Ice Fishing Shallow Water for Whitefish

HT Pro Staffer Lacey Hill-Kastern with a Lake Superior whitefish.

One of my favorite methods of ice fishing is shallow water.  Most of my ice fishing occurs on Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay.  When most people think of fishing on Lake Superior, they think of fishing really deep water.  They find it hard to believe that I will spend most of my time sitting on five feet of water jigging for whitefish.  Yes, I said whitefish, another species that people feel the need to head to deep water for.  I have had some of my best days of fishing for them in five to eight feet of water.

Places people don’t usually think to look for these “beasts” are the river and stream mouths coming into the body of water.  Rivers and streams provide a lot of aquatic activity and plenty of forage for both large and small fish.  Quite a few rivers and streams are still sending a fair amount of sediments into the lake even through the cold winter months create “mud lines.” A lot of anglers fish the mud lines in the summer time. Well, the same applies for the winter time. The only difference is that mud lines are a little harder to find and see in the winter time.  It helps to really know the area you are going to be fishing.  These high current areas will make variable ice conditions, especially as you get later in the year.

Lacey is an avid ice angler, and enjoys fishing Lake Superior for whitefish.

Even though it may be middle of winter and there appears to be a couple feet of ice on the lake, it is still a good idea to send out a “well-equipped” point man to check the ice conditions before taking the group out with all the gear.  Ice conditions can be variable so it is very important to be aware of your surrounding conditions.  Once the ice conditions are assessed, start drilling holes.  Since there could potentially be several feet of ice, your spud bar might take you a while.  HT offers several good options in power augers.  I personally prefer the Polar Fire Pro Xt 43cc with a 10” head because it is light and easy to use.  I am not a fan of large, heavy power augers that can be difficult to handle.  Anytime fishing Lake Superior I prefer a 10” auger head because you never know what size fish you could end up having to pull through that hole.

Once the holes are drilled, take a walk around and see how they look.  Did you find the mud line?  Are some holes clear as a bell and others you can’t even see five feet? For example, one is full of weeds and muck while the other is clear water. If that is the case you are set up perfect.  What are your depths at most of these holes?  At river and creek mouths the terrain can change pretty sporadically and can be different from year to year.  I usually like to start jigging in one of the deeper holes and then bounce around from there.  Being mobile in shallow water can really add to your success.

Rod and line selection is an important part of any type of fishing.  This can also be overwhelming for a beginner angler.  Where you’re fishing and what are you’re fishing for are the two most important questions for rod and line selection. Typically, for fishing whitefish on Lake Superior we used 25 to 30 inch medium/light to medium action rods. Last winter we had great success with the 27 inch Polar Fire Blue Ice Medium-Light Rod Combo”.  We also used braided line and a swivel that we paired with an eight pound monofilament or fluorocarbon leader.  This combination is what works best for where we fish and the occasional brown trout and steelhead we also catch on these adventures.

Well what to use for a jig?  One of my personal favorites for whitefish is a Gold Orange Jig-A-Whopper Lazer Rocker Minnow with a treble hook chain rig with not one…not two… but three wax worms.  We call this the “Medusa” and it is a deadly set up for whitefish.  Another good set up is the Mirage Spoon by HT tipped with wax worms or a minnow tail.  Once my wax worms are set, I drop the bait to the bottom, which doesn’t take long in shallow water! Now, you can probably see down your hole, see bottom, and see your jig in the wide open and start thinking, “What am I doing here?”  Well now it’s time to put on a show.  I like to stir up the sediment at the bottom with my bait and move it around fairly fast and sporadically.  With this movement the jig is making noise, the sediment is stirring around, and the white wax worm medusa is sticking out beautifully in the semi cloudy water making a beautiful presentation for any fish that may be in the area.

Early ice, schools of whitefish can often be seen suspended in the clear water of Lake Superior, allowing for some exciting sight fishing!

When fishing shallow water and the water is not cloudy, it important to have a shack you can sit in to make it really dark.  A lot of light penetrating through the holes when the water is clear could potentially spook the fish.  For hole hopping, Polar Fire has one man (or woman) flip over ice shelters which are great for creating the darkness needed and still makes it easy to stay mobile.  Also, it is winter time, so they help keep you warmer and out of the winter elements.  Another thing to remember is that you are sitting right on top of the fish.  The quieter you are the better.  If you are in a group keep, your voices down.  As teachers tell their classrooms, “Use your indoor voices.”  That also applies to moving your shelters around, etc.  It is also good to have all of your holes you need drilled right off that bat so you don’t have to make a bunch of auger noise later in the day.

One of my favorite parts about fishing shallow water is actually seeing the fish come up and take the bait.  Sometimes they hit it so fast you just see a flash.  Other times they will just approach slowly and stare at it and test it out a little.  This can provide great opportunities to work on your techniques and learn what the fish want and maybe don’t want.

Also, your drag is very important when fishing shallow water.  For starters, you don’t know what you are going to get.  We are fishing for whitefish but the potential is also there to catch some trophy brown trout and steelhead (lake-run rainbow trout).  You need your drag set tight enough for a good hook set but then once you have that hook set you have to be able to loosen it almost immediately!  If you do have a trophy and are not “on the ball” with the drag, it can snap your line fairly quick (this has happened to me more than once while fishing steelhead!).  With whitefish this usually isn’t a problem.  A couple of times last winter I went to set the hook and pulled the fish right out of the hole.  I even managed to do that with 26.5 inch 6+ lbs whitefish last season.  Which I will admit, I would much rather get the opportunity to fight them but it was neat pulling out a trophy like that right onto my lap.

