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Indiana's Winter Trout-Fishing Options

Indiana's Winter Trout-Fishing Options

From big browns in Lake Michigan to strong steelhead trout in the St. Joseph River, Hoosier anglers have great fishing opportunities this month and beyond! (February 2009)

Russ Schoonveld from Brook lifts a big cold-weather brown trout, which he caught while trolling a crankbait through the warmwater discharge near Gary Light. Photo by Tom Berg.

Hoosier anglers who are interested in doing a little trout fishing might think that they need to make a trip out West to the famed trout streams of Montana, Wyoming or Colorado before wetting a line. If steelhead trout is their quarry, maybe the legendary steelhead rivers of Oregon or Washington State will come to mind. Thinking about big brown trout? A trip down south to the White River in Arkansas might be what you are thinking about.

Although those are all good options, trout fishermen from our state don't need to travel far from home to experience some fabulous trout fishing. With high gas prices and inflated airfares being what they are today, fishing for some homegrown trout might just make more sense than ever.

But what options are available for Indiana trout fishermen? When is the best time to pursue trout in our home waters? Where are the best places and how big are the fish? World-class trout fishing awaits interested anglers right here in northern Indiana, so read on to find out more!

When it comes to trout fishing, Lake Michigan is definitely one of the best places in the state to wet a line. There are browns, lakers and steelhead swimming around in our great lake's depths, and they can get big -- really big! Brown trout are the most accessible right now, and some of the best fishing for browns will be taking place from now through the end of April. Shore-fishermen get in on the bulk of the brown trout action first, but as soon as the harbors become ice-free, large numbers of boaters will join in on the fun, too! These are not the 12-inch trout that you might expect to catch from a Western stream, either. Lake Michigan brown trout average 3 to 4 pounds each, and many push the scales past 10 pounds. There is always the chance that you will tie into a new state record, too, like the 29.03-pound brown trout caught near Whiting in 2006.

Although not native to Lake Michigan, brown trout have been stocked by all of the lake's border states over the years (Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan). Because of limited hatchery space and other factors, however, Indiana stopped stocking brown trout into our portion of the lake more than 25 years ago. Even so, plenty of browns stocked by other states naturally migrate down to Indiana's warmer waters on their own, and we still enjoy excellent brown trout fishing during the cold weather months.

A new chapter in Indiana trout fishing began in 2002, though, when Indiana biologists were able to negotiate a fish trade with Illinois and we started receiving brown trout fingerlings to stock in our own waters again. In that year, 35,000 brown trout were stocked by Indiana biologists at Whiting Park along the lakefront.


Since 2002, brown trout have been stocked in Indiana every year in an effort to create more and better angling opportunities for local fishermen. The number of stocked trout has varied from as few as 35,000 to as many as 46,238 -- and the stocking site has changed yearly to spread the fish out to as many anglers as possible, too. The first fish were stocked in Whiting, but then the next year, the fish were stocked in the harbor at Michigan City. Each year, the stocking site alternated between Whiting and Michigan City in an attempt to spread the fish out.

Things changed a bit in 2008, however. According to Brian Breidert, one of the Lake Michigan fisheries biologists for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the brown trout that were stocked in the summer of 2008 did not go to Whiting or Michigan City. "We stocked them at the Port of Indiana," he said. "We had a total of only 22,000 browns. That's fewer than usual, but that's what we were able to get from Illinois.

"Our plan was to stock the browns in two different places," continued Breidert. "We were originally going to stock them off Buffington (at East Chicago) and at the Port of Indiana (at Portage). But when the number of fish that we received was only 22,000, we went ahead and just stocked them at the port."

That is an interesting change, and one that is sure to benefit anglers who fish out of Burns Waterway and around the Port of Indiana.

"We know that not all of the brown trout are going to stay in the port," added Breidert. "Many of those fish are going to move out of there, but down the road they are going to provide some shore-fishing opportunities inside the Port of Indiana at the public access site."

