January 21, 2021
By Matt Crawford
As deer seasons end and the holiday season passes, outdoorsy folks around the region have two choices: Get a 90-day supply of good whiskey and hunker down for the winter or take up ice fishing.
In broad, general terms, ice fishing has two distinct camps, each loosely assimilated with the type of species being targeted. There are panfish aficionados (and, yes, we’ll put walleyes, northern pike and pickerel in that camp) and there are trout hunters. While Canada, a few places in the Rockies and a number of Great Lakes states rightfully boast of exceptional ice fishing spots for trout, the Northeast is home to hundreds—if not thousands—of water bodies that provide opportunity for winter-bound anglers to chase lakers, rainbows, browns and brookies. And some landlocked salmon, too. We should mention that.
As we look at some of the hardwater hotspots around the region, let the tale of Thomas Knight serve as inspiration. In late February of 2020—a few short weeks before the COVID pandemic turned the world upside down—Knight put a 37.65-pound lake trout on the ice of northern New Hampshire’s Big Diamond Pond. That laker, according to multiple sources, is the largest trout ever caught and recorded in New England.
Knight’s record might never be broken, but there are plenty of other waterbodies where northeastern anglers can still have a great time catching fish through the ice. Here are a few worth considering.
The Nutmeg State does an admirable job of stocking some of its waters with trout, and on the western edge of the state there are two ponds that should be on every ice anglers’ shortlist: Mohawk Pond in Litchfield County and Black Pond near Meriden.
"Those waters have a very remote, big-woods feel," said Brian Eltz, a senior fisheries biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. "We manage for brook trout in both those ponds. We wanted to give them a Maine or Adirondack appeal."
Stocker brook trout are in the 14- to 16-inch range, and both ponds have broodstock brookies from the state hatchery system that can tip the scales at more than 3 pounds. Mohawk, the farther north of the two, is one of the first lakes in Connecticut to freeze, often by early January. Part of that is due to its size: just 16 acres.
"People drive from a long distance to fish it," Eltz says.
Live bait, of course, is most productive, but anglers who enjoy jigging for brook trout also find success.
Where to start with Maine? With world-famous wild brook trout and landlocked salmon aplenty, Maine is a trout angler’s paradise in all four seasons. But if you have to narrow it down to one lake to hit in winter?
"We would choose Moosehead," says Emily MacCabe, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. "It’s tough, though, because Maine has hundreds of excellent places to go ice fishing."
The fishing for Moosehead’s trout—brookies and lakers, along with landlocked salmon—is robust enough to support a small guiding industry. Many of those guides are based near the town of Greenville, on the south end of the 40-mile-long lake, where there are plenty of lodging options.
Lake trout (the locals call them togue) are the prime targets on Moosehead, with 10-pounders fairly common and fish pushing 15 pounds not unheard of. Part of the reason quality fish abound is that Maine anglers spent a good deal of time in the last 15 years thinning out overabundant smaller lakers from Moosehead.
Tip-up fishing is a must here, but jigging works well, too, especially with anything resembling a smelt.
Top trout waters in the Granite State tend to be where the people aren’t—the extreme northern tip of the state near the headwaters of the Connecticut River. Case in point: Big Diamond Pond, where Thomas Knight etched his name in the fishing record books.
The Coos County pond isn’t big—just 179 acres—but just north of there are Lake Francis (for browns and rainbows) and First Connecticut Lake, where big lakers are known to prowl.
While live smelt is often the choice in New Hampshire’s northern lakes, anglers there are fond of using big suckers. Real big. Like those you might use as monster pike bait.
If you find yourself in the Pittsburgh area, do yourself a favor and stop by First Lake General Store. If you can’t find it, ask locals where Treats and Treasures is—that’s its former name. Not only do they sell live bait, they have arguably the best homemade fudge in all of New England.
The Adirondack Region of New York suffers much the same fate as Maine: There are so many good lakes and ponds, it’s difficult to pick just one.
One of the old standbys is Lake Colby. The 275-acre lake is just northwest of the town of Saranac Lake and has good numbers of both rainbows and browns, with many fish of both species in the 5-pound class.
Live bait, especially golden shiners, on tip-ups is the key to fishing Colby. The lake also benefits from broodstock stocking of landlocked Atlantic salmon from New York’s DEC hatcheries.
A word of caution: Saranac Lake is often one of the coldest spots in all of the United States in winter, so if you’re venturing there bring a couple pairs of long johns and hand warmers.
The undisputed champion of hardwater trout lakes in Vermont is Lake Willoughby in the Northeast Kingdom. Flanked by Mount Pisgah on one side and Mount Hor on another, Willoughby is a deep glacial lake with wild populations of rainbows and lake trout.
This lake can cough up some real monsters through the ice, too. Consider James Alexander’s 29-pound, 6-ounce laker caught in 1996. That fish stood as a tip-up world record for a number of years.
"Every time a flag goes up on Willoughby there’s a chance it’s a 20-pounder," notes Tony Smith, a fisheries biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. "A trout in that 20-pound class happens once every two or three years there—that’s the allure of the place."
Willoughby’s trout feed almost exclusively on smelt. "It doesn’t seem to matter where on the lake or what the depth of the water is," says Smith. "If you find smelt, you’ll find the trout."
Just north of the town of Lyndon, and not far from Burke Mountain Ski Area, Willoughby has plenty of lodging close by. But nestled in between the two mountains, the big lake feels uniquely wild and remote.
"Watching the sun come up while out on that ice makes you feel like you’re almost in the middle of nowhere," Smith says. "The chance to catch a big fish through the ice with that natural backdrop is like nothing else in the Northeast."