December 24, 2020
By Justin Brouillard
When people think ice fishing, most probably think of the readily available and easy-to-catch panfish species. Beyond that, there are larger species like northern pike and others that will eat a live minnow on a tip up. Then, walleye, which takes more refined skills to catch and is the hardest member of the perch family to fool. Finally, there are trout, which often roam in deeper water and are targeted through the ice by less people overall than other species.
For one, trout are not abundant in as many lakes and the thought of being a deep-water fish may scare people from even trying. Whether you catch a trout by accident and dedicate time to catching more, or someone who knows how to catch them shows you, there are ways to target lake trout through the ice that are both fun and prevalent throughout the whole season.
Let’s take a look at some ways to expand your ice fishing skills and take a stab at a species that will have you going back for more.
How do you find Trout?
The thought of landing such a large fish is exciting, especially through the ice on lighter tackle. Whether you are jigging or using tip ups, you are fighting the fish on either a small jig rod or by hand. Even though it is cold, lake trout are still very active and aggressive. Contrary to the summer months when water temperatures are warm, with deep water being the only place trout feel comfortable, the winter temperatures are more fluid throughout the entire water column. What that means is wintertime allows trout to frequent all depths, shallow and deep.
It may seem daunting to locate and catch these lake monsters, but if you know where to look it can be pretty easy. Baitfish are key to finding lake trout, and if you can find yellow perch or smelt, you are even closer to catching fish.
The typical offshore structure such as humps, reefs, saddles, and points will hold fish. Utilizing quality mapping will help you pick out places to begin the search. Look for areas between 20 and 100 feet of water. The best places will have access to the deep water nearby. Humps and reefs in 50 feet near the main channel is one example of places to explore. A shallow point that extends to the edge of the main channel is another. There really aren’t any secrets, and you have to be willing to explore your lakes to find trout. Once you find them, you can replicate it all over.
Keep a good eye on your ice electronics for baitfish and even trout. Because trout will roam around, it is typical to see them swim by, but they won’t go far. If you find an area that seems to have numbers of trout, stick with it until you dial it in.
How do you catch them?
Due to the aggressive nature of lake trout, they can be caught dead sticking baits on the bottom, or aggressively jigging them. A lot of anglers prefer jigging as you can be more mobile while searching for fish. It does not take long to drop the bait to the depths and bring it back to the surface. If lake trout are close by, within a few retrieves, you will get bit. Likewise, when you find an area to settle down, tip ups are another great option, and you can usually utilize both options. Keep track of the laws in your states to see how many lines per person are allowed.
As for jigging, you can be a lot more mobile and search for individual fish. Trout roam often and if you happen to drop down to one, chances are it will bite. And, because trout travel in small groups, you may catch a couple, or your buddy could get bite quickly on the same spot. Electronics are key when moving around looking for fish. With the mapping available on your phone or ice units these days, you can quickly cover key areas and look for fish on the units.
Unlike tip ups, when you are fishing for lake trout with a jigging rod, you are going to be working the bait faster. The goal is to trigger a reaction bite. If you locate a trout on your graph, quickly drop down and pulse the bait off the bottom to trigger a bite. Once a fish shows up, quickly reel the bait to the surface while pumping the rod up and down to cause an erratic action. More times than not, trout will chase the bait upward in the water column and eat it—talk about a fun bite.
It is a cat and mouse game. The goal is the get the fish interested, and then by pulling the bait upward, the fish won't get a good look at it and will chase it up and eat it during the retrieve.
Believe it or not, the biggest laker you catch of the season may very well come on a tip up. By keeping your bait still in the water, the goal is it entice a less aggressive, usually larger, fish to bite. As for the bait, in my opinion, yellow perch is the best, followed by smelt. As opposed to smaller livebait, a bigger perch will offer trout a larger meal and big fish love to work less for a big meal. (Again, check local regulations on what’s legal to be used as bait.)
Drop the bait down and pull it up a few inches off the bottom. As trout roam around, it is likely one will come by. For tip ups, I like to have them in shallower areas of the structure. For example, an offshore hump or reef, set the tip ups on the top and edges of the reef, and explore the sides and drop off with a jig rod.
Another option with a tip up is to leave a couple just below the ice. In some cases, trout will hunt shallow reefs, points, ledges, etc., and they do explore higher up in the water column. If you have several tip ups in your spread, keep a few up a few feet below the ice. Tip ups will not yield as many bites on average, but the fish will usually be bigger.
Baits and Equipment
Lake trout in some water can reach weights of more than 20 pounds, while the average size may range from 5 to 10 pounds depending on where you are fishing. One would think those type of fish would require heavy equipment but that is not always the case. In fact, the lightest tackle you can get away with the more bites on average you will get. Lake Trout are aggressive by nature, but they can be very finicky at times. Changing your retrieve with the jig stick and varying your bait throughout the day will keep them honest.
Jig Set Up
For the jigging rod, you want a bit heavier action rod than your typical panfish set up. Reason being, you have to get a hook into the fish when using the bigger baits. If you prefer braided line, 10-pound braid on the spool to a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader is a great base set up. If you are targeting trophy lakers on bodies of water that support that size fish, up your line size to fit. When the average fish is smaller, run a straight fluorocarbon set up with 4- to 6-pound line and even drop to a lighter action rod. The key is to make sure your drag system is up to the challenge.
There is nothing as rewarding as catching that sized fish on extremely light gear. The main thing to consider is the size of the bait you are using and choose your equipment from there. Some fisheries with heavy pressure, dropping the size of your bait is the only way to get bit. Small jigheads with a swimbait provides great action and lake trout love it. Smaller perch jigs can be used when the lake pressure is high and fish are spooky.
For the dead-stick rig on tip ups, the equipment doesn’t change all that much. The main tip-up line will hardly even change and is pretty standard for whatever the target species is. Since dead yellow perch or shad bait is sitting on the bottom only being moved by whatever current is present, always seek to keep the leader line as small as possible to stay invisible to the fish. Six- to 8-pound fluorocarbon is the general line size for lake trout and since there is no drag, you have to play them with your hands.
The alternative to a tip up while maintaining the same strategy, is a Jaw Jacker. A Jaw Jacker works the same as a tip up by presentation but you use a jigging rod rather than hand line. You can utilize a jigging rod with the lighter line characteristics and set it up to dead stick a perch or shad. When a fish bites, they will pop up and you can fight a fish with the jig rod rather than by hand, which is much more fun.