March 01, 2018

Trolling the near shore waters of the Great Lakes for spring brown trout has for decades been one of the best ways to celebrate the end of winter and the coming of spring. Literally from the day the ice leaves the boat launches until the water warms up too much to support trout in shallow water, Great Lakes brown trout are about as predictable as trout get…

Hunt for Warm Water

The icy waters of ice out pretty much force all available baitfish and brown trout to crowd into the warmest available waters. In some instances the warm water comes as a byproduct of electricity generation. Power plants dotted all around the Great Lakes are as good as gold when it comes to attracting early spring brown trout action.

Amazingly it only takes water a couple of degrees warmer than the rest of the lake to attract browns like moths to a flame. The best way to find these pockets of warmer water is with a surface temperature probe on a quality sonar unit or with a temperature and trolling speed probe like the popular Fish Hawk X4D.

Another sure bet for finding brown trout is to find places where rivers, creeks and streams pour into the Great Lakes. The water in these streams comes from rain and run off and tends to be several degrees warmer than the water in the main lake. Also, these streams pump nutrient rich water which in turn attracts plankton and baitfish.

The rivers and creeks flowing into the Great Lakes are turbid to downright muddy in the spring. This off color water mixes with the normally very clear water of the Great Lakes creating stained waters that are ideal for trolling up browns and also at times bonus coho and lake trout.

The best fishing is almost always found in the stained or what many anglers refer to as “green” water, not the muddy or blue/clear waters. Depending on wind and local currents, ribbons of stained water stretch out along the bank. Not only can the trained eye spot these stained water areas, a temperature probe will confirm the water is just a few degrees warmer and prime for attracting hungry trout.

As smelt numbers have declined and round goby numbers have increased in recent years, diving and wide wobbling crankbaits like this 3.5 Mag Lip have become the “go to” lures for targeting spring brown trout.

Satellite images are also helpful for identifying places that feature the right water conditions for attracting brown trout. At a glance these images can eliminate water too dirty to consider and zero in on stained waters that form when dirty and clear water mix.

Matching the Hatch

Historically, the bait of choice for spring brown trout trolling has been the shallow diving stickbait. Lures like the famous Rapala Minnow, Bomber Long A, Storm ThunderStick and Reef Runner RipStick have done the heavy lifting in this department. All of these lures do a very good job of imitating smelt, a favorite forage fish of trout.

Most anglers fish these baits a few feet below the surface and use planer boards to spread out their lines. Unfortunately, smelt numbers across the Great Lakes have declined considerably over the last two decades. The decline of the rainbow smelt is believed to be linked to the invasion of the zebra mussel and a gradual clearing up of the Great Lakes systems.

Dwindling numbers of rainbow smelt has created a niche for other forage fish species including the round goby, spottail shiner and sculpin. All three of these baitfish are bottom dwellers. Not surprisingly some of the best brown trout lures these days are diving/wobbling crankbaits that more closely resemble bottom loving baitfish species.

Anglers on the cutting edge are no longer running a steady diet of stickbaits for early browns, but instead are mixing it up by using more high action diving crankbaits and even small to medium sized trolling spoons in their early spring trolling patterns.

Crankbaits that feature a wide side-to-side wobble at slow to moderate speeds are becoming the “go to” hard baits for browns. The Yakima Mag Lip is one such lure. Similar in appearance to the famous “Flatfish,” the Mag Lip can be trolled at a much wider range of speeds and comes in a 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5 and 5.0 sizes. For spring brown trout trolling the 3.0 and 3.5 sizes, fished at from 1.5 to 2.0 MPH are hands down the most popular.

Trolling Lead

The key to fishing the Mag Lip and other high action baits for brown trout is to let out just enough trolling lead that the baits make occasional contact with the bottom, stirring up sediment and rebounding off rocks and submerged debris. Positioning crankbaits as close as possible to bottom without snagging requires an intimate knowledge of how deep these lures dive. If the trolling lead is too long, the bait will dig constantly into the bottom and snags quickly become an issue. If the trolling lead is too short, the bait won’t dive deep enough to interest bottom hugging trout.

The phone app Precision Trolling Data provides anglers invaluable lure diving data for all the popular crankbait brands and models. Available in both Android and iPhone versions, the PTD app is affordable and provides priceless information for anglers who fish with crankbaits and other popular trolling hardware.

