Brown trout are a medium-sized beautiful fish species that has been introduced all over the world from Europe, to parts of Asia, Australia, Peru, Africa, the USA, Canada, and just about anywhere the water is cold enough to sustain them.
Brown trout feed constantly under the ice throughout winter so they are an ideal species to target when your warm water fish are either not biting or have moved further toward the equator for some warmth.
Many of you reading this have never seriously considered ice fishing. It's an odd novelty and yet it can be a great way to combat cabin fever when everything freezes up around you.
We have filled this article with fishing tips that can help you catch delicious brown trout through the coldest months of the year as they stay relatively warm at the bottom and tops of lakes under a solid crust of ice.
Hopefully, our expert tips on ice fishing for brown trout will add another layer to your fishing expertise and get you out there for your first ever ice-fishing trip!
Reliable Ice Fishing Tips for Trout
Though not a native of the United States, brown trout can be found in lakes in nearly every state north of Florida. Some of these lakes freeze over. When they do, ice fishing lovers from all over may cover the lake to try their skill at landing mid-winter trout under the ice. It's great fun that you should try if you haven't already. If you haven't targeted brown trout through the ice, here are some tips that can help you come out a winner this winter.
Here are some reliable ice fishing tips for trout!
1. Use Appropriate Fishing Line
Mono or fluorocarbon lines work best for ice-fishing. The reason is that braided lines with multiple strands collect more water and hold it as you reel in. That water in such small droplets quickly freezes and fouls up your fishing rod and reel. This is far from ideal!
Mono and fluoro lines also retain a bit of moisture, but nothing near the same level as braided line. Leave the braided lines at home for ice fishing.
Here is a short video to demonstrate what I mean.
2. Review Stocking Reports
Pay close attention to the stocking of lakes as the season ends. It's possible that lakes are stocked with hundreds or even thousands of fish before the ice freezes over. It gives you that little bit of edge and motivation you need to get out there on the ice and give this a try!
3. Get the Right Ice Fishing Rod and Reel
Smaller rods work better for ice fishing for brown trout or for anything because you're not casting at all. You're simply dropping the line down at a certain depth to find the fish. Keep in mind, there is no current in a lake to take that bait anywhere so you're limited to vertical drops.
Ice fishing rods of 24-36 inches are commonly used for fishing through the ice. Medium-action rods are probably best because you will catch a variety of fish but in the mid-range of weight most likely.
A 2000-4000 level spinning reel works well for most fish you'll catch in a lake, or a small to mid-range rated baitcasting reel is fine. You shouldn't need more than 100 yards of line on the reel because what lake fish makes huge runs? It's really quite simple to plan your rod/reel and line setup for ice fishing. That’s just another reason to go!
4. Choose the Right Time to Fish for Brown Trout
The right time to ice fish for brown trout is before and after sunrise and sunset. Fish need some light to fish, and without the sunlight, it's very difficult to see anything you'll be dropping down to them.
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5. Pick the Right Fishing Line and Leader
When fishing for lake trout through the ice you can use 6-10 lb. mono or fluoro line. Don't use braided as it can ice up too much and too often.
6. Identify the Right Temperatures
The ideal temperature range for brown trout to be active is between 44 and 67°F. A submersible thermometer is essential when ice fishing and you should check for the depth that the temperatures are ideal for possible activity. When temps go above 67°F the fish can stop eating because it's getting too warm. This can happen near the surface as the sun heats the top water through the ice.
7. Use the Right Ice Fishing Lures and Baits
Anglers should choose baits that are easy to handle and that will definitely catch browns.
When fishing lakes and water that isn't moving much at all you can freeline a piece of shrimp or some waxworms down the hole. The lighter the weight of the line, the better. Try 8 lb. fluoro or mono and you will probably be fine.
Minnows are always a favorite, and if you can find them at the bait shops or better yet, catch them on your own, you're going to be catching fish. Minnows always catch fish, and minnows on a small hook like a #6 in a minnow is going to find fish for you almost regardless where you're at in the USA. You might consider using a bobber or float that looks like a pencil to help you detect any light bites.
Another bait we use often is the Berkley Power Baits and Trout Bait. The Gulp putty rolled into balls is phenomenal and catches trout of all kinds in streams, lakes, and rivers and we always have it on hand especially when we run out of live bait. There probably isn't anything better for trout as far as artificial baits go.
There are plenty of other trout under the ice in streams, rivers, and lakes in the north during winter. Rainbow trout, tiger trout, brown trout, brook trout, and others offer endless angling opportunities in waters north of Missouri. Besides, rainbow trout is one of the most beautiful fish to try to catch while fishing on the ice.
It is hard to determine the best ice fishing lures to catch trout. But generally speaking, it is best to choose bait and lures that are small and light, such as:
- Spoons. Ice fishing for brown trout with shiny metal jigging spoons can be productive. Using different sizes and weights of lures can provoke strikes. There isn't much action you'll be getting through the ice because how will you move the lure horizontally? Vary what you can. Some people drop the rod tip into the water and move it left and right to at least give some motion to the lures they use.
