What could be better than sitting on your snowmobile on a bright sunny February day on the upper end of Chamberlain Lake jigging for whitefish? The Allagash headwater lakes are the premier whitefish angling waters in Maine.
Jigging over a school of feeding whitefish is about as much fun as I have ever had while ice fishing.
There is a little bit of a knack to jigging. Brady Scott certainly had a knack for catching any fish, but he could jig whitefish with the best of them. Brady once told me, “You need to be able to feel your lure working around the bottom of the lake.”
He was right; jigging effectively requires more than an aimless pulling of the lure up and down. You need to pull up just as the lure comes to the end of your line, with a smooth rhythm. If you get your lure working right it will cover a six foot circle on the bottom of the lake.
The first year that I worked on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway was 1977. I took for granted how good the fishing for whitefish was. You could stop almost anywhere on Chamberlain Lake and jig-up a whitefish in less than 10 minutes, they seemed to all run about the same size — about 18 inches.
One weekend that winter, as I was patrolling on Chamberlain Lake, I checked a couple fishermen jigging off Donley Point Campsite. They had caught the biggest whitefish I had ever seen. I didn’t weigh it, but it must have weighed over six pounds!
The lure of choice back in 1977 was a gold-lead fish, tied to a cloth line with a stout wooden handle. As soon as the fish hit, the handle was thrown to the side and the fish was brought up hand-over hand.
Methods have been refined over the years with the Swedish Pimple being the lure most fishermen use, usually tied to heavy monofilament line, on a commercially made jig stick. Most people attach a small piece of cut bait to the lure, but I will often jig without the cut bait. I think the action of the lure is better without bait attached.
The fishing for whitefish is not as good as it was 35 years ago but good catches of native whitefish are still common on Chamberlain, Eagle and Churchill Lakes.
Whitefish make great table fare. The firm, white meat has a very mild delicate flavor. I have found that once the fish has been frozen, the meat becomes soft and mushy.
The fishing rules vary from waterbody to waterbody — check the law book for the current rules on the lake you plan to fish or review the rules online at maine.gov/ifw.
Lake Whitefish are found throughout the Canadian provinces from New Brunswick to British Columbia and into the Northwest Territories. In the United States, it is found in the Great Lakes region and along the U.S.-Canadian border into Maine. It is the prime commercial species of the upper Great Lakes fishery.
In Maine, lake whitefish were once commercially harvested in Moosehead Lake.
Over the last 100 years, whitefish populations have dwindled to relic numbers in the majority of Maine lakes. Populations of whitefish are now concentrated in the headwater lakes of the Allagash and Penobscot drainages.
Lake Whitefish are regarded as schooling fishes. They thrive in the deep, cold, well-oxygenated water of lakes like Chamberlain and Eagle. They spawn in tributary streams in late October through November or even into December.
Spawning runs last five to seven nights, like smelt. When no suitable inlet streams are available, they spawn just as successfully in the shallows of wind-swept rocky shores.
The lake whitefish is perhaps the most prolific of Maine’s coldwater sport fish. A one-pound female fish may lay as many as 10,000 eggs. They spawn at night in large groups of paired males and females displaying a frenzied ritual of darting and splashing at the surface of the water. The eggs are fertilized and broadcast in mid-water where they settle into the cracks and crevasses of the bottom to hatch without parental care in April or May.
A study by Laval University at Cliff Lake found that a specific species of zooplankton was the dominant food for the first three weeks after hatching. The young fish then move into deeper water to feed on aquatic insect larvae, mollusks and plankton. Larger fish feed on smelts, sticklebacks and minnows.
Lake whitefish normally live 10 or more years and weigh 1-3 pounds. The state record weighed 7 pounds 8 ounces, taken by an angler trolling a Mooselook Wobbler at Sebago Lake in 1958.
If you would like to try jigging for whitefish in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, you can find a place to park your camper in the winter campground at Chamberlain Bridge or you can book accommodations at one of the area sporting camps. For more information, visit mainesportingcamps.com
The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is managed by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.
For information packet or general information on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, visit maine.gov/allagash or call 941-4014; or write to the Bureau of Parks and Public Lands, 106 Hogan Road, Bangor, ME 04401.