Deer hunting ends, frozen rivers/lakes approach, and cabin fever grips hunters. Not for couch potatoes, ice-fishing trout combats winter boredom and yields tasty meals. Many view ice fishing as a panfish sport in Midwest, but trout fishing is often considered open water.
In trout country, the best and most thrilling fishing occurs when lakes freeze over. Ice fishing may seem strange, but watching a 2ft. trout swirl around your lure, fins flaring with excitement, creates an adrenaline rush similar to seeing a big buck. Almost.
My fondest memories include a big station wagon ride with my friend’s dad and other kids to a frozen lake. We fished in the morning, drank cocoa and roasted hot dogs at noon, played pond hockey in the afternoon, and finished with a last catch before sunset. A bonus was bringing home fat trout for mom to cook, making it a great winter day.
To ensure safety when ice fishing, it’s always best to be cautious. During the early and late seasons, I always wear a flotation vest and tie a rope around my waist when fishing alone. When fishing with others, I carry a coiled rope attached to a throwing device. I also keep a pair of ice picks on a rope around my neck and through my sleeves in case I need to pull myself up if the ice gives way.
In the event of someone falling through the ice, it’s important to call 911 and throw a flotation device at them from a safe distance without getting too close to the person or the hole.
Ice thickness doesn’t always indicate its strength. Clear, hard ice is typically stronger than cloudy ice. However, a warm spell with intense sun can cause ice to soften and form honeycombs. I experienced this firsthand when fishing a mountain lake in March. Despite the ice being 10 inches thick, it was soft enough to be kicked through with boots.
On the other hand, clear, thin ice can be safe despite its appearance, so it’s always best to drill or chop test holes periodically to be sure. If you hear cracking or booming sounds while fishing, it’s a good sign that the ice is expanding and strong. I’ve even had cracks run under my hut while fishing on 2 feet of clear, hard ice.
Trout ice-fishing gear can be simple, consisting of a short rod, jigs, grubs, bobber, skimmer, and a hand auger or spud bar. I caught my biggest rainbow using a cocktail shrimp, a hole chopped with a steel spud, and an old fly reel on a casting rod.
Decades ago, before I became more serious, I had no heater, power auger, sonar flasher, or portable hut. Now, I have all of those, along with a variety of jigs (some self-tied) and rod-reel combos that can handle 20-lb. lakers through a 10-inch hole.
While some use standard-length rods, 5-6 foot spinning rods can hinder the angler’s ability to feel bites or watch the bobber. Sensitive rod-reel combos for ice fishing are affordable, but you can make your own by drilling a section of a broom handle or dowel, then attaching the tip of an old rod.
Attach a small spinning reel, spool it with a 4-6 lb. fluorocarbon line, and you’re ready. The Fluorocarbon line is preferred as it virtually disappears down the hole and is tough against sharp ice edges. I’ve caught 3ft lake trout for over 20 minutes with fluorocarbon without any fraying.
Trout fishermen often use bait like grubs, worms, salmon eggs, dough, or mealworms. While these are effective, a small plastic or marabou jig tipped with bait or a small jigging lure like a Rapala, Kastmaster, or Tasmanian Devil is a superior choice.
Ice fishing for trout can be a simple experience, with just a rod, bucket, and a sharp tool to make the holes needed. However, with the rise in popularity, there are now various pieces of equipment available to keep anglers warm, comfortable, and mobile.
I have a plastic sled with a tent attached, equipped with two bucket seats and storage for all my gear, including a heater, fish finder, power auger, and lunch cooler. It’s easily stored in a small SUV, and the tent canopy quickly flips over the top once I arrive at the fishing spot.
I turn on the propane heater, dig the hole, and in no time, I’m fishing in warmth. Even on windy days, I can drop two small anchors in windward holes to keep the hut secure. Regardless of the weather outside, I remain unaffected.
To penetrate the ice, you can use a simple tool like a sharpened spud or rock bar, but this can be tiring if the ice is too thick. A hand auger with sharp blades can make the job easier and faster. As you get more into ice fishing, you might opt for a power auger, which comes in gas, electric, and propane models and make moving from spot to spot much easier.