- Jigs. Trout jigs in the 1/64 to 1/16-ounce range can be tipped with wax worms or minnows when targeting rainbow trout, but you need to use the right weight for the current conditions and water depth. Try using jigs with tube baits to catch lake trout.
- Plugs. Plugs (crankbaits) are a great lure for catching brown trout while ice fishing. They can be fished at different depths and have a swimming action that is attractive to fish.
Here is a quick list of some specific lures you can use to catch brown trout either through the ice or without.
- Rapala Original Floating Minnow
- Mepps Aglia Spinner
- Rebel Crawfish Crankbait
- Yo Zuri Hybrid Fishing Lure
- Blue Fox Classic Vibrax Spinner
- Worden's Original Rooster Tail Spinner
- Panther Martin Classic Spinner
8. Observe Safety When Ice Fishing for Brown Trout
When brown trout ice fishing, or when ice fishing for any fish species, safety should be high on your mind. Some sources say 4" of solid ice is enough to stand on. At 5" thick it's supposed to be strong enough to hold an 800 lb. snowmobile.
Scan the ice for cracks and thinner points. If the ice thickness varies at all you should find another spot.
Always go with at least one friend and stay close together. Bring a long stick or pole out on the ice with you to quickly enable you to rescue someone who has fallen through.
Best Tackle When Ice Fishing for Brown Trout
Anglers fishing for browns through the ice will need a proper rod and reel combination depending on the water conditions. Fishing rivers, streams, and lakes where fish average just a pound or two is fine using the same tackle you use to catch small walleye or panfish.
If you are in a location where big brown trout may be caught you will have to upsize your tackle a bit. The action of the rod you're using should match the size of the fish you expect to catch.
RELATED: Best Trout Fishing Rods
Some anglers insist on the lightest and best gear. When fishing for smaller fish, it makes good sense. Some companies sell special fishing lines that are specifically designed for ice fishing for trout. These are usually fluorocarbon lines that are extremely hard to break. An 8-pound test line can be a good all-around choice, though you may want to fish with just a 6-pound test in very clear water.
Ice Fishing for Brown Trout in Rivers
Brown trout can be found in rivers across the northern USA and Canada. Just remember that in rivers and streams the ice can thaw quicker because the water moves underneath and splashes. This can cause melting where you may not expect it. Uneven ice thickness is the norm on these water bodies and they are not as safe to fish. However, streams that are not deep can be quite a bit safer than lakes and rivers!
River Brown Trout Locations
Locating brown trout fish in open water can be difficult in rivers. Ideally you already have some knowledge of the place and where trout can be caught before the ice forms. This can help you know the deep spots and the spots where rocks, sand, and mud are along the waterway.
In winter they cannot afford to expend much energy so they are in areas of very slow current. No rapids. No fast water at all. Browns will stay just out of the fast moving water and watch what floats by in the current.
Brown trout love sandy bottom but can also be found over rocks. Use the shoreline to see where spots might be rocky or sandy and start there.
You don't have to fish the deepest areas of the river to find brown trout. They can be caught in water as shallow as 1 foot deep at times. They come to the surface to be warmed by the sun. If they are in very shallow water, expect them to be skittish and very wary of you dropping bait down on their heads. Throw upstream and let it float down for 20 feet or more before reaching the waiting fish.
The best spot to catch browns will be around 3 to 5 feet deep in slow moving current or in still water bordering some moving current. Also, if you know of areas along the river or stream where eddies are formed, you can try there under the ice. They may like those spots when the ice crusts over too.
Ice Fishing Techniques in Rivers
Live bait or artificials? What should you use when ice fishing for brown trout?
Of course, you can use either but your best experience is almost surely going to be using live bait to catch browns under the ice.
Lures must be worked and moved around. Of course it's really difficult to give an artificial lure any kind of reasonable action when you have a hole of 6 inches or so that your line is dropped down into.
It's better to set live bait down in the holes and walk away, coming to the hole when you have a bite or fish on. Trout can see the shadows above on the ice and it disturbs them greatly. Any shadow over the water or ice means a predator to them and they can get shy about striking real fast when they think it could be dangerous for them. They want to eat, not be eaten!
Keep live baits fresh and ready to move when dropped down under the ice. This is why minnows are so good as bait. They move to get oxygen and can easily be seen by hungry trout.
Salmon eggs and Berkley Gulp Dough will work well to catch a lot of brown trout, too.
What about rigs? What is the best setup to use for fishing in rivers?
Current will dictate the amount of weight you need on your line to keep it where you want it. When the water is a bit slow, anglers can use a #8 live bait hook through a minnow. A split shot can be added if the water is moving a bit. It is possible to add a small egg or two to each line to fool fish into deciding that they should take a bite.
