January 06, 2022
Trout represent one of the most unique winter fishing opportunities throughout the ice belt. Unlike most typical hardwater targets—especially walleyes, pike, and panfish—trout sustain very high activity levels beneath the ice.
Indeed, as a group of cold-water species, trout thrive in chilly water temperatures and feed reliably through the winter months. Anglers can take advantage of this simple fact of biology to add some spice to their ice season.
TROUT TWO WAYS
Ice-fishing options for trout in the Midwest come in two basic flavors: Great Lakes and inland. On big water—home of big trout—sustained cold weather is required to provide safe ice in the harbors and near-shore areas where winter trout can be found. In recent years, ice fishing for big browns and steelhead has become all the rage in many of Wisconsin’s harbors dotting the Lake Michigan shoreline. On Lake Superior, when conditions permit, anglers venture into deep water to chase giant lake trout with heavy tackle. Always work through a reputable outfitter when heading offshore on the Great Lakes to help ensure your safe return.
Stocked inland fisheries offer another, perhaps more accessible, opportunity to target hardwater trout using conventional ice fishing tackle and equipment. Across the Upper Midwest, state natural resources agencies frequently stock deep, clear lakes with trout—especially rainbows and brookies—in the fall and sometimes through winter. Some of these lakes receive "broodstock" fish.
These are larger, mature trout that have been raised in hatcheries for a number of years to provide milt and eggs as part of trout-stocking programs. These put-and-take fisheries offer anglers the chance to tangle with a number of fish and also enjoy some fresh trout on the grill during the cold winter months. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on these more accessible inland fisheries rather than big water.
Knowledge is the first key to hardwater trout success on inland waters. Start with online research using the free resources provided by your state natural resources agency. For example, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources posts the results of its annual stocking activities in an easily searchable database.
Here, anglers can search on a lake-by-lake basis in each county across the state to locate bodies of water that are stocked with trout. Often, you can even see what the average size of the fish were at the time of stocking.
Add to this knowledge by having a conversation with your local fisheries manager. He or she can help fill in another part of the puzzle: stocking dates. Fish stocked in the spring are frequently gone by winter. Instead, look for fall stockings—especially late in the season—to provide quality winter angling.
Timing your trout adventure during ice-fishing season is the next important consideration. Although trout are usually active below the ice, their general willingness to eat is a function of dissolved oxygen levels.
In ice-capped lakes, dissolved oxygen is high during the first-ice period but declines throughout the winter as the frozen surface prevents the liquid water from exchanging gases with the atmosphere above. The decrease in dissolved oxygen can become even more pronounced when heavy snow covers the ice, which leads to the death and decomposition of aquatic vegetation—a process that consumes oxygen dissolved in the water. As such, hardwater trout action is frequently highest early in the ice season and can be sustained over long periods when snow cover on the ice remains limited.
READ MORE: Game & Fish Ice Fishing Gear Buyer's Guide
With insights on where and when to fish, it’s finally time to hit the ice. Interestingly, fishing for inland, stocked trout is not necessarily the high-precision, "spot-on-the-spot" angling game that we often play for walleyes or panfish. As such, high-definition contour maps of stocked trout lakes are, in general, not essential.
Stocked trout are roamers, often covering large stretches of shoreline or even making laps around the perimeter of smaller lakes as they hunt for their next meal. I tend to catch more trout within 100 feet of shore than I do farther out into the lake. Small bays, shoreline bends or near-shore obstructions like fallen trees can help concentrate trout—or at least make them linger for longer periods of time—as they meander. Water depth and break lines don’t seem to be as important as proximity to shore and shoreline cover.
Fishing for hardwater trout involves using similar tactics you might use for walleyes. However, there’s a bit more emphasis on waiting for constantly roving schools of trout to find you and your offerings. Tip-ups or other set-line devices work well. Bait them with walleye-sized fathead minnows and ensure that fish can easily pull line out after the strike, as resistance will cause trout to drop a bait rapidly.
Remember that in clear water, trout can see baits from a long distance. Setting baits about halfway down the water column, regardless of depth, is a good approach. Fathead minnows under a slip-bobber can also work well.
If you’re in the jigging mood, rattling spoons and other flashy presentations can be effective. Usually these are tipped with live bait, like minnows or wax worms. Unlike jigging for walleyes, trout will frequently appear out of nowhere to attack your spoon—far different from your typical cat-and-mouse approach to eliciting bites from lethargic warm-water fish.
CHANGE IT UP
Ice fishing for trout has become one of the highlights of my hardwater season. Consider giving it a try this year. I’m confident you’ll appreciate the aggressive fish, beautiful colors and, above all, the change of pace as we fish our way through the winter months.
Inland waters to satisfy salmonid fans.
Many Upper Midwest lakes and ponds are stocked with trout in late fall to provide winter ice fisheries. Your state’s natural resources department and local fisheries managers can help dial in locations to chase hardwater brookies, browns and rainbows. Here are some quality options to get you started.
MINERAL WEALTH | Crosby, Minn.
The Crosby Mine Pits, just north of famous Mille Lacs Lake, are stocked with brook, rainbow and brown trout throughout the year. Due to the depth of these former iron mine pits, trout survive—and are catchable—all year.
TWIN CITIES TREASURES | Chaska and Shakopee, Minn.
Courthouse Lake and Quarry Lake near the Twin Cities are well-known hardwater trout fisheries. They are heavily pressured because of their proximity to so many anglers. However, this accessibility makes them perfect for fishing with young anglers.
WILDERNESS WONDERS | Ely, Minn.
For an adventure, many Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness lakes host tremendous winter lake trout fishing. Accessibility is tough, as motorized vehicles aren’t allowed in the wilderness area. A long hike—and possibly a weekend-long winter camping trip—may be required.
NORTHWOODS NOTABLES | Seeley and New Auburn, Wis.
Numerous smaller lakes and ponds in Northwest Wisconsin receive annual allocations of broodstock trout, especially brookies and rainbows. Some favorites include Silverthorn Lake near Hayward and Bass and Hennemann lakes north of Eau Claire.
WOLVERINE WATERS | Roscommon and Walloon Lake, Mich.
Opportunities abound across much of Michigan, but Higgins Lake in central-lower Michigan is one good option, as is Walloon Lake roughly an hour north. Many smaller Upper Peninsula lakes are also solid for icing some trout. Use the Michigan DNR’s fish stocking database to narrow down choices.