Boaters are not allowed to fish inside the port, but shore-fishing anglers can park their vehicles and fish at the DNR's access site whenever weather conditions allow.

Winter and early spring are the best times to fish inside the port because the sheltered harbor there stays warmer than the surrounding lake water. This attracts both baitfish and brown trout alike.

"We know that fishermen do well there in the early spring because it is protected," Breidert said. "When the ice goes out in the spring, there may be floating icebergs out on the main lake, but shore-fishermen can still access that area and are pretty successful in March."

February can also be good, as long as there is open water to fish.

The 22,000 browns that were stocked last summer won't contribute to the fishery inside the port this winter, but by next year, they might. It will depend on how much forage is available, how fast the fish grow, and how many of them stay in the area. Since there are usually good numbers of both yellow perch and round gobies around the nearshore Portage area, the browns should have plenty to eat.

There are quite a few other places to pursue bruiser brown trout besides the Port of Indiana. Shore-fishermen will often congregate along the pier at Washington Park in Michigan City, along the rocks at the old Amoco Oil plant in Whiting, near the warmwater discharge at the Stateline generating station in Hammond and along the break wall at Pastrick Marina in East Chicago, just to name a few of the more popular spots.

Boaters have many more options than their shore-bound friends, but they must wait for the winter ice to recede before they can launch their boats. "Anglers fishing out of East Chicago generally get out earlier than other boaters," commented Breidert. "In some years, they are out as early as February. When they get out that early, they are successful, and the good fishing continues

into March and April."

Boaters will try their luck at places where there is warm water, too, just like the shore-anglers. However, they can get to spots where there is no public shore access -- like inside the Inland Steel shipping canal. Another hotspot for boaters is the warmwater discharge at the U.S. Steel property near the Gary Light. Each spring, some giant browns come from these two areas.

Since brown trout are mainly fish-eaters, it is best to target them with baits that resemble small baitfish. Silver spoons that look like alewives or shad are good, but small crankbaits, stick baits and diving minnow lures are even better. These diving baits do a great job of imitating shad, smelt, alewives and other small minnows, and the browns just love them.

Almost any lure color will entice a brown trout at one time or another, but some of the best colors are silver, gold, white, green and various combinations of these. Chartreuse and firetiger can also be extremely productive. Browns are notoriously finicky, so be sure to try different colors until you find what the fish want. Sometimes the hot color is very specific, and nothing else will do!

Trolling anglers and shore-fisher­men will both use spoons and crankbaits when targeting browns, but live baits (or natural baits) are generally the domain of the shore-fishermen. Frozen alewives, dead smelt, live night crawlers, minnows, cut squid and salmon eggs are the most popular natural baits among brown trout hunters, and these offerings can be fished on the bottom or suspended under a float. At warmwater discharge sites, these baits can also be bounced along the bottom in the current with the addition of some split shot.

Lake Michigan is a great place to catch brown trout. It is even a greater place to catch steelhead. But in the early spring, the big lake takes a back seat to places like the St. Joseph River when it comes to catching big numbers of adult steelhead.

Steelhead trout leave Lake Michigan to spawn when they are mature. They enter the river or creek where they were born (or stocked, as the case may be) and then prepare for spawning. Once their spawning duties are complete, they return to the lake to continue their lives.

Indiana currently stocks two different strains of steelhead into Lake Michigan tributaries, and those fish normally begin their spawning runs at different times of the year. Skamania-strain steelies are a summer-run fish typically beginning their spawning run in June or July. Michigan-strain steelheads are a winter-run fish, and they don't usually begin their spawning run until wintertime.

Although these two strains of steelhead begin their runs at different times of the year, it is a curious fact that both actually spawn at roughly the same time. That time is in the early spring -- usually during March or April.

Skamania-strain and Michigan-strain steelhead may spawn at similar times, but they are fairly easy to tell apart when you catch one. Skamanias are very long and slender and tend to get quite a bit larger than their Michigan-strain cousins. A typical adult Skamania might average 8 to 10 pounds, but fish pushing 12 to 15 pounds are certainly not uncommon. The Michigan-strain fish, on the other hand, are usually shorter and more "football-shaped" than Skamanias. Michigan strains average 5 to 6 pounds, and a big one is 10 pounds.

