Ice Fishing for Brown Trout, Strategies and Tips

Ice Fishing for Brown Trout

The topic of this article is ice fishing for brown trout. Brown trout are a gorgeous fish that adapts well to the very cold water. Like most trout, they feed vigorously under the ice all winter long. For whatever reason, brown trout are less often pursued than some of the other more glamorous species. Hopefully, this article will change that!

Anglers ice fishing for brown trout catch them in both rivers and lakes. The tactics are similar, though there are certainly some differences. Obviously, the locations where fish hold will be much different in rivers than in lakes. However, the tackle used will serve well in both applications.

Anglers who would like to read more about ice fishing can purchase Capt Jim’s E-book, “A Complete Guide to Ice Fishing” by clicking on the title link.

Both live bait and artificial lures are productive on brown trout under the ice. Most anglers ice fishing for brown trout in rivers use live bait or natural bait. This is mostly due to fish being a bit spooky in shallow water. Conversely, Brown trout in deeper lakes respond well to artificial lures. Spoons in particular are very productive baits for brown trout.

jigging through the ice

Best tackle for ice fishing for brown trout

The rod and reel required for ice fishing for brown trout will vary a bit based on the water being fished. Anglers fishing lakes and rivers where fish average a pound or two will do well with the same outfit they use for panfish or small walleye. However, anglers fishing big water where there is a chance for true trophy brown trout or even a large lake trout will need to beef up the tackle a bit. A medium action rod around 32 inches long is a better choice when fishing big waters.

The same really goes when it comes to fishing line. Anglers fishing smaller ponds and lakes and rivers will do best to keep it light. Several manufacturers market hybrid line specifically designed for ice fishing. These are usually fluorocarbon lines. 6 pound test is a good all-around size, though anglers can drop it down to 4 pound test in very clear water.

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Anglers can read more about ice fishing tackle and gear here.

Many anglers fishing deeper lakes have chosen to go to braided line. Braided has a much higher strength for its diameter. It also has no stretch and great sensitivity. However, braided line can be difficult to use when exposed to the elements. It is a better choice when fishing in a shelter. Anglers using braided line do need to use a 3 foot long fluorocarbon leader testing 6 pounds or 8 pounds. Anglers choosing to use monofilament or fluorocarbon line will do well with 8 pound test.

Top trout ice fishing lures

The two most popular artificial lures used when ice fishing for brown trout are jigging spoons and Rapala Jigging Raps. Jigging spoons come in a wide variety of manufacturers, sizes, and finishes. Anglers will do best to match the spoon to the size of the forage in the lake, where possible. The traditional ice fishing spoons such as the Kastmaster, Little Cleo, and Flutter Spoon are all good choices.

The Rapala Jigging Rap is a legendary ice fishing lure. It fishes more like a jig as the line tie is in the center and it falls in an erratic, enticing manner. Larger brown trout almost always feed on bait fish. Therefore, the Jigging Rap is a good choice and is a highly productive bait when targeting brown trout.

Ice fishing for brown trout in rivers

Brown trout are commonly pursued by anglers in rivers. Brown trout and steelhead trout are the two most plentiful species that are found there. Anglers fishing for brown trout in rivers need to put safety first! Ice thickness can be a bit trickier to determine in areas that have varying current flow. Smart anglers never take a chance and fish where there is not at least 4 inches of ice!

ice fish finder

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River brown trout locations

Just as in open water, location is key when ice fishing in rivers as well. Brown trout will generally stage in areas of lower current flow and behind breaks. Brown trout prefer to hold over sandy bottom. This can be difficult to determine under a sheet of ice. One trick is to look at the shoreline, the bottom will reflect that whether it be rocks or sand.

It is amazing how shallow brown trout can be caught in rivers under the ice. They are landed in water as shallow as 1 foot deep! Fish are certainly spooky and difficult to catch in the shallow water. Most brown trout are caught in water between three and 5 feet deep. The tail ends of pools will often have an eddy where brown trout will hold in the winter.

Most often, brown trout will be found on or near the bottom. They are not quite as active as their steelhead cousins are. They prefer to find slack water on the bottom and if preferable behind a break. However, they adapt well to the very cold water and will feed aggressively. They are a bit skittish in that shallow water and tactics that work on the lake will not work in the river.

Ice fishing techniques in rivers

Live and natural bait is used most often when ice fishing for brown trout. It simply is not practical to use lures, they are too aggressive and anglers walking around a foot or two overhead will spook them. The best bait is fresh spawn, where available. Steelhead spawn is considered the top bait. However, freshness is more important. Eggs will certainly catch their share of brown trout as well. Commercially prepared baits such as Gulp Dough will work as well and is easy to acquire.

In slack water, anglers can lower the bait down using a #8 light wire live bait hook. A tiny split shot can be added. Many anglers use a 1/32 ounce jig head when fishing in current. Brightly colored jig heads help attract fish. Most anglers fish with tip down rigs or devices such as the Automatic Fisherman. A series of holes is drilled and the rigs set up with different baits a couple inches from the bottom.

In shallow water, brown trout will be able to detect anglers walking overhead. There is just no way around this. That is the reason that for the most part set lines are used. It is just too difficult to get a brown trout to bite with an angler standing 2 feet over top of them. It is also best to use a hole cover or snow to block the light coming in from the hole.

Ice fishing for brown trout in lakes

While anglers ice fishing for brown trout find them in lakes all across the north, many anglers fish for them in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. While the focus will be on these two lakes, the tips and techniques will produce brown trout for anglers fishing through the ice anywhere.

ice fishing auger

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Locating brown trout in lakes under the ice

Brown trout will normally be found on or near structure. At first ice, they will oftentimes be found shallow on the first break in around 10 feet of water. However, they may also be found on secondary breaks and on channel edges as deep as 50 or 60 feet. Mouths of creeks and rivers can be great spots as well, though anglers need to be careful about ice in those locations. Also, these spots tend to attract the majority of anglers. Many successful anglers ice fishing for brown trout avoid these crowded areas and find their own hot-spots.

