Ice fishing for the big ones…
Those who fish through the ice around Central and Northern Michigan are learning that they can catch trout more easily and more abundantly every year. The state has planted trout in many of larger inland lakes and some of those lakes support good trout populations through natural reproduction.
Ice fishing for trout provides two rather unique benefits. First, this can produce the largest fish of the year, by any method. How else are we going to catch a fish that might weigh 12 to 20 pounds? Second, we simply don’t catch many trout in any other season. The trout lurk so deep in the lakes that we don’t fish anywhere near them.
The best lakes in the Northwest area include Walloon Lake, for rainbows and lakers, Lake Charlevoix for lakers and steelhead, Burt Lake for rainbows and browns, Elk Lake and Torch Lake for lake trout, and Thumb Lake (Lake Louise) for splake. Crooked and Pickerel Lakes deserve at least an honorable mention, with modest populations of brown trout. When (and if) Lake Michigan freezes safely, the bays will also produce some trout with steelhead, browns, lake trout and even coasters (lake run brook trout) available.
The tactics for winter trout fishing are similar to those employed for other fish. The main difference in gear is imposed by the size and strength of these fish. While many a trout is hooked on a wimpy little rod and light line intended for perch, few of those fish are landed. The trout will run the line right off the reel or break the line or something in that range of violence. If you are going to fish for trout through the ice, better have adequate tackle. Forget the wispy line and light rod, these fish are caught on stouter stuff.
Tip-Ups and Slammers
Tip-ups will work well, in some situations. The browns, particularly, often venture into shallow water where the tip-ups can work well. If the water is really deep, however, tip-ups may not work well. In Lake Charlevoix, for instance, there is some current almost everywhere so when you plumb the depths to determine how deep to offer your bait, you will be setting your line way too shallow when the current sweeps your bait off to the side and up off the bottom. Tip-ups with lots of stout line, a leader in the 10-pound bracket and baited with a good-sized blue, gray or golden shiner will attract and catch trout.
For steelhead, found in the river mouth areas of every major river in this area, a special version of a tip-up is often employed and that is the “steelhead slammer”. These gadgets were mostly homemade in the past but they are readily available in tackle shops now. The slammer uses a regular rod and reel with the rod set up in a spring fashion so that when the bait is taken and the release is tripped, the rod springs back to normal, setting the hook and announcing a strike.
The slammers are usually set in fairly shallow water on the flats in a river mouth area and baited with a leadhead jig tipped with wigglers. The fish are often found in water only six to twelve feet deep.
Bobber rigs will also catch trout and many a big trout has been caught on a bobber rig set for walleye or perch. Bobbers are generally only used when the fish are in reasonably shallow water and, even then, a slip bobber is almost always necessary.
The very best winter lure for catching trout is generally a jigging spoon. The big metallic-finish spoons are often the first choice of the ice angler and they are usually tipped with the head half of a medium-sized minnow. Brown trout are often suspended, especially over deep water. They may be close to the bottom in 15 feet of water but they are apt to be in the top 20 feet of water if the depth is over 30 feet.
Unlike walleyes and perch, trout generally like a lively jigging action. While those after walleye are apt to leave their jig motionless for long periods of time, trout anglers like to keep that jig active, giving it a few strong upward bumps from time to time and many small motions in between. I can remember at least a couple of times when I brought the jig to the surface to check the bait and had a trout zoom right under the lure as it came up through the ice. Each time, the jig was dropped right back down there some six or eight feet, jigged a couple of times and wham, a trout hit it hard. While walleyes often take a jig rather softly and may not send much of a strike message, other than a little tap, up the rod, most trout will hit that jig hard, leaving no doubt that you have a trout on the line.
For lakers, the jig should be tipped with a chunk of smelt or perhaps a strip of belly meat off a sucker. Lakers are meat eaters. The big jig should be banged right on the bottom, to attract attention with the little puffs of sand that are produced by that action and then jigged just off the bottom. Lakers will hit it hard and fight well, unencumbered with all that hardware we use to catch them in the summer. On the Lake Michigan bays, lakers are often found in the same water that produces whitefish, in the winter, and they often come in close to the river mouths late in the winter, along with the steelhead.
When a trout is hooked, it is a good idea to make some noise (“fish on”) and try to get all nearby lines out of the water. Trout will run like crazy when first hooked and the runs are apt to be very long in shallow water, meaning that the fish could engage any other line in the area if they are not cleared. Experienced anglers will often stick the rod right down in the hole in the ice, to prevent the line from chafing on the edge of the hole. After a couple of nice runs, the fish can usually be subdued and slid up on the ice with the help of a gaff hook.
Winter trout are a joy to catch, of course, and they are good table fare as well. They are usually the largest fish that one might catch, in the winter and it is nice to remember that these fish are often just not accessible in the summer, when they retreat to the depths.