I grew up believing there was one way to catch a fish through a hole in the ice. Snowmobile to a hut somewhere on a quiet lake, set up wooden tip-ups by the holes in the cabin floor and use minnows as bait. Then wait patiently for a strike while eating brown bag lunches or boiling hot dogs on a propane camping stove. Boy, was I ever sheltered. After several winters spent fishing my way across the country, I have discovered clever twists to Canada’s most underrated winter experiences. These are six of my favourite ice-fishing adventures.
Burbot is the unsung hero of the Canadian fish world. The only freshwater member of the cod family, also known as ling or lota lota, burbot look similar to eels, have a catfish-like whisker barbel, and feel slippery because they’re covered in protective mucus. These bottom dwellers hunt at night and ambush their prey, so Yukoners such as guide Michael Doody — who creates custom fishing trips through Mount Logan Lodge (and its satellite business, Yukon Guided Adventures) — get permits for baited setlines. Doody takes me out at dusk to check his 10 lines, refresh the fish skin bait, then cover the ice holes with mounds of snow so they don’t freeze. The next day we return to check the lines again, then drive around the area looking for bison, elk and wolves. Burbot are his favourite fish, and since the white, flaky meat is widely considered the “poor man’s lobster,” he uses it for a beer-battered burbot feast.
Where: Between Whitehorse and Haines Junction, Yukon
When: December to March
Why: For a strange and unusual fish
Fun fact: Burbot spawn in mid-winter under the ice in shallow water
Stay: Mount Logan Lodge, Haines Junction, Yukon
Eat: Wayfarer Oyster House, Whitehorse
Mobile ice hut
Zipping around in a SnoBear is like fishing in a motorhome for anglers. The American invention has tracks and skis, plus a hydraulic system so it can be elevated to drive and lowered to fish. Remove the ice hole covers in the floor to mark your spots, move ahead to drill holes and then back up over them to fish. If noting bites, move on.
“It allows me to go where the fish are,” says SnoBear owner Mathew Hobson of Icebound Excursions, who helped me chase Lake Winnipeg walleye and fed me catered pulled pork sandwiches. We weren’t after ordinary golden and black-hued walleye, but the fast-growing greenback walleye that turn iridescent green, possibly because of limestone substrate around the lake. Hobson also introduces me to Manitoba’s Master Angler program, which recognizes people who catch and release trophy fish. Upload a photo that shows the measurement of your fish and you’ll receive a certificate in the mail.
Where: Lake Winnipeg, Man.
When: December to March
Why: For unusual green walleye
Fun fact: I’ve fished Great Slave Lake, N.W.T., with another SnoBear owner, Greg Robertson of Bluefish Services in Yellowknife
Stay: Inn at the Forks, Winnipeg
Eat: Rae & Jerry’s Steakhouse, Winnipeg
Ice condo escapade
Lake Nipissing, where I grew up ice fishing in utilitarian huts, is now awash in snazzy ice condos. Each comes with bunk beds, a stove where you can pan fry your catch, a table where you can play euchre, a television, a furnace and a private loo.
“[People] like the fact that they are not on a schedule for when to go out on the ice and come off in the evening as the fish do not bite on a schedule,” says Cara Lee Hughes, who runs South Shore Camping & Ice Condos with her husband Garnet. Bring your own equipment or learn to string a line, elastic cord and warning bell from the ceiling into the hole. Nipissing is beloved for pickerel, but the species officially known as walleye has been overfished and so catches must now be at least 46 centimetres long to be a keeper. Consider chasing the plentiful yellow perch instead. Expect action from northern pike and the odd cisco (lake herring), whitefish or ling (burbot), too.
Where: Lake Nipissing, Ont.
When: Boxing Day to February/mid-March
Why: For the thrill of seeing what bites at 3 a.m.
Fun fact: This lake boasts 42 species
Stay: South Shore Camping & Ice Condos
Every year, a village of 500 cabins is constructed on a tidal river in rural Quebec for 100,000 visiting anglers. The unusual catch is tomcod (a.k.a. Christmas fish or frostfish), passing through the area by the millions to spawn.
“The fishing is unique in the world,” says Steve Massicotte of Massicotte & Fils, one of about 18 operators who rent cabins in 10-hour time slots. He chairs an association that pours water over the ice to thicken it for the huts. Wide, rectangular holes run the length of each hut and simple lines hang from nails over the trough. The bait is bloody pork liver that must be changed every few minutes when it turns grey, or frozen shrimp to entice bigger fish. Furnished cabins come with a wood stove and firewood.
Where: Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade, Que.
When: Fishing season runs Boxing Day to February. The Tomcod Ice Fishing Festival runs for three consecutive weekends in February with a parade, children’s activities, music, food booths and a tomcod mascot
Why: For a quirky good time
Fun fact: The Centre Thématique sur le Poulamon, a tomcod interpretation centre, is steps from the action
Stay: Book a local auberge, or drive in for the day from Le Germain Hotel Montreal
Eat: Pizzéria Du Roy delivers poutine to your hut
The most popular way to catch smelt in Prince Edward Island is through the ice in winter, preferably from the comfort of what’s known here as a “smelt shack.” Ice fishing is not as big a business in P.E.I. as it is in other provinces, so it’s best if you have a personal connection. Friends introduced me to avid angler Ricky White, a shellfish harvester who does a little off-season guiding (he prefers fishing for striped bass from April to October). He set up my family in Stanhope’s Covehead Bay in a pop-up ice shelter with a propane heater. Using an axe, he carved a communal, rectangular fishing trough. We fished in just 1.5 metres of tidal water with jigging rods and a spear, and had fun seeing bottom. When the smelt pass by, they apparently come in schools by the hundreds, and you’re allowed to catch 60 per person per day. But alas, we were skunked (angling slang for “we didn’t catch anything”) — unless you count the crab we caught and released. As White put it: “That’s why they call it fishing and not catching.”
Where: Prince Edward Island
When: January to March
Why: For a decidedly non-commercial outing
Fun fact: Supermarkets sell inexpensive bags of fresh ocean smelt if you don’t catch your own feed
Stay: Holman Grand Hotel, Charlottetown
Eat: Cows (creamery and various ice cream shops)
When winter blows in, Fogo Islanders break out the snow machines and retreat to their off-the-grid cabins on a network of informal trails. In true Newfoundland style, these are never quiet getaways. Everyone cabin-hops, visiting friends and family, playing cards, eating, drinking and singing. The cabins are on land but never far from shallow, freshwater ponds where you can drill a few holes in the ice and “go trouting” in spots with playful non-names such as Rocky Pond 1 and Rocky Pond 2. Expect no-frills fishing, just standing over a hole or parking your snowmobile next to it and using it as a chair. The preferred bait? Scrunchions — those crispy fried bits of pork fat that we humans love to eat alongside cod tongues or on top of toutons (fried dough) with molasses. As for the trout, they’re small and can be a mix of speckleds, browns and rainbows.
Where: Fogo Island, NL
When: February to mid-April
Why: For an authentic community experience
Fun fact: Fogo Island has roughly 2,200 people spread over 11 communities
Stay: The Fogo Island Inn, which arranges winter trouting trips with a community host
Eat: Bangbelly or Scoff