Winter Trout: Cold Steel and Frigid Browns
November 23, 2011
Just as during the open-water season, current provides food, oxygen, and defines movement routes for winter trout. Steelheads and browns use current seams to move from spot to spot, and they rest and forage in slower water along current breaks. Key holding areas include the top ends of deeper holes, shoreline logs that deflect current, subtle rock fingers extending perpendicular to the shoreline, bridge pilings, and the downstream half of outside bends.
Each of these spots holds fish at various times throughout the season. The challenge is putting the puzzle together each time out. During early season most trout relate to the middle- and upper-river stretches that offer faster water and proximity to salmon spawning sites. As the season progresses, some fish fall back to the lower stretches but continuously move throughout the various sections based upon current levels, water depths, and the availability of food. Runoff from a brief thaw or a midwinter rainstorm triggers additional movements, as does the natural spawning urge of the multiple strains of steelhead and brown trout stocked in the Great Lakes.
As a rule, brown trout favor slower water at the bottom of holes. They tend to be homebodies that wait for food to come to them, although they may also run current seams during the day. Big browns are drawn to woodcover and often dominate eddies just outside of strong current. Trees and larger shoreline rocks form current breaks that are prime locations. Browns stage in these areas for weeks at times. Other areas include riprap shorelines and the mouths of feeder creeks and culverts that add oxygen and warmer water that attracts baitfish.
Steelhead are more of a "here today, gone until next Tuesday" fish. They like current areas with slightly greater depth than that offered over shallow runs. Being more mobile than browns, once you find a good current seam, multiple fish can be caught from the same seam as they move upstream and downstream. Browns favor shoreline cover and slower water, but steelhead often hold mid river behind solitary cover objects.
Lures like Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons, Reef Runner Cicada bladebaits, and Jigging Shad Raps are among the most effective trout lures in the harbors and bays of the Great Lakes; but the upper stretches of most tributary streams lack the depth to make jigging a preferred option. Accordingly, along with minnows, and jig-and-bait combos, salmon and trout eggs are the primary bait choices.
Whether fished fresh or cured, in spawn sacs or as skein, trout love eggs — and, no surprise, good eggs get bit 10 times more often than bad eggs. The best bait starts with fresh eggs. Unfortunately, few bait shops sell good spawn sacs and even fewer offer skein or loose eggs. Rubbery commercial spawn sacs in a jar have as much appeal to winter trout as a week old egg salad sandwich from a truck stop. So ice anglers have three options.
If you find a bait shop with good spawn, it's bound to be costly. It's easier and more economical to order good skein online from a company like Pro-Cure. They cure thousands of pounds of fresh eggs annually.
The best option is to fish streams in fall to harvest a few female trout or salmon and cure your own eggs for the ice season. Each type of salmon and trout egg, whether from Chinook salmon, coho salmon, steelhead, or brown trout, has its own positive and negative attributes. I like to have some of each spawn available to fish.
Once good eggs are harvested, preserve them with a commercial product like Pro-Cure Wizard Egg Cure, or a homemade borax cure. Some anglers further spice things up by adding Jell-O mix, Kool Aid, brown sugar, garlic, and other spices. Label each package of cured eggs by identifying the type of eggs, date harvested, and the preserve used to cure them. Cured eggs can be kept in the freezer for more than a year. I defrost the eggs and tie spawn sacs for each outing since spawn sacs don't freeze well.
Using various colored meshing also is important. The best colors are orange, pink, chartreuse, blue, and white. Tie spawn sacs in several different sizes, from tiny sacs containing 4 or 5 eggs, to sacs the size of a nickel and a quarter. Color, size, and scent preferences become apparent seasonally, as well as daily.
I always have ready several medium-action jigging rods and reels spooled with 6-pound monofilament — plus tip-ups, and plenty of Automatic Fisherman rigs. Jigging combos work for back bouncing jigs and bait in areas with moderate current. The best jigs are tinsel jigs and marabou jigs with a good hook like Northland's Bug-A-Boo Finesse Jig.
I use jigs in the 1/16- to 1/4-ounce range and usually add a small spawn sac, waxworms, or a minnow to the jig for scent. Let the current carry the jig downstream. Once the jig hits bottom, sweep the rod up a foot and immediately drop the rod tip back and release line, allowing the jig to drift downstream a few more feet. Then hold the jig in the current for several minutes before letting it sweep farther downstream. Continue this until the jig no longer sweeps farther downstream. Most strikes occur when the jig's drifting downstream or being held in place.
