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Ransford: Early Ice Fishing Tactics for Trout

How-To: Early Ice Fishing Tactics for Trout

By Britton Ransford

While frigid temperatures and dustings of snow mark the end of the open water fishing season for some, it signals the beginning of another exciting ice fishing season for others.

Previously a sport dominated by anglers in the Midwest and Canada, ice fishing in the inland Pacific Northwest has boomed in recent years thanks to its reputation as a fun winter activity for the entire family, as well as the vast number of accessible lakes in the region.

Northwest lakes offer plenty of hard water game fish opportunities, including yellow perch, walleye, and other schooling fish, but there’s also plenty of trout species ripe for the catching — and these salmonids should be at the top of any ice anglers’ target list. Ice fishing for trout, however, is different than other species, but it can be just as plentiful.

Using the correct gear when ice fishing for trout

While not impossible to use when ice fishing, a typical 6- to 8-foot trout rod is likely to be a nuisance relatively quickly on the ice, as you’ll be sitting on a bucket most of the day. Instead, an affordable, 30- to 36-inch ice fishing rod with light- to medium-action is plenty sufficient for nearly any type of ice fishing adventure.

Spool your spinning reel with 4-pound fluorocarbon line and you’ll be in good shape for anything that bites, but especially trout. If you’re concerned about your line, there’s many fluorocarbon options that are designed for ice fishing that will handle the conditions better, but that’s simply personal preference.

In addition to your rod, reel, and line, you’ll want all the ice fishing staples, including an ice auger, as well as a bucket, a rope, ice scoop, warm, layered clothing, and a sled to tow it all onto the ice with you — or, even better, a snow machine.

Locating trout through the ice in early winter

To catch the fish, you first need to find the fish. On ice, that can be tricky, but trout, including rainbow, cutthroat, and browns, all cold-water species, are predictable in the winter months.

Trout crave cool, highly oxygenated water. Thus, as the lake turns over, they move into cold, shallow water, while panfish, including yellow perch, evacuate the shallows and head into deeper drop-offs. The trout’s migration into shallow water is ideal for ice anglers, as you can target them in flats as shallow as 4- to 8-feet. This is ideal for early season ice fishing, as it’s just short walk from the shoreline, an area that typically features the safest ice on the lake.

Experienced ice anglers will troll during the open water season to scout areas on the lake that will inhabit trout in the winter months. To locate these trout-rich areas, use electronic depth finders to look for areas with large, shallow flats, between 4- and 20-feet, and drop-offs adjacent to weed lines. It’s common for trout to cruise these drop-off edges and seek forage along the weed lines.

Once you’ve settled on a spot to fish for the day, it’s time to start drilling. Trout, though, are easily spooked, therefore moving around and drilling holes throughout the day can be counterproductive. Instead, pre-drill your holes early in the morning. Using your ice auger, begin drilling holes close to shore in 3- to 6-feet of water, drilling into deeper water every 5- to 10-feet until you see weeds. Once you’ve found the weed line, begin pre-drilling holes from the weed line into deeper water in a Z-pattern to cover more ice.

If the lake you’re fishing doesn’t feature many weeds, you’ll instead look for large, flat regions with muddy lake floors. Use the same technique, drilling in a Z-pattern, into deeper water, as later in the day, the trout will become less active and move into these areas, suspending themselves in the middle of the water column chasing small prey.

Selecting the best tackle for targeting trout through the ice

Trout, being the apex predator in most lakes, will cruise the weed lines looking to aggressively find any snack available to them, thus it’s imperative that you have reactionary type baits that emulate a dying baitfish to entice them to bite.

Small spoons, such as the Mack’s Lure Sonic BaitFish (1/16 oz. to 1/6 oz.) and the Mack’s Lure Hum Dinger (1/8 oz.), tipped with artificial pink maggots, meal worms or corn will do the trick — and don’t be afraid to add scent to the lures and bait, as well. When aggressively jigged, these spoons will create flutter and vibration, attracting trout from further distances.

If you’re not having luck with spoons, it likely means the trout aren’t as aggressive. Instead, use the smallest bait possible to reach your target depth. Try a Mack’s Lure Glo Hook (#6), tipped with maggots, corn or meal worms, and a little split shot to get your presentation to the bottom.

Don’t be afraid to mix up your colors often. Begin with natural colors, including silvers and whites, but be quick to shift to brighter colors, including chartreuses, reds, and oranges if they’re not taking your offering. The trout will tell you what they want, so be versatile in your tackle selection and change often if they’re simply not biting.

Effective jigging techniques for targeting trout through the ice

When fishing closest to the weed line, make sure your presentation is hugging the bottom, typically 8- to 12-inches from the lake floor. Drop to the bottom, then a couple cranks up and you’re in the strike zone.

There’s no true jigging cadence that’s tried and true. Really, it’s whatever you feel comfortable with. One thing that is for certain, however, is that your jigging cadence needs to be consistent and in rhythm. If you’re erratic, the trout will have a tough time attacking your presentation — and we’re in the business of making it easier for trout to bite your lure, not harder.

The only exception to rhythmic jigging is, occasionally, dropping your presentation to the bottom to drum up some silt and create a disturbance. Trout, in shallower water, are constantly feeding on prey that burrow in the sand, thus anything out of the ordinary is sure to catch their eye, especially from further distances. Alternatively, on really slow days, you can try dead sticking, just a few inches off the bottom, meaning you’re doing nothing with your presentation (tipped with a worm or bait) except holding it still.

Later in the day, when the trout move deeper, you’re going to follow them, as you’ve already pre-drilled holes in this deeper water. Fish to these suspended trout, at least six feet from the top of the water column, using the same, rhythmic jigging cadence as before.

Practice safety at all times when ice fishing

While ice fishing is a perfect activity for the entire family, it can quickly go bad if you’re not prepared. Use common sense, dress warm and, especially early in the season, always check the ice conditions before venturing out. To do so, drill your first hole, then measure its thickness. Ice 4-inches and thicker is safe for small groups, but be sure to spread out.

At the end of the day, just being out on the ice with friends and family is a blast. Hooking into some trout on super light gear, however, is the prize. Hopefully, by using the tips here, you’ll be well on your way to a successful ice fishing season targeting trout.

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