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For Love Of Hardwater Trout

By Jason Halfen - January 11, 2021

Trout represent one of the most unique ice fishing opportunities throughout the ice belt. Unlike most of the typical hardwater targets - especially walleye, pike, and panfish - trout sustain very high activity levels beneath the ice. Indeed, as a group of coldwater species, trout thrive in chilly water temperatures and feed reliably through the winter months. Anglers can take advantage of this simple fact of biology to add some spice to their ice season.

Ice fishing opportunities for trout in the Midwest come in two flavors: Great Lakes and inland. On big water - home of BIG trout - sustained cold weather is required to provide safe enough ice in the harbors and near-shore areas where winter trout can be found. In recent years, ice fishing for big browns and steelhead has become all the rage in many of Wisconsin's harbors that dot the Lake Michigan shoreline. Here, anglers frequently present spawn or minnows under tip-ups, or with rod-and-reel devices like Jaw-Jackers or i-Fish Pro's, to target these fish. In Lake Superior, when conditions permit, anglers will venture into deep water to chase giant lake trout with heavy tackle, aggressively jigging big white tubes on 2 oz jigs or heavy Bondy baits. Always work through an outfitter when heading offshore on the Great Lakes to help ensure your safe return.

Stocked, inland fisheries offer another, perhaps more accessible opportunity to target hardwater trout using more conventional ice fishing tackle and equipment. Throughout the Midwest, state natural resources agencies frequently stock deep, clear lakes with trout - especially rainbows and brookies - in the fall to provide this unique winter angling opportunity. Some of these lakes receive "broodstock" fish: larger, mature trout that have been raised in hatcheries for a number of years for the purpose of providing milt and eggs as part of trout stocking programs. These put-and-take fisheries offer anglers the chance to tangle with a number of fish and also enjoy some fresh trout from the grill during the cold winter months.

Fishing for inland, stocked trout is not necessarily the high-precision, "spot-on-the-spot" angling game that we often play for walleyes or panfish. Trout are roamers, frequently covering large stretches of shoreline or even making laps around smaller lakes as they hunt for prey. Small bays, shoreline bends, or near-shore obstructions like fallen trees can help to concentrate trout - or at least make them linger for longer periods of time - as they meander. Water depth doesn't seem to be as important as proximity to shore and shoreline cover.

Fish for hardwater trout using the same tactics you might use for walleye, but perhaps with a bit more emphasis on waiting for the constantly roving schools of trout to find you and your offerings. Tip-ups or other set-line devices work well. Bait them with walleye-sized fathead minnows and ensure that fish can very easily pull line out after the strike - resistance will cause trout to drop a bait rapidly. Remember that in clear water, trout can see a bait from a long distance; setting baits about half-way down the water column, regardless of depth, is a good approach. Fathead minnows under a slip bobber can also work well. If you're in the jigging mood, rattling spoons and other flashy presentations can be effective, typically when dressed with live bait like minnows or wax worms. Unlike jigging for walleyes, trout will frequently "appear out of nowhere" to attack your spoon - this is not your typical cat-and-mouse approach to eliciting bites from lethargic fish.

Ice fishing for trout has been one of the highlights of my hardwater season. Give it a try this year - you'll appreciate the aggressive fish, beautiful colors, and above all, the change of pace as we fish our way through the winter months.

Gear Used

Jason Halfen
Dr. Jason Halfen is a long-time guide, tournament angler, and specialist in marine electronics. He owns and operates The Technological Angler, dedicated to teaching anglers to leverage hi-tech tools to find and catch more fish. Learn more by visiting
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