Ice-Out: Shore-run Trout

ice-out trout

Hefty trout will cruise the shoreline when ice starts to go off lakes and reservoirs in spring

Mid-spring trout fishing on Idaho’s many legally-open reservoirs is apt to be the fastest and easiest angling you’ll get all year, and not just for 10-inch hatchery stockers either. Trout enthusiasts willing to face raw ice-out weather regularly haul in fast limits of deep-bodied rainbows and cutthroats averaging an incredible 16 to 20 inches. You don’t even need a boat for this specialized springtime trout fishing. Bank-walking anglers commonly catch more and bigger fish than boaters trolling traditional offshore waters!

What’s so special about the period right after reservoir ice-out, and why do so many Idahoans catch “shore-run fever” this time of year? The main event is that spring-spawning rainbows and cutthroats abandon the vastness of offshore waters about now to concentrate in ever-moving numbers immediately parallel to shore. (Browns, brookies, Mackinaw, and bull trout are fall spawners, but behave similarly in October and November.) The spring run in Idaho usually occurs from early April to mid-May, depending on water temperature. That means big spawners should still be cruising inshore waters somewhere near you right now.

Another inshore draw for ice-out trout is the year’s first oxygenated “strip water.” For a week or two each year, lake ice pulls away from shore in numerous spots before breaking up completely. If you can hit a thawing reservoir just right, you may find these narrow open-water channels literally packed with hungry, aggressive spawners. Typical is southwest Idaho’s Cascade Reservoir where shore-walking anglers cast their baits and lures directly onto the ice, pull them gently into the water, and wham!, tie into one big trout after another. Early-season fish evidently seek out these narrow strips of open water for their wave-tossed oxygen content and a more plentiful food supply just stirring from ice-locked winter doldrums.

A final near-shore attraction for trout is warmer water temperatures especially back in wide, shallow coves and bays. If a stream enters the head of such bays, all the better. Much like sea-run steelhead and salmon, pre-spawn trout stack up near stream mouths prior to their upcurrent run. Where legal, fantastic fishing can be enjoyed in such places, but check local laws carefully. Reservoirs and their feeder streams vary in definition, closures, and restrictions.

Not all Idaho trout anglers understand the above, but those who do usually become shore-run fanatics each spring. They burn up telephone lines checking ice-out conditions with lakeside sport shops. They turn up missing at work, and weekends are sure to find them bank-sitting or eagerly casting lures into the icy surf of their favorite reservoirs. With most worm-dunkers still at home waiting for balmy weather, those who venture out now will have miles of empty lakefront all to themselves.

If you want fast and easy fishing for fairly nice trout, try springtime bait soaking at last summer’s know stocking points. I haven’t verified this theory, but anglers on several Idaho lakes claim even sterile hatchery trout get the spring spawning urge. Like many salmonids, they try to return upriver to their point of birth. In their case “upriver” is a long-gone hatchery truck, but these now-larger stockers reportedly hang around their old dropoff points anyway. There must be something to this idea. On the last springtime reservoir I fished, dozens of bank-sitters were busily catching trout at a convenient park-stocking site, while miles of equally accessible shoreline were nearly empty of anglers. For larger and scarcer “native” spawners, try moving away from crowds where big fish are too quickly caught out.

Inshore spawners seem to hit lures and baits about equally well. I like to toss flashy spoons and spinners for the electrifying jolt a speeding 18-incher delivers when he slams into such moving lures. With lure treble hooks, most anglers will get a higher percentage of hookups from striking fish than in single-hook baitfishing. In murky-water conditions a bright and active lure attracts fish from greater distances where they might not see or smell a motionless bait on or near bottom. A final advantage to early-spring lure casting is that it helps keep you warm and “interested” between bites.

Lure choice for spin-casters is anything bright and glittery, but you’ll have to experiment with lure depth and speed. Shore-cruising trout don’t seem to be very selective this time of year, so “matching the hatch” with subtle fly patterns isn’t usually necessary. Fast-moving attractor patterns should fill the flyrodding bill in most cases.

If you like to sit on the bank with a baited rod propped in a forked stick, right now is the time to visit your nearest open-season reservoir. Bait has two advantages over lures. One is that it’s nearly always in productive water, and the other is that fish earnestly want to eat the stuff, not just swat at it. Even so, I’m amazed at how many hard strikes are missed by bait fishermen. If you hook one fish for each five strikes, you’re performing about average! This is largely due to bait anglers’ tendency to lay their rods down. Most trout strikes are so sudden and hard that fish eject the bait before an angler can grab his bucking rod.

You can improve your baitfishing-hookup average in several ways. One is to file all hook points needle sharp and make sure barbs protrude from the bait, which itself should be relatively soft. Two hooks back-to-back on a small snap, or perhaps a tiny treble, increase hookup potential, as does a tuft of bright attractor yarn tied just above the hook eye. The latter is an old steelheading trick in miniature – yarn literally entangles a trout’s teeth to keep it from spitting out the bait before you can set the hook.

Another still-fishing trick worth employing on quick-striking spring trout is the use of light line (4 to 6 lb. test) for minimal water resistance, together with a slip sinker. With light line sliding freely through a sinker, you’ll have more time to reach your rod before trout realize they’ve been had. In the elbow-to-elbow fishing crowd mentioned above, one elderly gent was steadily limiting out while everybody else kept jumping for their rods and cursing at missed strikes. Yep, he was using 4 lb. test line and a slip sinker!

The classic bait for Idaho bank anglers is a combination of a tiny marshmallow and worm. Either of these baits alone will catch trout, but together they’re deadly. The worm is a proven bait for trout (and everything else in fresh water), while a marshmallow floats the hook above bottom moss and rocks. Bait marshmallows are variously flavored and colored (I lean toward the bright fluorescents). Local fish flavor preferences do seem to vary – garlic here, anise oil there, and (can you believe this?) WD-40 penetrating oil somewhere else!

A little-used device for reservoir trout is a tiny bobber with bait suspended one to several feet below. Besides doing an end-run around bottom snags and providing a quick strike indicator, bobbers “wave-flutter” suspended offerings at a precise depth for cruising trout. They can also be reel-trolled steadily to draw a fish’s attention. Unfortunately, wave-drifted bobbers require more attention that the average bait angler is willing to give, even as they appear insufficiently challenging to lure anglers.

With sizzling inshore action for lunker-league spawners available right now at many reservoirs, why wait for Idaho’s late-May general opener, hordes of fair-weather novices, and mere hatchery stockers?

Photo by Sharon Watson


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Hot Trout at Ice-Out!