Trout on Ice Part I: Brook Trout, Rainbows, and Shallow Water Browns

June 8, 2010
By Jason Wimbiscus

Article By Jim Paige

Part 1: Brook Trout, Rainbows, and Shallow Water Browns


The following information is not the only way to locate and catch various species of trout, but it is a collection of methods I’ve used extensively and successfully in my over 50 years of ice fishing experience. I won’t try to cover every aspect of the sport, only a few which seem to work time and again for me and in various waters. Most of my ice fishing these days is done in the New England states, but I have fished all over this country, including Alaska, where we once lived for a few years.
I fish for rainbow and other stocked trout pretty much in the same way these days. I think the biggest key to my success when after these fish is to keep my baits small and to target these fish when they are feeding the heaviest. To me, that means being out there and all set-up to fish well before daylight. Stocked and even wild brook and brown trout tend to begin feeding right at first light each morning and in fairly shallow water.  Rocky points that jut out into the lake (or pond) are excellent places to place out a string of baited tip-ups or even jigging holes. I like to get all my holes drilled or cut long before daylight, so as to allow that area to “calm down” some before we are actually fishing. Small, live minnows work well for bait on tip-ups. I like to have my tip-ups rigged with fairly light mono leaders and usually set no more than 6 or eight feet down, with but a tiny split shot or snap swivel for weight. This allows for the greatest of bait action and natural appearance. The light, clear leaders also are difficult for the fish to spot or shy away from. Later in the day these fish will move in to deeper waters, though often still cruising just under the ice. We seldom set lines deep for trout, except for lake trout.
top: We landed this nice brown trout in a shallow cove shortly after daybreak, using a small, live minnow.

bottom: As you can see, this rainbow was landed very near shore, off a rocky
point.


When fishing for rainbows, whether wild or stocked, we switch over to small pieces of earthworm and they are but lightly hooked on thin, wire hooks, usually in size #6 or #8. These are also normally set at only 5 to 6 feet down and most often in very shallow waters, usually near the entrance or exit streams or creeks. We avoid the actual flow of water or current though, instead setting up on the edges. Be especially careful of thin ice at these locations!
Another excellent place to set-up for rainbows is on any sandy bottom, such as a public beach, in waters no deeper than 8 feet. Some might argue that “powerbaits” work well, but my experience shows that a natural bait (like an earthworm) will outfish the fake baits 5-to-1. Just keep your offering small and avoid jobbing the baits on a hook. Make it look as natural as possible. We generally like to hook the small piece of worm just once and leave a lively tail showing. For whatever reason, I like using gold hooks. We often keep our tip-ups set no more than 8 to 10 feet apart. The rainbows generally arrive as a “school” of anywhere from 2 to 12 fish and I like to cover a small area where I feel the fish will pass through. If you miss the strike on one line, often as not, you’ll immediately get a hit on a very nearby tip-up.
These fish won’t hang on to the bait for very long so don’t walk casually over and expect the fish to run out, then swallow the bait. The fish will likely be gone 2 out of three times, even if you sprint to the hole as soon as the flag goes up. I like to sit in the very center of my tip-up spread and jig; close enough to the tip-ups so I can hear when one goes up. I then immediately dash to the tip-up and grab it and set the hook as I’m going by! You’ll soon see why this works, once you try it a few times. These fish are hitting on instinct most often, not because they feed on earthworms in midwinter! They’ll usually drop the bait within seconds. Other baits that work are a single salmon egg, mealworm, or corn kernel. Be sure to check on the legality of all baits before fishing in your state.
For this reason, jigging can be an especially deadly method on winter rainbows. I sit on a stool, poised by the hole, with a tiny bobber hooked to my light mono line. I either have a tiny wet fly or small piece of worm for an offering, again, set just a few feet under the ice. At the slightest movement of that bobber I do what I refer to as a “straight lift” to set the hook. Instead of trying to battle the fish with the tiny reel, I simply apply gentle, steady pressure by backing slowly away from the hole. The fish will eventually land itself, when it reaches the top of the hole, by jumping out, on to the ice. For this reason, I like to use a 10-inch auger blade, when cutting my holes. During extreme cold, this also keeps the holes from icing-in solid so quickly.
The next important thing to know about ice fishing for rainbows is to be there super early. Rainbows will often begin hitting well before daylight. My wife and I have limited out, more often than not, before it is ever fully daylight. The fish often start hitting by 4:00-4:30 AM! We wear headlamps when setting-up and even when fishing. Browns and brookies are more apt to wait until just daybreak to begin hitting, but not the ‘bows. Our winter fishing trips for these fish are generally done by about 9:00 AM.
top: This two-person VT limit of 1.5-pound rainbows was taken before daybreak very near an exit stream, in the shallows of a deep, northern lake, late last winter.
Winter rainbows are usually of very high quality, as table fare.

bottom: This is a classic male/female pair, landed from the same hole, just minutes apart.


Often as not, we meet the majority of ice fishermen as they are just walking out, ….and we are leaving for the day. It’s no wonder to me that they seldom catch any rainbows. Almost all are using live minnows for bait and most are fishing way too deep and get there way too late for the days’ action. I’ve even run in to folks using whole nightcrawlers on tip-ups for bait. Not surprisingly, they catch few if any rainbows. A whole nightcrawler, even a small one, will supply us with enough bait to set-out 4 or 5 tip-ups.
If jigging is your only option, such as when live baits are outlawed, stick to very small presentations (such as tiny nymphs or other small wet-flies) and keep movement of your fly or jig to a minimum. Perch may like a lot of action,… but brown, rainbow and brook trout do not, for the most part. Fish tend to “slow down” both their general activities and their feeding, during the cold waters of winter. Adapt by slowing down your presentations.



Author Bio

Jim Paige is a well known New England outdoorsman, author and outdoor guide. He has acted as a representative and prostaffer for numerous nationally known outdoor-related companies and has been published in most national and regional publications over the years, as well as being a popular seminar speaker.

Jim lives with his wife Sherry in a small village in the mountains of Central Vermont and still is a very active hunter and fisherman. He and his wife have hunted and fished all over the country and especially enjoy ice fishing together each winter all over New England. They operate a small scent company called Ridge-Runner Scents (hunting and fishing scent products) out of their home in Middlesex, Vermont. They moved to Vermont from Alaska in 1984.

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