By Jeff Samsel

Countless small lakes throughout the Ice Belt offer excellent opportunities for trout through the ice, especially if you don’t mind walking a bit. Pack light and it’s easier than you think.

We pulled into the small parking in the early morning darkness. The lot was empty when we arrived and it was empty when we left, but old tire and sled tracks indicated at least a little use.  

The lake, not quite visible from the parking area, was tucked behind a slight ridge and down a short trail -- not a long walk, but somewhat of a trudge through foot-deep snow. Guide Jeff Sundin had walked the same trail only a few days earlier and suggested we travel light.

We opted to forgo the shelters despite the mid-winter chill. Beyond what we wore and stuffed in ice suit pockets, our equipment fit on narrow, hand-pulled sleds and included an auger, a flasher for each of us, a handful of ice rods, misc. jigs and spoons, some larvae and a bag of dead minnows packed in salt.
The approach to selecting a spot was similarly simple. Looking down the shore from the point where we stepped onto the lake, Sundin pointed to a place where the bank jutted out to form a slight point. We walked 10 minutes or so to that spot and started drilling holes on top and both sides. Fifteen or so holes gave us a nice range of depths, so we simply started fishing, working from hole to hole to see who was home, and it wasn’t long before Sundin was hooked into a feisty rainbow trout.

I’ve fished trout lakes in a handful of states over the past few winters and have noticed several common denominators. Most significantly, trout receive surprisingly light pressure in many lakes. Despite impressive strength, an aggressive nature and fine eating qualities, trout simply don’t compete with walleyes, pike or panfish for angler interest in most places. You may not always have a lake to yourself, but you’re pretty unlikely to find yourself fishing in a crowd or struggling to fool fish that have seen every trick in the book.

In many places, trout waters include various small lakes that are sometimes a bit off the main drag and may not have formal access. That means getting on the ice often requires some walking – sometimes significant walking – which contributes to lighter fishing pressure.

Finding the best places to fish may also involve a little extra searching on fisheries division websites or by asking questions in bait shops because trout lakes are less popular than walleye or perch lakes.

Probably the nicest common denominator among the trout lakes I’ve visited is the lack of specialized knowledge about a lake required to catch fish. Trout tend to stay on the move, so if you’re even somewhat systematic in where you drill holes and how you approach the day, some fish typically will find you.

Except for outings targeting lake trout, which are totally different critters from rainbows, browns, brook trout or cutthroats, pretty much every day I’ve spent targeting trout through the ice has involved a pretty simple fish-finding approach. Either we’ve worked areas that were obvious spot from looking at the the shore, such as points, pockets and corners, or we’ve utilized a hole pattern that provided a good sampling of a lake’s offerings. On a few extra small trout lakes, we’ve drilled holes in a T or plus-sign pattern, with one line of holes crossing the lake one way and another crossing perpendicular. In other instances, we’ve simply paralleled the shore with a line of holes.

While trout move frequently, they don’t move randomly. They commonly follow breaklines or edges of points and they frequently move into key areas such as gaps in weedbeds. In other words, not all holes are created equal. Work holes systematically, giving each 10 minutes or so if the trout don’t provide a reason to stick around, and pay attention to bottom depths, the presence of weeds and other things that make one hole different from another. Once you’ve identified key depths or even specific holes the fish are making good use of in their travels, it makes more sense to hold tight and wait for the next trout to come through.
Another trout distinction that’s important to keep in mind is that they could come through at any level of the water column. If you’re fishing in 30 feet and start seeing marks only a few feet beneath the ice, try working your bait way up high. You might be in for a treat. Be ready, though, when a charging rainbow grabs a spoon from that close and takes off running, things can get exciting pretty quickly.

Trout respond well to commotion, so a rattling bait like a Lindy Darter, Rattl’N Flyer Spoon or a 360 jig, which create a lot of sound and vibration, work well for calling in fish. More so than most other species, though, trout will charge in hot, show up in an instant as a thick red mark on a flasher, and then disappear just as quickly. If you notice fish moving in and out but are not committing, try bringing up your attractor bait and dropping something more subtle, like a tiny Watsit Grub or a Lindy Toad tipped with a waxworm or two. Experiment a little, and you’ll likely find the right combination.

One final thing worth noting about trout lakes is that they tend to be governed by a few more rules than other waters. For example in Minnesota, no live minnows are permitted on designated “stream trout” lakes, and several lakes have species-specific creel restrictions. Know the law for the water you plan to fish and learn to distinguish trout species.