Breaking from the tree line, our party of four carefully stepped on to the ice. It was late November, indeed early to be fishing the hardwater. With no snow cover whatsoever, the surface was smooth and slick, best suited for skates, a stick and a puck. A brisk wind made it cool, but the temperature was only about – 2 Celsius. Acutely aware of the precarious nature of first ice, it was more the presence of freshwater springs in the lake that heightened my awareness. Shuffling down the lake, we soon found a suitable location, drilled a series of holes from three-to-six feet in depth, and proceeded to set one static rig each.
Allowed two lines each, we jigged with our second. Less than five minutes of probing the water, our first trout was on the hook! Things were looking good and indeed only got better as the morning progressed. Over the course of the day, our group of four anglers caught a total of 15. Several were vibrantly colored males measuring over 16 inches in length.
Don’t Miss The Window
If you’re a winter brook trout angler, you known that not every day is this productive. Trout can be aggressive, but they can also go negative. Hit and miss it can be, but experienced brook trout anglers recognize that first ice is hands down the best time to have your hook in the water.
Spend enough time targeting brookies through the ice, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that mid-November to early December offers up some of the best brook trout action through the ice. Their spawn occurs from early October through to mid-November and the post-spawn action is most often fast and furious.
While brook trout can certainly be caught all winter long, this first-ice action can be out of this world! Post-spawn, especially in November and early December, the males maintain their spectacular colors. Sporting their iridescent markings, and characteristically deep orange underbelly and caudal fins, they are one of nature’s most vibrant freshwater fish. Other striking features like their black gum line and pronounced hump on larger specimens, make them one of the more striking trout species.
While there can be exceptions, in my experience, the morning bite is best, with the mid-day action slowing down considerably. Often the late afternoon and evening bite turns on as well.
As the cold winter months settle in and the ice gets thicker, oxygen levels deplete and feeding activity commonly slows down. If I had to choose 10 days to target early ice brookies it would be from November 23 to December 3 each year.
In my experience, its best to arrive on the ice an hour before sunrise. This gives you time to drill your holes and get set up so you’re ready to focus on fishing during prime time. Just before first light and the early hours of the day almost always produce best. Like clockwork, from 11:00 am to around 3:00 pm are usually the slowest hours.
Rods are a personal preference, but a medium or mediumlight action blank with light line (e.g. 4 to 6 lb.) and smaller terminal tackle with bait are generally the best producers. Be sure to consult the regulations to determine any bait bans. In waters where bait restrictions apply, and where allowed, soft plastic baits like Berkley Gulp, PowerBait, or Mister Twister Exude can be good trout attractants. Where bait is allowed, dew worms, mealworms, and maggots are proven trout catchers and, where regulations allow, minnows can be superb.
One of my own go to patterns involves tying on a backswimmer and arming it with a very small morsel of shrimp straight from the grocery store. Avoid additional hardware. Attaching a light fluorocarbon leader to the end of your line and tying directly on to the hook can help dupe otherwise spooky trout.
As far as hooks go, it is less about the precise pattern than the size. Matching the forage will always give you an advantage. For example, if the water has a lot of leeches, backswimmers, or sticklebacks, chances are, patterns emulating these will entice strikes. From single hooks to tiny jigs, and nymph patterns, each can be presented as a tasty snack for Brook trout.
Choosing A Lake
Found in various cool, clean lakes throughout Alberta, Brook trout were first introduced in the early 1900’s and have become an integral part of the province’s stocking program. With plenty of accessible fisheries, a couple that I’ve enjoyed success on include Muskiki and Peppers lake. Edith and Marigold are also great bets for catching winter Brook trout. Before you go, ask yourself if you want quantity or quality. Many of Alberta’s lakes are stocked regularly and it is common to catch small and medium-sized Brookies. But if you’re more interested in quality, then you may have to do a bit more research. A good place to start is talking with regional fisheries biologists. Good conversations to have involve discussions around stocking numbers, angler pressure, and winter die-offs.
If your goal is to keep fish, limits may have a bearing on where you might want to fish. Consult Alberta’s Guide to Sportfishing Regulations to determine season dates, closures, limits, and bait restrictions and allowances. In the Prairie-Parkland Zones as well as the Eastern Slopes zones, general lake regulations allow anglers to take a limit of five trout (combined species) and from waters in the Northern Boreal Zones, a total of three. For trout in the national parks, consult park and lakespecific regulations.
Jigging & Static Presentations
Brook trout, like other trout species, become protective of their spawning redds at this time of the year. One of the best angling strategies early ice anglers use involves locating and jigging over rocky shoals. Some of my best action has been in only three-to-six feet of water. Brook trout find suitable habitat to lay their eggs and will linger, or hold for a period of time, on and around these spawning beds. Using jigs that emulate minnow patterns, they will often become aggressive is you bounce your jig off the rocks. I’ve heard it said that brook trout see this action and attack what looks like minnows feeding on their eggs.
Ice fishing for brook trout isn’t an exact science, but certain truths seem to be consistent. Sometimes they feed eagerly and sometimes they are negative, but one thing is certain – both active and static presentations produce strikes
Like I said earlier, these strikes can occur at any time, but as a rule, early morning from about a half hour before sunrise to a couple hours after sunrise, tends to produce the best action. Midday is often slow, and then they tend to feed more actively again from about an hour before sunset to a half hour or so after dark.
One of my favourite rigs is 29” JackJacker Panfish/ Kokanee ice rod mounted on a JawJacker. It’s ideal for one-to-three-pound trout. With tension loaded, hanging a small black, brown, or orange jig (e.g., 1/16 oz.) armed with either a soft plastic resembling a minnow, worm, or a backswimmer with a piece of shrimp down the hole, six inches or so off the bottom can often be too much for a brookie to resist. Any tip-up will work, but I really like the JawJacker because you can set the angle of the rod to maximize tension. Properly rigged, the JawJacker is designed to establish an ideal hookset when a fish hits. For jigging, I like to use a 27” medium action Fenwick HMG. It has softer tip and stiffer back end.
I much prefer jigging. In my experience, with brook trout, less is more. A vertical rise and lowering of your rod tip will move your hook up and down throughout the water column, but less aggressive but distinct jigging actions can also attract trout. But attracting them is only the first step. More often than not, brookies hit when the hook and bait are merely jiggling or vibrating a few inches off bottom.
Ice fishing for winter brook trout doesn’t require a lot of equipment. Most trout lakes have fairly clear water, so seeing bottom isn’t usually an issue. Even still, a flasher can be a great asset, particularly when the bite is slow or subtle. I’m a big fan of underwater cameras, but trout are notoriously spooky, so my caution is simply to use them carefully. Pull it if you find its spooking the fish.
Handling Brook Trout
Last but not least, we all like to take photos. If we’re keeping fish, it’s not an issue, but if we are catching and releasing, then careful handling is in order. Trout are fragile. I recently fished with a fellow who drilled a portable live-well into the ice, that we used for taking photos. I discourage this method for retaining or culling your catch, however when fish need to be in the water while we get set up for photos, this can be a great strategy for ensuring the health of the fish. If you choose to do this, make sure it is filled with fresh water and free of slush. In the end, it’s about handling the trout with care, taking photos quickly, and if you plan to release, then returning them back to the depths as quickly as possible.
By Kevin Wilson