Ice fishing for landlocked Atlantic salmon: 11 strategies to catch more of them

Landlocked Atlantic salmon (also known simply as “landlocked salmon” in Maine) are a highly-desirable species to catch while ice fishing because they are great fighters, can grow big, and taste delicious!  But it is also a challenge to catch them consistently because they live in large lakes, roam great distances in search of food, are difficult to pinpoint, and are stocked at low levels in order not to deplete their forage base.  Follow the strategies below to maximize your chances of hooking one of these magnificent creatures.


A beautiful 5.0 lbs landlocked salmon caught on March 11, 2012 by your blog author on Trickey Pond, Naples, Maine.

A beautiful 5.0 lbs landlocked salmon caught on March 11, 2012 by your blog author on Trickey Pond, Naples, Maine.


(1)        Develop a fishing strategy:  Get a depth map of your target lake and study it well before starting a trip.  Find the drop-offs and the rock piles, look at the depth profiles and their relation to the shoreline, and locate any bottlenecks.  The goal is to identify lake features that increase the chances of attracting landlocked salmon.


 (2)        Target the right locations:  Prime landlocked salmon ice fishing locations include: (a) drop-offs where depth quickly increases from about 25 ft down to 40-50 ft; (b) natural, deep bottlenecks that funnel smelts, the landlocked salmon favorite food, through a relatively small space between opposing shorelines; (c) the two ends of a lake where smelt may congregate before turning around and swimming in the opposite direction; and (d) deep underwater springs that attract plankton and baitfish.


 (3)        Beware of low pressures:  This advice applies to all ice fishing: fish don’t bite for 24 to 48 hours after a low pressure moves through, when the weather is bright, bitterly cold, and windy.  I have never done well under those conditions and will cancel my ice fishing trip if they prevail.  Wait a day or two until the weather stabilizes and returns to normal.


 (4)        Get on the ice early:  Start fishing at the crack ‘o dawn and as early as allowed by law.  Landlocked salmon activity peeks early and drops off sharply within two or three hours after sunrise.  Much of the feeding is done by 9 or 10 am, particularly if the sun is bright.


 (5)        Select the right baitfish:  It’s nice to have smelts as baitfish, but you don’t really need them to catch landlocked salmon under the ice.  Smelts have serious drawbacks, namely: (a) they are expensive, (b) they are fragile, (c) they don’t stay lively for long when attached to a hook, and (d) they tend to die quickly in a live-well at home. Besides, I have caught my three largest landlocked salmon (all between 4.5 and 5.5 lbs.) under the ice using cheap and hardy shiners!  Landlocked salmon will grab shiners if they are placed at the proper location and depth.  The optimum shiner size is around 3” long.


 (6)        Fish in water of the right depth:  Landlocked salmon chase smelt, and smelt are pelagic fish that swim in large schools over deep water.  Smelt under the ice avoid water less than about 25 ft deep.  Therefore, set your tip-ups in 25+ ft of water.


 (7)        Determine at which depth to place the bait:  The trick is to figure out the depth at which the smelt are running, and hence the landlocked salmon are feeding.  A good tactic is to deploy tip-ups every 40-50 ft in a straight line at a right angle to the shoreline.  Drop the baitfish 5 ft below the ice for the tip-up closest to shore.  Next, drop the baitfish 10 ft below the ice for the second tip-up, and so on.  You are now fishing the water column from 5 to 25 ft below the ice (assuming five tip-ups are used) by 5 ft depth intervals.  Choose different depth intervals if needed, but don’t fish much deeper than about halfway to the bottom.  If one of the flags goes up, determine at what depth that tip-up is set and then bring down or bring up the bait from some or all of the other tip-ups accordingly.  You are now fishing at the proper depth.


 (8)        Position the tip-up spools correctly:  Smelt, and therefore landlocked salmon, tend to swim roughly parallel to the shoreline.  Turn the tip-ups such that their spools are also parallel to the shoreline.  The reason is that a landlocked salmon is likely to swim parallel to the shoreline after grabbing a bait fish.  A well-positioned spool decreases the friction of the outgoing line, and reduces the chances of a salmon dropping the bait before you can set the hook.


 (9)        Use sharp hooks:  A genuine salmon hit is rare, even if everything is done by the book.  Hence, every flag counts.  Make sure to use laser-sharp hooks.  Avoid last year’s hooks!  Those will be dull and need to be replaced regardless.  Hooks are cheap, so change them often. Hooking a landlocked salmon, on the other hand, is hard!


 (10)      Set the hook quickly:  A landlocked salmon keeps on swimming after it grabs a baitfish. Hence, the spool should rapidly spin when you reach the tip-up.  Don’t waste time setting the hook because the landlocked salmon may spit out the baitfish if it gets spooked by the tension on the line.


(11)      Manage your line:  A landlocked salmon may come relatively quickly to the fishing hole after it is hooked.  But beware: if the fish has any size, it will take several strong runs into deeper water after it sees the hole and you!  Problems occur if the line is tangled on the ice or gets caught on the frozen ice chips scattered around the hole.  Inattention due to tangled line may cause the fish to rip the hook out of its mouth or break off.  Don’t pile the line on top of itself when it is brought in. Instead place each loop next to the other so that line can easily be given out when needed.


Good luck on the ice.


Was the information in this blog useful?  Do you use other tricks to catch landlocked salmon under the ice? I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions by posting a comment.



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