The best spots will have a variety of structure. Rocky areas that are adjacent to mud flats can be very productive. Brown trout have a varied diet. They will feed on bait fish primarily. However, crustaceans such as crayfish and larger insects will be happily devoured as well. Brown trout also feed throughout the entire water column.

Brown trout ice fishing expert Gage Sackett

Special thanks to Gage Sackett who lives in Michigan and is an expert at ice fishing for brown trout. Is generous enough to share the tips, techniques, and locations that have produced fish for him. Gage is starting a guide service, follow him on Instagram. Or, call him at 906-285-1466.

If you want the best ice fishing on Lake Superior, it’s about getting as close as you can get to open water glare ice with little to no snow cover on it. Having no snow on the ice helps a lot of light get through the ice. This allows the fish to see your lure or bait from a further distance. The other reason we chase the ice out is there is little to no fishing pressure. Most of the time, we are the furthest ones out on the ice. Having said that, anglers must put safety first! Anglers should never venture out onto ice that is not safe.

Ultimately, being the first and furthest out on the sheet of ice will find fish that are a lot more active because they are seeing baits for the first time that year. There is the most light going through the ice, and no pressure. There still is good fishing on the thick snow covered ice, but by then there are crowds of hundreds of people stretched down the shoreline. Imagine being a fish and seeing bait after bait after bait. It certainly makes it more difficult to trick a fish into biting.

We tend to use 2 set lines and one rod to vertically jig. For the set lines we use tip ups or automatic hook setting device (jaw jacker). The set lines consist of a 8-15lb braided line with 5 feet of monofilament or fluorocarbon leader. A size 6 single hook set 2-10ft off of the bottom with a lake shiner for bait completes the rig.

Jigging techniques

When jigging for brown trout, we use a 34”-38” medium-med- heavy spinning rod with 6-10 monofilament line. For bait we use Rapala Jigging Raps and jigging spoons. Spoons range in size from 1.5”-3.5”. Jigging spoons are the best all round lure when targeting brown trout through the ice. It is usually tipped with a head or tail of a lake shiner. If you are using larger spoons you can put a full minnow on because it won’t mess up the action of the lure.

It is a very important that your lure has the right flutter or spin while it falls between jigging. Browns are a fast fish and they like fast jigging a lot of the time. When I see a fish come under my bait, I keep it above it the whole time and as the fish starts to engage I start jigging it up until the fish hits or loses interest. Browns will chase your lure all the way to the bottom of the ice.

We fish 15-40 feet of water and they will chase it all the way from the bottom to the top of the water column and still lose interest. As soon as the fish loses interest I open my bail let it free fall to the bottom. Often times, the fish will start chasing it back down. When you see the fish reappear on the fish finder, close the bail on the reel and start jigging up fast and the fish will almost always hit right away!

Lake Superior fishery consist of a lot more than brown trout. There’s also splake, lake trout, coho salmon, and whitefish that can be caught on similar jigging techniques. When searching for these fish I tend to look for steep breaks, river inlets, points, and rock humps. Also I’ll fish sand and rock flats between sharp breaks. This is what makes Lake Superior different from Lake Michigan brown fishing. On Lake Michigan they fish the harbors for brown trout. Additionally, when you fish Lake Superior you get gorgeous scenery! You don’t just have a big city to look!

Fishing for trophy brown trout

Lake Superior and Lake Michigan are different when it comes to the size of fish. It’s a lot more common to catch a 10 pound brown on Lake Michigan because Lake Michigan has a lot more forage. Fish over 20 pounds are not uncommon. I’m sure they have stocked Lake Michigan for longer also but they have more to feed on so they get fatter.

In Lake Superior, an 8lb fish is a trophy but fish up to 15lbs are becoming more common every year. The biggest brown I know on Lake Superior caught was 19.5 pounds and that’s a true brown of a lifetime. Targeting these monster browns that Lake Superior holds is a bit different. This is where being on the thin ice is the best without the pressure of other fisherman. Your best shot at a trophy is in front of the creeks and rivers as soon as it is safe to fish and to walk on. Again, safety always comes first!

In the late fall they swim up the rivers to spawn and they can spawn up until February. We tend to start getting ice late December early January. So, these fish that are going to the river to spawn are also looking for eggs to eat. We use set lines and jig the same, the only difference is we focus on water that is 5 feet deep to 15 feet deep instead of the 15-40 range. The rivers push sediment into the lake and it’s generally shallow.

Set lines for river brown trout

When we set up for these big browns by the rivers we fish with spawn and lake shiners we try to mix it up half and half to see what the fish are feeling. I usually do this on on my set lines. When jigging, I slow it down a bit instead of the normally fast I use out in deeper water. These fish are bigger and lazier, they would rather have an easy meal.

You know you are around a big brown trout when it comes off the bottom really slow and you make that lure dance until it hits. The smaller browns you get in the lake are aggressive and will chase fast. However, these big ones will chase but won’t chase to the top of the water column but if you are in 10 feet that’s only 5 feet off the bottom. The fish being lazier doesn’t make jigging as effective either.

Often times we will have fish appear on our sonar and just slowly to the bottom without any interest. But our set lines will produce fish. So we will just use set lines instead of jigging. After there is 5” of ice there is a lot more fishermen adding pressure so we look for our next spot to target!

In conclusion, this article on ice fishing for brown trout will hopefully help anglers catch more fish!

Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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