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Browns & Bows Though the Ice

By Eric Haataja - February 1, 2004
If you've never experienced the thrill of catching browns or rainbow trout threw the ice, now is the time. These fish are found in almost all of the Lake Michigan Harbors, and also up in many of the rivers. Browns and Rainbows are some of the best fighting fish you'll ever catch threw the ice.

Before I go into how, where, why, and what to use I want to speak of what I feel is most important when ice fishing. Safety, it's always better to be safe than sorry, especially on rivers or harbors where there is constant current and ice shifting. Many harbors have air orators or sewers that dump into them, though they can be fish magnets they can also be a bad idea to fish too close. Here's a safety items I always make sure I carry with me. Cell Phone, (if you have one) they've saved many lives, and when I fish I keep mine in a sealed Ziploc Bag in my coat pocket. Ice Picks I also carry a pair of these in my jacket pocket; they are used to help pull you out of the water. Spud Bar is what I prefer to use when checking ice, if I go threw in 2 thrusts, I turn around and go somewhere else. No fish is worth your life! I also carry throw able Floatation Device, with approx. 50 feet of line. The floatation device also serves as a nice cushion for sitting on or when kneeling next to a hole to fight a fish.

I generally start by putting in 2 tip ups and jig with my third line. I like to use a monofilament leader or a fluorocarbon leader on my tip ups. I'd recommend 6, 8, or 10 lb test, my leader length is generally 3 to 4 feet or even longer, browns and bows can be very spooky especially in clear water. One of the biggest errors I see anglers make when first attempting to catch these fish is they let the fish "take it" this is a mistake. Browns and rainbows love to hit and drop baits, meaning they will hit the minnow, and if they feel any tension from your tip up or resistance, they will drop the bait immediately. So it is very important to get to your flag quickly, and set the hook immediately.

I will bait my first tip up with a golden shiner, Lake Shiner, chub or large fat heads, I prefer small golden shiners. I will usually set my minnows about 2 feet off the bottom in the shallow harbors (less than 10 feet deep) or suspend my minnow in harbors deeper than 15 feet.

It's important to point out that browns and rainbows cruise and are "swimmers". This means they are constantly moving especially in the harbors. If there is a sewer, aerator pump, or some source of current browns and rainbows will some times relate to this, or cruise back and forth around the current. Otherwise they will generally just swim around looking for gizzard shad, alewives, smelt, mud minnows etc. Browns are also a "schooling" fish, which basically means they will sometimes cruise in schools (numerous fish). I've had occasions where the morning has been slow then suddenly 3 or 4 flags pop up from a school of brown trout passing threw.

My second tip up is usually baited with a spawn sac or skein. There have been many days when 4 out of 5 fish

"One of the biggest errors I see anglers make when first attempting to catch these fish is they let the fish "take it" this is a mistake. "
would come on spawn sacs or skein. Generally I will set my spawn sac 1-3 feet off the bottom, or directly on the bottom. Browns and rainbows have a keen sense of smell; many times in dirty water where the fish can not see bait they will smell the spawn sac. I generally like to change my bait every 30-45 minutes (spawn or skein). I prefer minnows in clear water, and spawn or skein in dirty or stained water. Spawn sacs and skein are made of fish eggs, spawn is "loose eggs" and skein is "tight eggs". Fish eggs contain oil and the oil scent in the water is what attracts the browns and rainbows. I've used salmon, brown and rainbow trout eggs, I've found that brown trout eggs work the best for me. If you do not have spawn or skein I'd recommend buying some fresh spawn from a local bait shop, not the types that comes in the small glass jars.

My third rod is a jigging pole; I love to catch fish while jigging. The lures that work well for me are jigging rapalas, swedish pimples, tube jigs, do jiggers, hair jigs, tinsel jigs, and small cleos or crocodiles. My preferred colors are fire tiger, green/silver, blue/silver, and gold/black. My lures are usually tipped with a minnow head, wax worms or a small minnow. I generally use the same type of tackle and baits I use for walleyes, and be sure to try different baits, and different sizes to increase your hook up ratio.

The same type of gear and tackle applies to river fishing. The most important part of river fishing is to know where the fish are staging. Also, where you or other anglers have caught fish before the river froze over. I like to look for the deeper portions of rivers or "tail outs". River fishing is more dangerous and I advise not trying it if you're not familiar with the river or ice conditions. Remember no fish is worth dying for!

If you planning on keeping these fish a gaff will help you put more fish on the ice. One benefit to fishing a minnow is you'll have a better chance of landing pike, walleye or other game fish where present and at times jumbo perch. Some Ports such as Milwaukee have a wide variety of these game fish.

The ports and rivers I generally guide out of are: The Milwaukee Harbor, Kenosha Harbor, Racine Harbor, Root River, Pikes Creek, and Milwaukee River. All ports produce good numbers and trophy potential, along with catching the occasional giant pike over 40".

Good Luck Fishing!

Author Eric Haataja
Eric Haataja
Eric Haataja is the owner and operator of Big Fish Guide Service. He is an accomplished tournament pro, world record line class holder, articulate seminar speaker, father of 2 and married.
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