefish!  I had done it! 

I grabbed the measuring stick I had.  I needed to measure the length. I needed to do this quickly because I had been talking to the lake quite a bit in all my time alone out there. I had made a deal with the Lady Champlain, my mistress, that I would release the first whitefish that I caught. I needed to get this fish back in the hole. Of course that didn't stop me from hooting and hollering as I measured and took photos. 

After dropping it back down the hole, I raised my hands to the sky wide and screamed my head off. After a couple of hundred hours on the ice I had caught one! I danced a little jig on the ice. I started making excited phone calls and sending texts. I realize now that I should have been back to fishing ASAP because the whitefish are a schooling species, but no matter. 

The whitefish was 18" and very thick. A real slab. A beautiful fish. For the Master Angler Program the whitefish needs to be 22". No matter. I have figured out yet another piece in the Lake Champlain lake whitefish puzzle. And I have several friends that want to target them in boats this spring. The story isn't over yet but it is much closer to it's conclusion. I finally got one and can add it to my life list of fish I have caught.