Vary the location of the weights to put the bait in different locations in the water column.
Some anglers will use a small 1/32 jig head when fishing in current. Using brightly colored jig heads attracts fish to your bait. Others use tip-down rigs or the Automatic Fisherman device.
Once you drop your bait down, get away from the holes. Using these set lines allows you to get away from casting shadows on the ice and through the hole. It is difficult to get a brown trout to bite if you are standing right above them. It is best to use a cover for the hole or to put some snow on the bottom of the hole to block light from entering the hole.
Ice Fishing for Brown Trout in Lakes
Lakes seem a little bit safer when ice fishing because the ice can be really thick. Where you choose to fish is probably related to how close you are to a prime spot. If you're close to any of the following 3 prime locations for brown trout ice fishing - go there!
- Lake Michigan is located in the midwest. It's one of the five Great Lakes and has some great fishing.
- Lake Superior is also one of the Great Lakes and is the largest one. There are more places to fish here than in the other lakes because it has a lot more surface area.
- Lake Champlain is in the northeastern United States and part of it extends into Canada. This is a large and shallow lake known for its excellent brown trout ice fishing.
The tips and techniques we mention below can be useful for anglers fishing on lakes, but can also be applied to other waterways.
How to Locate Brown Trout Under the Ice
Our first tip is that it's easier to fish in a shallow lake with a series of small holes dug and rigs placed with different baits along the bottom. You'll find out what the fish are interested in, where they are in the water column, and about how big they are if you catch one. This is valuable intelligence that you can use.
When ice first starts freezing over your favorite spot to fish you can find trout near the breaks in the ice that are shallow. Meaning, about the top 10 feet of the water column. They love shallow water breaks, but they can go down deep too. It depends on the temperature primarily during winter.
Crowded spots are not recommended when ice fishing. You don't know how the ice is doing if there have been people walking all over it. You don't know whether a crack has developed and will extend further if walked over. You don't know if someone pulled their vehicle out onto the ice.
All kinds of things could have happened before you arrive. Go with a partner (at least one) and fish an area that hasn't been drilled yet. Go with proper rescue equipment, gear to keep warm, proper wind deflection, and everything you need to ensure you have an enjoyable day on the ice!
We've said before, you can find brown trout eating a variety of bait in a number of different kinds of habitat. Change up your bait and location often if you aren't finding fish biting. There's nothing worse than being cold AND not catching fish!
Bring a few different live baits, Berkley Gulp, salmon eggs, and some spoons, jigs, or plugs. Try everything you've got before you give up because trout can be very picky and not like anything presented until you give them the last thing you brought.
Where to Go Ice Fishing for Brown Trout
Ideally you go to a lake, pond, stream, or river that you have already fished at for brown trout and you know where they might be located in the winter. Drill a couple of holes and find out if they're there! It's largely a case of hit or miss and try-try again. Right? There is no guarantee fish will be there this year if they were there last year, but guess what? There's a pretty good chance of it!
Use local knowledge, forums online, and fishing channels in your area with fishing reports if someone has them. This way you can get up to the day intel on where brown trout may be hiding.
Again, resist the urge to fish with a group of people on the ice. It just seems like a very bad situation you can easily avoid!
Never fish alone on the ice!
Once you find a safe location, remember that trout often move from deep holes to shallower areas during the winter.
What color lures do brown trout like?
You may be surprised to learn that browns may prefer bright or dark and natural colors depending how the wind blows. Bring everything you've got and continually try something different until you start bagging fish.
How deep do trout go in the winter?
In summer, fish can go deep to escape the blistering hot top water the sun heats up during the day. It isn't unheard of for brown trout to be 50-60 feet deep in summer. In winter it's the other direction. The bottom layers stay about the same temperature and the top layer heats up so trout rise vertically to take advantage of the warmer water conditions to feed.
RELATED: Must-Have Winter Fly Fishing Gear
How cold is too cold for trout fishing?
Trout are most active when water temperature is between 44-67°F so anything colder than 44°F can be unproductive for fishing.
How long should an ice fishing leader be?
If you use monofilament or fluorocarbon, you don't need a leader. Most ice fishers use one of these two lines and avoid braided line because it picks up too much ice over time.
There is something good to be said for going to areas that are virtually untouched by anglers. Imagine brown trout not having seen bait on hooks for weeks or months. You may be there at the perfect time.
Avoid crowded areas for many reasons, safety being primary. Don't take ice-fishing lightly because even if you do have a pole and a friend it may not be easy to rescue someone that falls in. Imagine all your energy gone instantly as the cold water shocks you and you sink to the bottom. Yikes, right? Be very careful and help others be safe too.
A variety of presentations is best so you can quickly figure out what the proper depth, bait, and areas to fish. Put the time in to work out the hot spots and you can return to them time after time and catch a steady limit of fish. This is another great reason to avoid crowds, you can keep your hot spots secret!
Good luck out there on the ice and let us know how it goes this winter!