Copyright ©1999 Spring Creek Communications
*Hot Trout at Ice-Out!
Want to limit out on thrashing 14 to 20-inch rainbows and cutthroats in an hour or two of frenzied shore fishing? If so, right now is the time to do it, not next summer.
by Lewis Watson
Photos by Sharon Watson
Just bundle up warm and head for any major Western reservoir where winter ice is breaking up. There you will find dozens of other anglers huddled around shore bonfires and intently watching baited rods propped over nearby rocks. Their frequent shouts and mad dashes for bucking rods suggest that ice-out trout fishing may be one of the hottest open secrets on the Western calendar.
The Spring Thaw and Big Spawners
Ice-out trouting is especially popular in the wintry northern Rockies, where March and April can otherwise be real bummers. Hunting seasons have long since closed, yet winter’s snow and ice keep hanging on. When spring thaw does arrive, the region’s famous trout streams become chocolate gushers overnight – not that you could legally fish them anyway. Even ice fishermen are frustrated as frozen-over reservoirs turn to treacherous mush.
Angling relief is on the way, however. As water temperatures rise, thousands of roe and milt-laden fish abandon mid-lake waters to concentrate in a narrow band near shore. Cruising within easy casting range, they search constantly for flowing tributaries to run up, or at least suitable inshore spawning gravel. Most of these spawners are big – starting around 14 inches and going up.
Eager trout start patrolling the first thin ribbon of open water to appear between shore and unbroken ice farther out. Bundled-up shore anglers often cast lures and baits directly onto this ice shelf, ease their offerings into the water, and get jolting strikes from waiting fish. Biologists in nearly every Western state report that fast limits of firm-fleshed trout average larger at ice-out time than at any other time of year.
Not only are big spawners concentrated close-in, but they are also hungry and active after a long, dark winter spent under snow-covered ice. A classic rule is that fish in very cold water won’t chase artificial lures well. Try telling that to an excited rainbow or cutthroat at ice-out time. I’ve had more than one chrome wobbler thrown back at me by rainbows cavorting wildly in thin slush ice.
Many happy victims of "ice-out fever" concentrate at easily accessible parks and boat ramps where hatchery trout were planted a year or more earlier. Like returning sea-run steelhead and salmon, the now-bigger spawners are thought to find their way back to these stocking points and mill about, instinctively trying to go "upstream." Groups of shore anglers form veritable annual conventions of in-the-know regulars, and everyone catches fish.
Under typically raw and windy conditions, bottom baitfishing is the simplest way to hook shore-running trout without handling a cold rod too much. Avoid fishing with a tight line and heavy sinker. Instead, use four-pound test mono with a free-sliding sinker, and fish with a loose line. That way you have more time to gallop from a hand-warming shore fire to your rod before a striking trout spits out the bait.
Any standard trout bait – worms, eggs, corn, marshmallows, cheese – works fine on these cruising cold water spawners. If you can cast hardware on a spinning rig without guides icing up, go to it – spring trout will belt small spoons, spinners and jigs ferociously. Flyrodding from shore this time of year, while effective, is for the very devoted or mildly masochistic.
Ribbons of Water and Sheets of Ice
Early in the thaw, open-water potholes are limited on some lakes. Weekend mob scenes commonly develop around any fishable water with easy road access. This is a good time to don a shoulderbag full of tackle and strike out upshore. The first tiny patch of open water you find will probably provide a quick limit of trout. Alternatively, some anglers launch cartop boats in widening potholes and elongated cracks to escape shoreline crowds. Be careful, though – spring winds can quickly shift vast sheets of ice and trap boaters out there.
Float tubers are strongly advised to stay out of that stuff.
Inshore ice-out action usually lasts several weeks, from the first appearance of open water until reservoir ice sheets completely break up. If you miss the top ice-out period itself, hit your favorite reservoir as soon afterwards as possible. Sometimes reservoirs lose their ice almost overnight, but big would-be spawners are still there within easy casting range of shore.
If you live near a trout reservoir open to early spring angling, you probably already know about this once-a-year ice-out bonanza. If you live some distance away, start calling local sport shops for the latest ice-out news. When the ice goes, you should too!
You may take an occasional brown, brookie or other char at ice-out time. These fish are fall spawners, however, and generally don’t stage in dramatic numbers like spring spawning ‘bows and cutts do. A notable exception is big lake trout, or Mackinaws, which briefly leave their icy deepwater hangouts to cruise the cold in-shore shallows of early spring. On known lake trout waters, stay tuned for ice-out strikes from something big and sluggish. Hooking a 15-pound laker on ultralight tackle is guaranteed to warm your blood on a cold March day.
What about the ethics of deliberately targeting spawning fish during ice-out time? No problem there – rainbows and cutts can rarely bring off a successful spawn in lakes and reservoirs, anyway. They essentially must have running water, which is why most tributary streams flowing into reservoirs are closed to fishing this time of year. All fisheries biologists agree on this point. They say thousands of expensive hatchery stockers die off unharvested every year after the rigors of failed spawning attempts in lake gravel.
Most Western reservoirs subject to heavy ice-out fishing are simply too big to be hurt by the added pressure. Also, the average summer angler doesn’t realize just how fast and wild this early spring fishing can be. Of those who do, only a few care to brave snow, mud, distance and raw weather to haul in heavy stringers of fat trout. All this is just fine with the sport’s red-nosed devotees – they are left with more fish and miles of wide-open shoreline all to themselves.
Tributary streams and a few special-case lakes may be closed during ice-out spawning time, so check each state’s local regulations carefully.
Biologists agree that nearly all Western trout reservoirs subject to freezing offer exceptional fishing during ice-out. Since we can’t list all of them, we asked officials in several northern Rockies states to suggest their top ice-out waters. Residents of warmer states should inquire locally to identify high-altitude lakes and likely ice-out times.
Top picks in west-central Montana include Holter, Canyon Ferry, Hauser, Willow Creek, Clark Canyon, and Hebgen reservoirs. Northwest Montana has literally hundreds of lakes with top-notch ice-out fishing mainly for rainbows.
Top ice-out choices: Wheatland Reservoir No. 3 north of Laramie, Seminoe north of Rawlins, and Boysen near Shoshoni. Also check out Lake Hattie near Laramie, Lake DeSmet near Buffalo and huge Flaming Gorge where it freezes over in Wyoming. Fly-and-bubble is a favorite angling combination in Wyoming.
Colorado anglers have long been enthusiastic about ice-out trouting. We suggest Granby Reservoir and Grand Lake near Rocky Mountain National Park, Blue Mesa Reservoir on the west slope near Gunnison, and Pueblo Reservoir in Colorado’s southeast corner. Two other top choices are Ruedi Reservoir near Aspen and Spinney Mountain Reservoir between Denver and Colorado Springs.
Utah’s Fish and Game Department actively promotes ice-out trouting, since that’s the only time of year some waters are really good in this relatively warm state. Recommendations are Panguitch Lake and Otter Creek Reservoir in the south, Scofield and Strawberry reservoirs in central Utah, and Lost Creek and Matt Warner reservoirs in the north.
In southwest Idaho, don’t miss ever-popular Cascade Reservoir. Also check out nearby Warm Lake and Lost Valley Reservoir. Hayden Lake in the north has good winter carryover of large trout spawners, as do Magic and Mormon reservoirs in southcentral Idaho. Many of Idaho’s major trout lakes are either too big to freeze over or are managed for larger fish, with closed seasons at ice-out time.
*Originally published in Western Outdoors, March, 1989