Winter Trout Fishing
Panfish, walleyes and other game fish receive the lion’s share of angling pressure throughout the winter months – mainly because they are so accessible. Some of the more neglected targets during the ice season include stream trout species – rainbow, brook, and brown trout more specifically. Fortunately for ice anglers, many states and provinces across the Ice Belt have catchable trout opportunities available within a relatively short distance.
Stream trout are stocked across the United States and Canada in a variety of lakes and ponds. They are worthy adversaries for any ice fisherman and offer a unique experience – especially when compared to the more common targets. The right combination of preparation, location, and presentation plays a major role in winter trout success.
The preparation for winter stream trout should start well in advance of the season - mainly in the form of tracking down prime ice locations. A lot of these small, stocked lakes and ponds are unmapped or have significantly outdated bathymetric maps. Relying on current technologies can give an angler an easy advantage when the lakes are finally locked up.
If the water body is accessible during the warmer months, use a kayak or boat to do some preliminary scouting. For uncharted waters, custom mapping tools like Navionics SonarChart, Humminbird Autochart and Garmin Quickdraw can pay huge dividends during the hardwater season. These tools allow users to create a contour map of a given body of water directly on their unit.
Another valuable scouting tool for locating structure, cover or depth changes is satellite imagery. Satellite imagery is available from numerous online resources, like Google Earth, OnX Hunt, Bing Maps, etc. With high resolution, up-to-date aerial imagery anglers can pinpoint locations that are ideal starting points. Documenting the coordinates of these spots and uploading them to your phone or GPS unit, can lead to more promising results come ice season.
Perhaps the most valuable tools for finding winter trout come directly from Game & Fish and Department of Natural Resources websites. These tools have invaluable data ranging from stocking information to survey data to water clarity and quality. Such tools allow users to search by lake, county, location, fish species, water clarity and more. Each site offers a different set of specific features.
For detailed stocking information, many resource agencies post details directly on their websites.
Mobility is important for targeting many winter fish species, especially panfish. Trout, however, are a different animal, as they are constantly on the move. The sit and fish style will often lead to more positive results – mainly because trout are so easily spooked. Since trout are so active, finding the right ambush point is one of the most important factors to success.
Being that trout are cold water species, winter temperatures help kick their activity levels into high gear. While many species move deeper during the winter months, trout tend to move shallower. Stream trout be found in nearly every area of a body of water – however, they tend to stay to in the upper portions of the water column. They inhabit both deep and shallow areas and rely on numerous cover and structure types to track down their prey. Nevertheless, there are key areas that an ice fisherman should put their focus on for increased success.
During lowlight periods, trout spend much of their time cruising shallow areas. It’s not uncommon to find trout in as little as two to three feet of water, especially at dusk and dawn. Shallow flats with nearby cover are prime locations to start the search. Areas adjacent to weedlines or submerged wood can create the ultimate ambush point, as trout are constantly checking these spots in search of their next meal.
During the day, trout tend to venture into deeper waters. Many stocked trout lakes are relatively deep, so locating suspended fish over 50-80 feet or more is typical. Focusing on structure-oriented locations, like points and steep breaks or drop-offs, will lead to more mid-day success.
If preliminary scouting is not a possibility and the areas are unmapped, an angler can rely on shoreline features to help determine a location. For example, trees that overhang into the water can be an ideal spot to wait out some trout.
Regardless of depth and location, holes should be drilled well in advance of actual fishing time, so account for this in the schedule.
Before setting up shop for the day, its good practice to complete some preliminary scouting to ensure you’re in the right area. Enter the underwater camera, which are ideal for quickly checking an area for the right stuff. As mentioned, trout often relate shallow structure and cover at lowlight periods. By verifying you’ve found the right habitat, you can increase your odds of success.
Presentations for winter trout bear great similarities to those of a winter panfish angler. Any ice fisherman that spends time targeting panfish will likely have everything they need to get started trout fishing.
Panfish sized lures are ideal choices for winter stream trout. Jigs, spoons, and hardbaits all have their place in a trout angler’s lineup. Similar to other species, the approach for trout should start with aggressive presentations and more subtle options can be added in as necessary.
Aggressive presentations, like lipless crankbaits and darting baits, are effective at calling fish in a from a distance. Take the, Eurotackle Z-Viber, for example. Such lures were specifically designed to appeal to more active fish. There’s a number of size options that work well for winter trout, but the original 1/16 oz is hard to beat. Coming in at one-inch in length, the bait is the ideal size for most stocked trout. It features a free-swinging, single hook which can be paired with a Micro Finesse plastic or Mummy Worm. The single hook keeps fish pinned, but also makes for quick and easy removal to get fish back in the water.
More moderate action bait options include spoons, which can be fished in both passive and aggressive manners. New for 2023-24, Eurotackle introduced the Spade Blade – a partnership with Travis Krousie of J&S Custom Jigs. The Spade combines elements of flash, rattle, and flutter to make the ideal spoon.
Sometimes less aggressive presentations are required to coax fish into biting. Tungsten jigs with plastics or Mummy Worms can certainly helping close the deal. Because trout are constantly on the move, work your baits throughout the entire water column. Focus primarily on the upper half of the water column – trout have no problem chasing a bait.
Light to medium light rods pair well with winter trout techniques. Rods should be stout enough to effectively handle the baits and fish, but sensitive enough to detect bites. Rods comprised of carbon have the benefits of sensitivity and lightweight feel, while glass-based options can’t be topped for keeping fish pinned. Blends of both materials offer anglers the best of both worlds.
Reels in the 500 to 1000 class are appropriately sized for winter applications. Due to harsh winter conditions, ensure the reel has a quality drag system. Spool reels up with three-to-five pound fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon line is the preferred choice for these applications because of its nearly invisible and highly abrasion resistant.
Trout provide anglers a nice change of pace when it comes to ice fishing. With the right planning, setting and tools, an ice fishermen can surely put some trout on the ice. To find more information about ice fishing for trout, including stocking programs and locations, visit your area Natural Resources or Game & Fish website.