Custom Hooking

Stickbaits and diving crankbaits typically come factory equipped with a pair of treble hooks. Treble hooks are the norm, but some manufacturers like Yakima offer savvy tips for rigging their baits with a pair of single Siwash hooks mounted using a small barrel swivel between the split ring and the Siwash hook. This set up allows the Siwash hook to rotate and prevents hooked trout from gaining leverage to tear free.

Another rigging option is to use two split rings when attaching a Siwash hook to a crankbait. Fishing single Siwash hooks when trolling crankbaits in contact with the bottom has another advantage. The single hook set up dramatically reduces the amount of snags and lost lures. At the web page anglers will find “How To” reports that explain exactly what hook sizes match up to the popular sizes of Mag Lip crankbaits. Eagle Claw produces a wide variety of Siwash hooks in the Lazer Sharp and Trokar series.

More on Hooks

For those anglers who don’t have faith in the single Siwash hook, another option is to remove the belly treble hook from the bait and fish with just the tail treble. Many anglers go a step further and replace the factory treble hook on the tail with a premium after-market hook such as the Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp L949 Kahle series or the Trokar TK300 round bend or the TK310 wide bend. All three of these hooks put factory OEM hooks to shame in the sharpness category.

Rigging Tips

One of the problems with crankbaits is they don’t always dive deep enough to make contact with the bottom. A simple solution to this problem is to fish them using a standard three-way swivel rig. The main line is tied to one of the swivels, a 12 to 18 inch dropper line and lead weight to the bottom swivel and a six foot leader terminated to a snap or snap swivel is rigged at the business end.

Normally one or two ounces of weight is enough to fish these smaller diving crankbaits, stickbaits and also spoons on bottom. A three way rig like this fishes nicely as a flat line positioned on each corner of the boat.

Abrasion Resistant Lines are a Must

When fishing crankbaits along the bottom the fishing line takes a bunch of abuse. Copolymers, super braids and other ultra-thin fishing lines just can’t stand up to this kind of torture. The best trolling lines for fishing crankbaits and other lures near the bottom are premium monofilaments designed with trolling in mind. Two classics in this category include Berkley XT and Big Game. Both of these lines are ultra-tough, abrasion resistant and their green coloration helps them blend nicely with stained waters.

The two most popular line diameters for spring brown trout trolling are 10 and 12 pound test. Both of these lines are thin enough to allow crankbaits maximum diving ability, yet tough enough to sustain the rigors of structure trolling.

Better with Boards

One thing that hasn’t changed about spring brown trout trolling is the need for planer boards to spread out trolling lines and to cover the maximum amount of water. Both traditional ski mast systems and in-line planer boards work well when targeting spring browns.

Traditional mast systems are most often seen on larger “charter style” boats that run four to six trolling lines on each side of the boat. A typical set up for spring browns includes a mix of stickbaits and diving crankbaits fished on the board lines and also a bonus pair of spoons fished on diving planers set off the corners of the boat.

In-line boards can be fished on boats large and small, but they fill a critical niche with small boat fishermen who routinely fish two or three lines per side. In-line boards also represent a less expensive option for anglers who are just getting their feet wet in board trolling.

Summing It Up

The critical points of both finding and catching spring browns depend heavily on water temperature. When the main lake is icy cold, the warmest available water is going to attract both baitfish and spring browns. Warm water discharge sites and also streams that pour in warmer water are the places that routinely produce the best fishing.

Once fish are located, pounding the bottom with a mixture of stickbaits, diving crankbaits and spoons almost guarantees success. Right after ice out brown trout are very predictable, easy to find and a riot to catch. Once the main lake water temperature starts to warm up, browns can find food other places and these popular fish seemingly melt into the abyss.

The best advice is to get out early and get out often. The spring brown trout bite is amazing, but short lived.

Lake Ontario Browns

Anglers looking for consistently good brown trout fishing will find the western end of Lake Ontario provides exceptional spring brown trout action. From Olcott to the mouth of the Niagara River anglers will find plenty of brown trout, coho and lake trout. The town of Lewiston provides a number of fisherman friendly motels, boat launches and fish cleaning facilities. To find out more visit the site

Lake Michigan Browns

The waters of Lake Michigan from Racine on the south to Sheboygan on the north are also a very good destination for anglers after spring brown trout. This area of Lake Michigan has lots of near shore structure that attracts trout, plus a number of warm water discharge sites. Milwaukee Harbor is large enough that it provides shelter when the wind picks up and excellent brown trout fishing along the many piers and break-walls.