Jan 10, 2015

Icing Winter-Time Trout

By:  Capt. Lee Haasch

Many of you know and recognize me as that charter captain on Lake Michigan, but my passion for fishing doesn’t end when the boat gets put away for the season, nor does my inner drive for helping fishermen catch more and bigger fish.  Since we live in the wonderful state of Wisconsin, we do have to deal with the elements and that means putting the boat away and pulling on our winter boots and walking on that hard water instead of floating on it.

While I enjoy fishing for the many different species of game fish that are abundant in Northeast Wisconsin, I still enjoy the challenges of capturing those hard-fighting, tail-dancing steelhead.  Those silver acrobats of the big lake can give an angler an even greater challenge in the tributary streams.  This challenge doesn’t end when the ice covers the rivers surface, it just changes a bit and instead of putting on waders and using a fly rod, you need insulated suits, boots, gloves and a tip-up or automatic ice fisherman rig.

After we experienced extremely low water levels in our streams and rivers during the early to mid-2000’s, we have had back to back winters with generous snow falls and springs and summers with above average rain falls.  This weather pattern has seen Lake Michigan once again rise to normal or slightly above normal levels and our rivers and tributary streams once again have increased water levels creating more and better holes and gravel bars for the steelhead to flourish during our long winter months.  Another bonus for ice enthusiasts is the early ice season.  Unseasonably cold weather moved in mid-November this year and ice was forming early and many rivers had ice fishing opportunities by early December.  All of this set us up for a winter-time ice fishing extravaganza!

Many anglers aren’t aware that some strains of steelhead and a good number of brown trout enter our tributary streams and rivers each fall and remain under the ice all winter.  In spring, the brown trout return to the lake and the steelhead will be the first spawners at ice-out before returning to the lake for the summer.  To find these elusive trout, I recommend teaming up with a good guide that knows the river system.  Finding them is one thing, but knowing the ice conditions is most important.  Strong currents under the ice create situations where ice can be 18 inches in one spot and 2 inches a couple feet away.  A good guide can make for a fun and safe outing that is also highly successful.

I’ve teamed up with a great couple of fishermen, Tyler Yunk and Tim Maher, who own and operate Habitual Guide Service.  Tyler has been a fishing specialist aboard one of my boats for many summers now and is a machinist by trade; he spends every other waking moment on the lake, in the stream or river fishing for these elusive trout.  Tyler is the kind of fishermen with the fishing instincts that lead me to believe that with a willow stick, string and a safety pin, he could land you a fish for dinner!

Specializing in Lake Michigan tributaries, Tyler and Tim travel the eastern shoreline of Wisconsin to fish the rivers in search of the best fishing holes.  They have even traveled to some pristine Michigan streams to hone their skills with fellow guides. They spend countless hours and walk miles of streams to pre-fish.  As dedicated guides, they are always searching for tips and techniques to make their customer’s angling experience even more successful. 

Just like trolling in the summer, bait presentation and technique are very important  parts of icing winter trout.  Tyler cures and ties all his own spawn sacs, meticulously paying attention to size and even adding small single beads for color and flash.  Next, the most critical part is knowing the river well enough to find the deep pockets that hold the trout and then carefully planning ice-hole placement to put the bait in such a place that will entice strikes.  He will lay out his spread of autos based on depth pockets and structure, whether that be an old log that current rolls off bringing with it bait for hungry fish, or deep gravel beds holding suspended fish waiting for an easy meal.

Trout like to mouth the bait and move to the side of the hole with it, so it is very important to have a set that allows for the fish to move with the bait without feeling tension from it.  The use of a rig called the “Automatic Ice Fisherman” enables the angler to set the bait at the proper distance below the ice, and the ice rod is bent and hooked to a release point.  The secret to this rig is the large float between the first and second eye.  The float is laid on the ice with the right amount of line slack that gives the fish enough room to move the bait and feel no tension.  Once the float and line is pulled tight, the rod tip is released and tension is put on the fish.  It is important that the drag is set to enable the trout to take line until the fisherman can grab the rod from the base and the fight is on!  I especially like this rig because it now lets the fisherman fight the fish with a rod and reel instead of hand lining the trout to the hole.

Now hooking the feisty trout is one thing, landing them is another.  The trout have several things working in their favor.  Power, current, and small ice holes all make it a difficult feat to land one.  The fish will use not only their powerful tail and quick darting actions but also make long downstream runs using the currents to add to their power.  Those challenges are multiplied by the sharp edges and size of the hole and the necessity to turn the trout’s head in order to get them out.  This is why a rig with a removable fishing rod and reel is important for success.  When the fish makes long runs a properly set drag helps keep tension and when the line is against the edge of the ice you can drop the tip of the rod beneath the ice to keep the line from being cut by the ice.  A proper weight rod will also help keep tension and help steer the head of the fish into the hole.

After all this, there is a certain satisfaction to landing the fish, taking some pictures of a successful fight, and releasing that fish back through the hole to swim away and challenge another angler another day.  But there is also a sense of satisfaction if every now and again one of these silver delights makes it to my cast iron frying pan with a smothering of sautéed onions and wedge of lemon!

Check out Habitual Guide Service on Facebook for information on stream and river fishing in Northeast Wisconsin and for more information of fishing the Algoma area and for current fishing reports or information on charter fishing check out my website at www.FishAlgoma.com.  From Capt. Lee and the crew aboard the GRAND ILLUSION 2 - good luck and good fishing!

Capt. Lee Haasch is a charter captain out of Algoma, WI.  Capt. Lee has over 40 years of great lakes angling experience and has been instructing anglers for over 25 years with education seminars and timely freelance articles in outdoor publications.