Ice fishing for inland trout is extremely popular and insanely fun. When we look at classic trout water, we often think of the western mountain states like Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, or Utah but there is tremendous trout fishing far beyond. Many of these winter trout fishing opportunities are the result of aggressive stockings, even in the western states. Many of the ice fishing opportunities for inland trout take place on lakes or reservoirs. Some regions like the Black Hills region of South Dakota are renowned trout fishing regions but there are so many trout fisheries scattered across the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and beyond.
Rainbows are probably the most common and most stocked fish across many regions, but we also encounter brown trout, brook trout, and a few cutthroats in our travels. What makes ice fishing for trout so much fun in my opinion is the battle. When you hook up with a twenty-five-inch trout on six-pound mono, there is chaos. These fish have horsepower. Trout also have a knack for simply living in beautiful places as well.
We often think of trout as a deep or cold-water fish but during the winter, we often see the most productive fishing in shallow water. These fish often seem to continuously roam and seem to be constantly moving. While we have found fish deeper under the ice, if there is one pattern or location that simply holds trout under the ice… that location would be shallow weeds.
Shallow to mid-depth flats or points with weeds seem so productive. These shallow locations that have quick access to deeper water often resemble locations many Midwest anglers would target bluegill. The presentations often also resemble the panfish spectrum with small teardrops and horizontal jigs tipped with waxworms. Like panfish, these inland trout are typically bug eaters. Not to say a big trout will not hit a bigger lure or live minnow because they can and do but small bug mimicking presentations simply catch fish under the ice. Also, worth noting that on many trout fisheries we have spent time on, live minnows have often been illegal to use for bait.
Last winter, we filmed an episode on Georgetown Reservoir in western Montana with Jim Kalkofen. Georgetown is classic trout water located in a scenic mountain setting. The system was deadly. Kalkofen uses a lot of dead sticks to catch trout. A limber light action rod is necessary for detecting the bites, but the rod also has to have some backbone for handling these hard-fighting fish. The Jason Mitchell Dead Meat Ice Rod in the 36-inch action is a perfect inland trout rod. We typically spool up a good spinning reel with mono as the stretch in the line is important for small hooks and hard-fighting fish. Depending on the water and size of fish, many anglers agree that four-to-six-pound mono gets the most bites. If you go much heavier, you simply get ignored. Mono also seems to help get more bites in clear water with excellent visibility. Kalkofen likes to use spoons with droppers a lot for the added flash and attraction. We used a size ¼ ounce CPT Leech Flutter Spoon and removed the treble on the spoon and added a foot-long dropper of six-pound mono with a tiny size ten-millimeter panfish jig below. The CPT Drop XL jigs are perfect with the larger, wider gap hook for trout.
Trout are incredibly smell orientated. Add and change bait often when fishing for trout. Eggs sacks, cured eggs, waxworms and spikes all catch winter trout. While the flash and color of the dropper spoon can attract fish, these trout will often find your presentation with their nose. The dead sticks often catch as many fish as the rod you jig. Many anglers use rod stands or tip downs for dead sticks when trout fishing. The Arctic Warriors are an easy tool for setting up dead sticks that trip a flag when some trout hits. In some regions, hook setting devices like the Jaw Jacker or Automatic Fisherman are legal and useful for catching fish. The challenge with trout fishing is that these fish often require light line, fairly small hooks and these fish fight hard. There is also a catch and release mortality component as well where trout can be fairly fragile compared to many other fish. This is why the hook setting devices like the Jaw Jacker, and Automatic Fisherman are so effective as the fish get hooked before they get a chance to swallow the hook.
How trout feed is pretty fascinating. A handful of years ago, we sight fished for trout on Deerfield Reservoir in the Black Hills of South Dakota with Craig Oyler. We could watch trout darting in and out as they circled the jig. These fish would bump the jig with their nose. Swat the jig with their tail. In and out, around, and round. These fish were constantly moving like sharks. When you use a Vexilar, you will notice the same movement. These fish will chase you. These fish will leave and come back. These fish will dart in and out and you sometimes have to finesse these fish to hit.
Trout can be simply gorgeous but cosmetics aside, these fish can be so much fun to catch through the ice with hard runs and bulldog determination. You simply do not get to manhandle a big trout with light line. Throw in some pristine scenery like a mountain range or a remote Northwoods skyline and it is so easy to see why so many ice anglers love to target these beautiful fish.