By Nick Simonson
Just after ice off on many lakes capable of holding trout is the time to pursue the big bruisers that have made it through the throngs of ice anglers over the winter and the warm waters of late summer. While trout aren’t designed to survive in the generally warm and shallow prairie lakes of the upper Midwest, there are some places where browns and rainbows are able to make it through summer’s heat and either receive minimal ice fishing pressure or are exempted from the pursuit, making for an exciting early spring angling option. What follows are some tips to finding these big fish before the next batch hit the water.
Do Your Research
Not all trout lakes are created equal. Many water bodies where rainbows, browns and cutthroats are stocked in spring are treated as put-and-take fisheries, and these cold-water species are expected to be caught before the high temperatures of summer take their toll. But in those lakes that run 40 feet or deeper there’s a good chance that fish will survive down deep until the waters cool in fall and provide the opportunity for them to make it to another season. Identify those lakes and reservoirs that have deeper stretches of colder water to help these stockers survive and you find a great place to start in spring.
Additionally, utilizing stocking reports from an agency such as the North Dakota Game & Fish Department will help identify those lakes where fish are stocked, and more importantly those select waters that are managed for trout fishing. Those lakes with contour maps showing significant depths, and reports of fish up to over 2 pounds or surveys showing fish over 14 inches usually suggest the chance for spring holdovers. Take some time to explore the options and put a pin in those places on a spring fishing map for when ice off or season regulations allow for angling.
With a good percentage of last year’s stockers weeded out, any holdover trout will be fewer and farther between come spring, but they will be big. Much like casting after muskies, the search for these larger spring trout starts by covering water. Fish will be aggressive in the cold waters after ice-out and covering the shallows quickly will help increase the chance of contacting them. From a small boat, utilize lures such as spoons and inline spinners to get a reaction out of fish cruising the edges of a lake, or troll small crankbaits where allowed to get a bite from those remaining salmonids. Other options include small marabou jigs, jigs and twisters or paddle-tail swimbaits. From land, work casts at a 45-degree angle to the shoreline, casting ahead of your walking path around the water body.
Don a pair of polarized shades and watch for trailing shadows or silver slashes behind a retrieved lure that don’t end up in a solid connection. On a missed strike, pause or twitch the lure and let it fall for a split second before resuming the retrieve, this will often bring a holdover trout back for another swing at the bait. Pause to offer a few more casts in an area where a fish is seen. On windy spring days, focus on the shoreline where waves are pounding, as whatever edibles remain in the basin – fish, insects and crustaceans – will be steered in that directions by the gales.
The time for put-and-take fish will come in mid-to-late spring as stockings take place around the region. Consider releasing these bigger holdover fish this time of year to be caught again and sustain the excitement of having a few “ghost trout” in the lake that exceed 16, 18 or 20 inches. Find those waters that provide the possibility of busting a few of those big ghosts now as ice recedes and gear up with the tackle and tactics to get the job done for an exciting start to the openwater season.
Featured Photo: A chunky rainbow trout which survived the prior season on a deep North Dakota reservoir goes back into the water. Simonson Photo.