Since the St. Joseph River is a tributary to Lake Michigan, big-lake biologists like Brian Breidert also manage the steelhead populations that use the river during the course of their lives. They stock the different strains of steelhead in the river and monitor their populations.

"In the spring of 2008, we stocked right around 160,000 Skamania steelhead in the St. Joe, and about another 35,000 Michigan-strain steelhead," reported Breidert. "We also stocked more fall-release Skamanias in October. We stocked about 80,000 Skamanias then (no Michigan-strain fish).

"The fish coming back this winter will be from the year-class of 2006," continued Breidert. "We should see a good run this year, as long as they grow. Otherwise, we'll see a very large run next year."

In 2006, the DNR stocked a total of 194,210 Skamania-strain steelhead in the St. Joe, along with 40,000 Michigan-strain steelhead. So, there should be plenty of fish waiting to return to the river for the 2009 spawn.

Although the usual scenario for spawning steelhead is for the Skamanias to return in the summer and Michigan fish to return in the winter, it didn't happen that way during the 2007-2008 spawning run.

"The Skamanias did not want to come into the hot water of the river during the summer of 2007," Breidert said. "They just decided to stay out in the lake and continue eating. They did not come in until March of 2008!"

Although the height of the steelhead run is usually in March, last year the height of the run was in April. A number of factors were likely to blame for the late-arriving steelhead last year. One of those reasons was the cold spring.

"We didn't even start seeing fish in 2008 until we got to the third week in March," exclaimed Breidert. "Normally, the bulk of the fish show up by the end of March, but in 2008, the bulk of the fish didn't show up until the third week in April. We were still counting fish in May!"

Once the fish arrive and begin to prepare for the spawn, there are several places where anglers traditionally fish for them. The Twin Branch dam in Mishawaka is definitely one of the most popular spots, if not the No. 1 spot. Since the dam has no fish ladders around it, the steelhead can go no farther. Many fish will mill around the area for quite some time before giving up and finding a suitable spawning area downstream.

Both boaters and shore-fishermen concentrate their efforts around the dam. Shore-fishermen must fish where there are no obstructions like trees, logjams and other obstacles, and the riverbank adjacent to the dam on the south shore is fairly clear. "There is a lot of shoreline accessibility there," agreed Breidert. Anglers on shore stake out their fishing areas, and boaters out in the main river flow anchor their boats and do the same.

Other good spots include the Frank Zappia access site located just downstream of the Twin Branch dam, and other favorites in South Bend like Leeper Park and Keller Park. "Leeper Park is right downtown," explained Breidert, "and Keller is located toward the waste treatment plant, where I-80/90 crosses the river."

There is shore access at both places, but there are some restrictions on fishing from shore. You can wade into the water and fish while wading, but you can't actually fish from shore. "Leeper Park is one of those places that has restrictions," Breidert said.

Steelhead on the St. Joe can be caught on a wide range of natural and artificial baits. Live night crawlers, beemoths, minnows, cut squid, salmon eggs, raw shrimp and sardine

bags are just some of the natural baits that anglers use with success here. Good artificial lures include flies, spinners, spoons and crankbaits. One lure or bait will often outproduce others, so it pays to experiment to see which one is hot on any given day.

Lure color can be extremely important, too, so be prepared to experiment with different colors. Fluorescent red or orange is always a hot steelhead color, and many anglers always start there. Silver/orange, silver/blue and orange/black are also good choices. Pink/white is another excellent choice. After you test a few colors and lures, the steelhead will likely tell you what they prefer.

Whether you are a first-time trout fisherman interested in catching your first Hoosier trout, or you are an experienced Great Lakes angler looking to beat your personal best, now is the time to get ready and head for the lake or the river. Big browns and high-flying steelhead are out there waiting for you!

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