To me, there might not be a more compelling fish to pursue through the ice than the tullibee (Coregonus artedi). That’s why I recently took two days to go to Big Sandy Lake, in Aitkin County. Word on the street was that things are good there lately. So, I expected a quick vacation of ice fishing for tullibees. What I got was more like work, with a little schooling thrown in.
Wandering on Webster Bay
Due to an unfortunate overnight snowstorm, I delayed departure a few hours and arrived on Big Sandy midday. The game plan was to spend the first day mining the basins in Webster Bay (~35-40ft). Tullibees, I thought, should be roaming there—possibly suspended—depending on their menu du jour.
It didn’t take long to suspect something was amiss. The only good evidence of fishing activity was a small cluster of fish houses at one end of the bay. Other than that, there were no other anglers or old holes to be found anywhere. It seemed strange.
When I’d been out there an hour or so, a couple guys on snowmobiles glided over to see what I was up to. The talkative one told me most folks go elsewhere in the lake for tullibees (something I’d wondered about, but couldn’t track down any evidence before leaving home). He said they’d caught some in the aforementioned shacks recently, which was unusual. He encouraged me to try the main lake: “There’s a lot of tullibees. They’re everywhere.”
There were about two hours of daylight left when I’d tried all the spots on the itinerary, with not a single fish marked on sonar. Considering the evidence, staying on that part of the lake seemed like a possible waste of time. I made a break for it.
As the sun neared the horizon, I hustled out of the access in the northeast corner of the lake. I didn’t have much more time (or energy) than to get to the nearest depression, about 25 feet deep.
Still nothing appeared at or near the bottom. A pack of fish came through at around eight feet under the ice, which was exciting. Though they responded well to my lure, nary a one would nibble. It was discouraging.
But a deliciously warm orange sunset left me feeling optimistic that I had finally made contact with tullibees and that I’d get fish slime on my fingers the next day, one way or another.
After slipping off the lake for a well-earned burrito platter and a beer, I returned to that same access to settle in for the night. Away went sonar, rods, and other gear. Out came cot, sleeping bag, and the big shelter. I couldn’t wait to crawl into my cocoon for a long winter’s nap. Since I wouldn’t fish anywhere nearby the next morning, I unceremoniously tucked my hub house near shore.
Things had been shockingly quiet all day. This was just as true that night, despite an abundance of snowmobile tracks on and off the lake. It was a comfort because having those things zipping around is not conducive to good rest.
I awoke at one point to the howling of wolves. Their hollow, low moaning—especially as a group—is unmistakable once you’ve heard it. These sounded as though they were a couple miles to the north, in Savanna State Forest. They really got wound up before I drifted off again, with some making a high-pitched squeal I’m not sure I’ve heard before. They were very vocal that night; this scenario played out at least once more before morning.
Though temperatures in the area were predicted to stay near 20 degrees overnight, a nip on the breeze suggested single digits when I woke up. That is not uncommon; as cold air sinks in off the hills all night, the lake surface drops to many degrees colder than surrounding areas. It would be an understatement to say it was tough to unzip the sleeping bag and get out.
Again I hoofed it away from the car after exchanging sleeping gear for fishing tackle. The nearest shoreline point seemed a reasonable haunt for walleyes in the early morning light. All I managed, however, was a scrawny northern, which was notably infested with neascus (a parasite harmless to humans). With the sun high enough again to warm the world, I hopped a short distance to the first basin area to check for tullibees.
It was apparent after the better part of an hour that, apart from a couple quick blips near the surface, there was nothing there worth staying for. And despite reeling up as fast as I could, those high cruisers were either gone by the time I got there, or not interested enough to bite. Thus, I couldn’t determine whether or not they were tullibees. For all I knew, they were shiners or something. And it struck me as strange that there were literally no fish in the bottom 75% of the water column.
Nothing changed at spot after spot, as I worked toward progressively deeper water. When I arrived at a 40-foot hole, it seemed as good a place as any to wait it out. It was lunchtime besides, and I had no better ideas.
In case those fast-moving visitors were tullibees, I set a crappie minnow about five feet under the ice on my tip-up. I thought they might stick around a little longer with a “decoy.” They’re curious, after all. I kept my tiny tungsten jig between eight and ten feet down.
It worked. They would often appear right at the minnow’s level, then respond to my active jigging. The first to succumb was only 12 and a half inches. Not big, but I was not disappointed to finally shrug off the skunk.
The next biter was a substantially larger fish. Its weight and powerful head shakes set it apart from the wild thrashing of the first one. Quite predictably, however, it came off at the bottom of the hole. I got over it…eventually.
Packs of fast-moving tullibees came and went occasionally throughout the afternoon. It was a slow day overall, but I did pick off two more for the smoker.
Three fish wasn’t a large haul, but it wasn’t nothing. Equal or greater than the harvest was everything learned over the course of two days. Big Sandy served up some hard lessons, though I might not get back anytime soon to make use of them. It was at least satisfying to go through the process of cracking its code, slow as I was.
More universal lessons involved the fish themselves, which could easily translate to other lakes. If nothing else, their habit of cruising just under the ice won’t soon fade from memory. I had a strong feeling they were probably doing that all over the lake, and 10 feet of water would have been as productive as 40. But it would have been hard to test that theory without another day. I might never know. The best I can do is stay open to that possibility.
On future outings I’ll likely use a decoy minnow anywhere I fish for tullibees, if only to make the most of those brief encounters. It could prove helpful on days when they’re feeling tight-lipped. And having a few extra moments could make a big difference, especially because suspended fish are more active feeders than those close to the bottom—at least in my experience.
Having more tools in the toolbox can pay dividends. It’s in the angler’s best interest to be more proactive than reactive when it comes to dynamic sparring partners like tullibees.