For fish finding, there are many portable options available, including LCD models that can be used on boats and some that show fish swimming elsewhere. I prefer a flasher-type fish finder, which is so sensitive that it can detect even a bug swimming by or an air bubble rising to the surface. I can see my jig moving on the screen, and when it disappears into the thick red line (fish), I know a fish has followed it. With a flasher and fish alarm, I can be ready for a strike even when I’m relaxed and having a coffee.
Lastly, ice cleats for the bottom of your boots are often overlooked, but it’s essential to prevent slipping and falling. I’ve fallen hard from slipping on the ice, and it happens so fast that it’s unavoidable. A man I knew slipped and hit his head on the ice, and he died from a brain hemorrhage before the ambulance could arrive. A simple and affordable pair of ice cleats could have saved his life.
Early in the winter fishing season, trout are highly active and can be attracted by an actively jigged bait or lure. But as the fish adjust to their winter feeding pattern, they may prefer something stationary like a suspended bug or shrimp or with a slow lift-drop-stop motion similar to a minnow feeding and then resting.
Winter fishing is unique because trout, such as browns, brookies, rainbows, and cutthroats, often feed in shallow waters of 3-12 feet, which makes sight fishing from a darkened portable hut an exciting and educational experience. By observing the fish, you can determine if they prefer still or moving baits on a particular day.
When sight fishing isn’t possible, I prefer using a small jig tipped with half a mealworm and suspending it beneath a tiny bobber. The line is folded in half, so the bobber clip holds a loop, allowing me to slowly lift the jig a foot or two, let it settle, and wait for the bite. Strikes typically occur when the lure is stationary after the drop. When a fish bites, the bobber pops off, and the fish can be reeled in without the bobber on the line. This method has earned my partner and me thousands of dollars in ice fishing tournament winnings.
While some anglers use a wire or spring bobber on the end of the rod to detect strikes, I have found that it can often move the lure too much and scare the fish. A tiny bobber keeps the lure still and detects even the slightest bites.
Winter fishing for trout and char species presents unique challenges and opportunities, as each species has its own habits and preferences. Rainbow trout are often caught in schools and tend to be found in 6 to 12 feet of water. If there is no action in 10 minutes, it’s best to move to another location. During the middle of the day, they may suspend at a mid-depth in deeper water.
A fish finder or flasher can be especially useful in locating suspended fish. Brook trout prefer structures and tend to be found in clusters. Brown trout tend to feed where minnows or crawdads are located, which can be in shallow or deep water. Cutthroat trout cruise over weed beds to pick off bugs and scuds. Lake trout require specialized gear and lures and are typically found on deep structure breaks.
The best time for fishing is typically from dawn to 11 a.m., with a brief lull in feeding activity before starting again before dusk. Night fishing can also be productive, and a popular method involves sinking a lantern into the ice to illuminate the area like an aquarium. Keep in mind that shallow-water trout can be easily spooked, so it’s important to avoid activities that may chase them away.
Moving to a different spot may be necessary if a restless group moves in nearby. I’ve seen way too many instances of a trout inspecting my lure, ready to inhale it when someone walks over and the fish races away.
Few are aware that trout still feed actively, even under the ice. Although the early season is optimal, as snow cover later in the season can block light and decrease oxygen levels, making the trout less active, they still feed.
On New Year’s morning, I fished for a couple of hours at a nearby lake and caught 17 trout, with the largest measuring over 18 inches, and missed at least as many more. At times, small schools would dart by, and several trout would go after the tiny pink tube jig. When I quickly reeled in one, I was able to drop the jig back down and catch another from the same school. Twice, I almost lost my rod from strong strikes while I was pouring a cup of coffee or unwrapping a snack.
My friends joked that coffee seemed to be the best fish attractant that day. The sounds of hooting and hollering could be heard coming from nearby portable huts. I kept one chunky rainbow for dinner and released the rest.
If you’re a fan of trout fishing, winter offers some of the best opportunities of the year. To get started, grab a spinning rod, reel, bucket, and a few of your favorite panfish jigs. You can also bring a bobber or two and a kitchen strainer, but keep the rock bar sharp. With all your gear ready, head to the lake early in the morning, and you’ll be sure to catch your first trout in no time!