There’s nothing like that first cast after a long winter to shake the snow and ice away from the mind and begin thinking of spring. Everyone has their favorite fish to pursue when the ice finally breaks and open water appears, but I can usually be found bundled up on the bank of a lake or river pitching spinners and spoons to hungry trout.
My first experience with ice-out trout was on a small body of water in northern Minnesota where ice can remain late into spring. As idyllic as spring fishing for trout might sound, this was no day full of blooms and birdsong. It could have been early December. Think football weather—the type that’s fun to watch other people play in, not yourself.
The temperature hovered near the freezing mark all day and the sky was a bruised gray and black. It was windy. It rained. It snowed. There was sleet. Every form of winter precipitation fell. I’m not a glutton for punishment, and if the fishing had been lousy, I would have fled to warmer quarters. Yet I was pleasantly distracted by the trout at the end of my line. The rainbows kept biting and we kept catching.
Ice-out conditions may be for the hardy, but they can also prove to be rewarding.
We were fishing from shore and had been working our way around the lake when we found a spot that wouldn’t stop producing. We faced dead into the wind and threw our small lures into the breeze. We let them sink and retrieved them slowly. I was using a small spinner and my partner a slow-sinking minnow plug. The trout were stacked in front of the receding ice where a pocket of deeper water tapered onto a sloping bottom. As we worked our lures the fish would dart from the deeper water into the shallows and attack. It was cast after cast and fish after fish before the action slowed. Then a quick change of colors and the action returned and returned again.
Little did I realize how much dumb luck had played in our favor that day. Here we were on a very ugly and cold day enjoying some of the best fishing I’ve known. Why was it so good?
The Ice-Out Phenomenon
As the ice recedes, trout begin shaking off their winter lethargy and seek warmer water. This typically exists along banks where shallow water is the first to melt and see sunlight. When sunlight finally penetrates water after a winter of ice, many things happen. The water temperature slowly starts to climb, weeds begin to grow, small aquatic critters bloom and hatch, and all activity increases in general. Warmth and food bring insects and minnows seeking warmth and food, all of which bring trout into the shallows.
Trout become more active as winter recedes, water temperatures rise and aquatic organisms begin to hatch and grow.
On some days, it may not matter where you fish but it’s best to start with a few basic locations. Places where warmer water and food meet are good spots to begin. Northern shorelines get southern sun exposure. Shallow bays are often ice-out hotspots as are inlets where nutrients flow into larger water. Fish the wind, keeping it in your face. Prevailing winds will push warmer water to one side of a lake, attracting baitfish to the mass of microscopic critters that clump in front of the breeze. Trout will follow the food.
Cutthroats and most rainbows are spring spawners and can be very aggressive early in the season. Fall spawners like brook and brown trout may not display the parental tenacity of their brethren at ice-out, but they are seeking food with the same single-mindedness and will move into shallow water to find it. Fall often gets most mention when talk of big fish comes up, but right after ice-out can be just as good for big trout. These fish have gone many months without seeing a lure dangled in front of them and they are hungry, shallow and active.
On bright days try bright colors and on dark days go with darker lures. I don’t know that lure choice is particularly important as long as the bait can be fished slowly. I’ve had success with sinking minnow-imitating plugs, spinners and small spoons. These baits cast far, sink quickly, and can easily be fished at different depths. One trick is to cast lures
Right after ice-out, the choice of lure may not be as important as the speed of the retrieval, which should always be slow.
directly onto ice edges before bringing them into the water. Many times a trout will smack it right when you begin the retrieve.
If you want to throw a fly line, try weighted streamers fished at different depths. Nymphs are a big part of a trout’s early season diet and should also be part of your ice-out repertoire. Whether fishing streamers or nymphs, the key is to go slow and experiment at different depths. Often a retrieve just off the bottom is most effective, but trial and error is the best way to find where the fish are.
The period of ice-out also presents a special opportunity to tangle with lake trout from shore. These fish of the deep move into shallow water looking for forage fish and insects and can often be caught on the surface. It isn’t long before lakers retreat back into the murky depths, so if you live in an area with lake trout, bundle up and cast those spoons and plugs while the fish are shallow.
Perhaps the best thing about fishing at ice-out is its simplicity. A handful of lures, perhaps a pair of waders and a spot on the shore is all you need to start. You can leave the boat at home and enjoy some excellent bank fishing. There’s no need to rise early and be at the water by sunrise. You can keep banker’s hours during this early stretch of the season. Often the best fishing will occur in the afternoon after the sun has had a chance to warm things up.
Ice-out may be the precursor to spring fever, and it’s definitely a sure cure for cabin fever.