Tip-ups excel when targeting brown trout in eddies and any other slow-current spots where multiple lines can be spread out. Set some baits just under the ice and others farther down in the water column. Add just enough weight to suspend the bait at the desired depth, but so that it still swings freely in current.
In slack water spots, I use a #10 treble hook nicked just behind the dorsal fin of either a medium golden roach, a large fathead minnow, or a lake shiner — or I use a small chunk of skein. Skein emits more scent than loose eggs, which makes it a better choice than spawn sacs in slack water or stained water. In current, I prefer a single #6 Owner SSW bait hook or a Lazer Sharp Octopus — the L1 in red or black. I use either a lip-hooked minnow or a spawn sac for bait.
Several tip-up refinements increase catch ratios when targeting line-shy trout. First, select a tip-up with a shaft and spool that spin freely. A trout is going to drop the bait if it feels resistance. I use Frabill Big Foot Classic tip-ups, loading the spool with about 150 feet of 20-pound Dacron line as backing. Steelhead can instantly strip 100 feet of line and make a tip-up spindle look like a blur. The thin diameter of the Dacron allows more line on the reel and means less current drag on the line, helping to keep the bait in the target zone.
At the terminal end, I tie on a #10 swivel and a 4- to 6-foot leader of 6- or 8-pound fluorocarbon. Then I space 2 to 3 tiny lead shot above the hook, beginning with one about 6 inches up, another 12 inches up, and the last shot 18 inches above the hook.
The most popular auto-hook setting rigger is the Automatic Fisherman, which consists of a rod holder, a release arm, and a strike trigger. Place a medium-action jigging rod in the rod holder. Raise the release arm and bend the rod tip down far enough to secure the tip guide to the triggering pin. Finally, run the line across the strike trigger and put the bait down the hole. When a fish takes the bait, the slightest pressure on the line trips the strike trigger. The rod snaps to attention and sets the hook. With the rod still in the holder, the fish can run off line under pressure from the drag until you get to the rod.
I use a variety of riggings to keep baits close to the bottom. The most common consist of three-way rigging or some form of sliprigging. With a three-way swivel rig, keep the dropper line to the weight at about 3 to 6 inches. The drop line should be of a slightly lighter break strength than the leader or mainline, so you can break it off when it's snagged, and not lose the entire rigging. Use just enough weight to hold the rig on the bottom, a few feet downstream from the hole.
The best sinkers in snaggy spots are slinky styles or another type of snagless sinker. An alternative is to run a short dropper tied to a swivel running freely on the mainline just above the swivel connect to the leader. Use various sized split shot on the running line to get the bait down.
With any of the bottoms-up approaches, I often use a floating jighead instead of a plain hook to keep the bait off the bottom. Or I might go with a Lil' Corky, or a Spin-N-Glo, or a 3/4-inch cork float in front of the hook. Or use mini styrofoam floats in each spawn sac to give them enough buoyancy to ride just above the bottom on a plain hook. I run a standard 4-foot leader to begin, but also experiment with leader length. If you're in a key trout-travel area, there's also likely a key distance back from below the hole. Could be 4 feet, but might also be 7 feet.
I set tip-ups and the Automatic Fisherman perpendicular to shore to create a broad scent trail downstream, beginning at the top end of holes, to draw fish upstream if possible. If fish don't move upstream, I gradually move baits into the center of holes or to other key areas. Finally, I search the back end of holes. All the while, I'm also experimenting with bait changes, including size and color changes. Consider too that spawn loses its scent potency after being in the water for an hour or so. Switch baits often.
Standing on the topside of an isolated stretch of frozen river, with a jig rod bent deep into the handle and a 20-pound trout imposing its will below, the 6-pound line stretched thin, everything else fades as you focus on the grand battle. At the hole the fish becomes a square peg, using the current to make it difficult to slide them out of the hole. Finally, on the ice the fish are every bit as beautiful as they are coming from open water. And back they go to fight another day.
Steve Ryan, Des Plaines, Illinois, is a frequent and long-time contributor to In-Fisherman publications and serves as a field editor appearing on In-Fisherman's Ice Fishing Guide television. Ryan further notes that because of the current, fishing Great Lakes tributary streams can be risky at times. To get started you might consider fishing with a guide like Brad Bricco (reeladdictionguideservice.com).