Lacey and her husband, Aron, run Unlimited Trophy Outfitters and operate guided ice trips for whitefish.

Most of the time it doesn’t work out that easy and it is nice to have a partner help pull the fish out of the hole.  If no one is available, a gaff or ice scoop can also aid in landing a fish.  The best part of landing whitefish is dinner later that night.  Nothing beats a fresh dinner of whitefish.  There are many different ways to cook it for example, I smoke my whitefish.  Especially the bigger fish we catch they taste great smoked.  I hope I was able to give you some valuable pointers and that you can enjoy some tasty meals of whitefish this winter.   If you are interested in coming up to Northern Wisconsin to Chequamegon Bay for some great whitefish action check out our website at or check us out on Facebook.

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Lacey Kastern

Lacey is, by day, a Wildlife Biologist for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Northern Wisconsin. She studied Wildlife Ecology: Research and Management at Vermilion Community College in Ely, MN and completed her degree at University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. She is married to USCG licensed Captain Aron Kastern and they own and operate fishing and hunting outfitting business, Unlimited Trophy Outfitters (UTO), out of Ashland, WI. They are both lifelong natives of the area and have a great deal of knowledge about the history as well as the fisheries and wildlife. When not at work, Lacey spends most of her time fishing on some body of water; be it Lake Superior, an inland lake, river, or creek. 

  8 comments for “ Ice Fishing Shallow Water for Whitefish

  1. bill hoffman
    February 3, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    i am interested in catching some whitefish.will need to be able to drive my four wheel pickup to fishing spot,my brother is disabled,can,t walk far.a heated house would be nice ,can fish out of portable if need be.have my own two man otter and electronics,etc.what is a average day amount of whitefish caught?when is best time of winter to catch them?how much for two men two days fishing.what area would we be fishing?

    • Melissa Casper
      February 7, 2014 at 1:38 am

      Hi Bill,

      I’m not sure where you live, or how far you are willing to travel, but one of the premier whitefish bites is near Green Bay, Wisconsin on Lake Michigan’s Bay of Green Bay. The average size is about 14-17”, with a limit of 10 fish/angler.

      Here are some guides you may want to try calling: Don Dumas, 920-639-4180, Mike Wright, 920-285-4822 or Zach Burgess, 920-559-7473 for further information and discuss guided trips. They all have heated houses and transportation to these rental huts available, and will provide info regarding directions, regional lodging and guide information, costs, etc.

      I hope this helps you and your brother.

      • Chong Yang
        March 25, 2016 at 4:22 pm

        So I know Green Bay is a popular place and many people seem to limit their catch on most days. Does lake superior have fewer whitefish? How much on average per day is caught in Chequamegon Bay? Also do you know if there are any white fishing activities in lake superior by Duluth/Superior?


        • Tom Gruenwald
          March 28, 2016 at 8:51 am

          Hello there, and thanks for writing! Yes, you’re right that Green Bay is a popular ice fishing destination for fishing whitefish through the ice. Relatively speaking, ten fish limits are relatively common…but these fish generally average around 15-20″. While Chequamegon Bay whitefish will are typically more scattered and limit catches aren’t usually as common, they run a little larger, and when you hit an active school, the action can be incredible. Depending on the conditions, how far out you’re able to travel and where you fish, these whitefish may potentially be MUCH larger, but due to commercial fishing, in many areas of accessible ice from around the islands and in toward the Wisconsin coastline, the whitefish available are either those that were positioned shoreward prior to placement of the commercial nets (these may be good sized fish), or they’re “strainers”–those of the appropriate size to be able to pass through them–which may be a bit bigger than the average sized Green Bay catches. For information about Chequamegon Bay ice fishing, ice conditions or guide service (highly recommended), contact Aron Kastern at Unlimited Trophy Outfitters or Angler’s All in Ashland. For information about the Duluth/Superior area, I would suggest calling one of the area tackle stores, such as Marine General in Duluth, or Northwest Outlet in Superior.

  2. Paul Schoenecker
    March 1, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    I think a few of these may be herring. Nice fish though!

  3. Marc Bernatchez
    March 24, 2016 at 6:41 pm

    Hi,your advise really sounds good n exiting,I used to get nice whities in around 60″ of water mid to late march ,but last 3 yrs cant get anything,perhapps I should try shallow, and im assuming very early morning is best .Do you always fish that shallow in river mouths or other shallow shorelines.Hope to here from you soon.

    Marc Bernatchez
    March 24 2016

    • Tom Gruenwald
      March 28, 2016 at 8:35 am

      Hello Marc, Thanks for writing…A number of things could be a play here, but rather than speculate, I’ll keep my response more general. As you’re likely aware, when dealing with opportunistic whitefish, especially late season, a lot of variables come into play that will influence location. As you’ve pointed out, late ice whitefish might be stacked in 60′ of water in one lake, yet be congregated around a shallow river mouth in another–not to mention that on larger bodies of water, it may even be possible to find a school holding in both these areas on the same lake! The point is here to remain open minded, and always keep your options open when searching for late season whities. That said, I will say one of my favorite late season patterns is fishing the base of steep breaks lining or near shallow bars, islands or river mouths–areas where active whitefish can “herd” baitfish up against the break and feed heavily. When time and conditions allow, be flexible, and try a little scouting on your favorite waters. Due to stereotypes about this species many ice anglers unwittingly follow, you may just find a large concentration of active, virtually untouched shallow water whitefish!

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