Lessons for spring brook trout

by Gord Ellis | March 1, 2009

spring brook trout - SONY DSC

In my world, few things are more exciting than the sight of open water in a brook trout lake after a long, cold winter. There is so much to take in: the smell of wet moss and cedar next to the lake; waves lapping musically against Labrador tea plants. Ice-out is a magical time and a period of great promise. Some of the largest fish of the year are caught in the week or so after ice leaves ponds, lakes, and reservoirs. Giant spring brookies are what winter dreams are made of.

Yet, ice-out brook trout can be peculiar fish. Like school kids after March break, they’re hungry, cold, and sluggish. Nothing about ice-out trout fishing is predictable. I’ve spent the better part of three decades chasing brookies during this seasonal period, and they continue to teach me new things. There’s nothing like an old fashioned skunking to help you focus. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way, with some thoughts on what to do when brookies will not co-operate.

Temperature tantrums
If you fish brook trout and don’t carry a thermometer, consider yourself handicapped. Taking the water temperature is the first thing you should do when arriving at a lake. A temperature reading provides a good idea of what to expect — or not to expect — when you get to the fishing part.

Brook trout are among the most temperature-sensitive fish in Ontario. They will turn on and off like a light switch, depending on which way the mercury is going. Brook trout are coldwater fish. They can be caught in water so frigid it will pain you to dip your hand into it. However, they’re not as tolerant of extremely cold water as you might think.

Water temperatures between 34°F and 41°F are the lower threshold of comfort for brook trout. Expect fish in ice water to be moving slowly and on the negative side.

Ice-out trout are in the mood to feed, but will reject offerings they can’t catch up to. Fast-moving presentations are not a good idea in frigid water.

Brookies move into shallow water at low temperatures, but seem to linger for longer periods of time at depths of 10 to 15 feet, at least until the surface temperature warms. I can remember one trip where a friend and I pounded the shallows right at ice-out, but could barely buy a fish. Then, for whatever reason (desperation?), we decided to work jigs and spoons in deeper water and found the trout. They were willing to hit, but not to chase things up shallow.

Once the sun came out and the water warmed, the fish started nosing around in fallen wood in the shallows.

Moving on out
When brookies are in deeper water and have pulled away from shore, trolling is a good tactic. A silver or bronze-bladed No. 3 weighted-body spinner — with or without a worm sweetener — is a dynamite presentation for deeper trout. The spinner should run a few feet off bottom, so adding a split shot or two might be in order. The No. 5 perch Shad Rap and similar crankbaits are also great for catching big brookies holding deeper offshore.

At times, pockets of warm water in an otherwise frigid lake will hold many trout. Warm soft-bottomed bays can be good at ice-out. If a bay is warm and shallow, but has no cover, trout will be skittish. Ospreys, bald eagles, and otters all take advantage of shallow trout. Long casts and a silent approach are key to avoiding spooking the fish.

If you find a shallow bay with floating bogs, weeds, or a lot of wood cover, expect some trout to be milling about. How tightly brook trout hold to cover is amazing, and this is especially true in shallow bays. Cast so close to overhanging trees that you’re in constant danger of snagging.

A quality set of polarizing sunglasses is key when fishing shallow bays. You can often spot brook trout cruising around if you keep your eyes peeled. Feeder creeks can also provide a haven for brook trout. If the creek or rivulet is spring fed, so much the better.

Spring water will usually be warmer than ice-out lake water. Springs and brook trout go hand in hand. Find springs and they will almost certainly have brookies around them at all times of the year.

Blowing in the wind
Being on the windy side of a lake at ice-out is no fun. The wind doesn’t feel warmer as it comes across a waterbody that just hours or days earlier was ice covered. Given the choice, fish the lee side of an island or point. Yet, wind activates even the most sluggish fish and often draws them shallow, even when the water is cold.

Last spring, my long-time fishing partner Gene Balec and I decided to try a large brookie lake at ice-out. We were familiar with the water, but had only fished it in late spring and summer. So, when single digits showed on the thermometer, we knew our work was cut out for us. We pounded likely looking spring spots and what felt like miles of shoreline, but came up empty.

Then, the wind started to blow and it got cold in the boat. Throwing in the towel was a tempting option, but we decided to hunker down and try a point we’d fished unsuccessfully earlier. Waves were crashing over the boulders, and boat control was more than interesting. We both cast to the point and, as I slowly worked a bucktail jig back to the boat, a long-awaited strike came. I drew up on the rod and watched it flex into a half moon.

“That’s more like it,” I said, with some relief, as the rod bounced. “Looks like the wind got them going,” said Gene, reeling in his line. The fight was a bit of a circus, thanks to the wind and waves, but we finally got the fat 3-pound brookie into the net.

“Here’s to small victories,” I said, releasing the fish after a quick photo.

We didn’t catch many more trout that day, but any we did find were using the windward shore. Flat calm can be good, but if the wind is blowing, try the shore that’s getting beaten up.

The beauty of wood
I’m not a big fan of home maintenance, so a wooden home is not in my cards. Even chopping firewood can be a drag. But, when it comes to wood and iceout brook trout lakes, count me in. If you like brook trout, you should also be a fan of wood.

Whether overhanging along the shore, half in the lake, or completely submerged, all wood has great brookie potential. A fallen tree is perfect, especially if it’s the only piece of cover on a stretch of shoreline. On the flip side, I’ve been to lakes that had whole banks choked with wood, but the fishing was tough. As often as not, the fish were on one particular tree and nowhere else. Less wood is better than more wood, as it narrows down the search area. Obviously, though, few of us have much say as to how much wood any particular lake sports. Just be happy if some wood is there. Trout set up just about anywhere around a fallen tree, but they like to tuck under the canopy and trunk. Cedar, spruce, pine, and balsam offer the most potential cover for brook trout, while poplar and birch have the least.

This said, a single dead deciduous tree laying in a lake with no other cover will almost certainly be a trout magnet. One kettle lake I’ve fished several times has exactly one scraggly old birch submerged off its bank. It’s accounted for about 85% of all the trout we’ve ever caught in this lake. Sometimes, all of the fish are there.

Really aggressive fish can be drawn out from wood with crankbaits such as the Countdown Rapala or spoons like the EBG or Little Cleo. There are times, though, when you will have to get right into the wood to catch a fish.

Brook trout around wood are much less spooky than trout in open water. If you’re quiet and patient, you can occasionally get right over them in a canoe or boat. A jigging spoon like a Hopkins or Swedish Pimple is effective in this situation, as is a slip-float coupled with a light jig and a worm. The effectiveness of a vertical presentation when trout are buried in cover is impressive.

A beaver house is the ultimate wood cover on a brookie lake. It might not always hold fish, but is always worth a try. One constant is the probability of a beaver house holding a fish or two. Brook trout simply love the hodgepodge of sticks, logs, mud, and food a beaver house provides. The deeper the associated water and the younger the beaver house, the better. Yet, old houses can be good, too. Sometimes, a beaver house will account for only one fish, but it’s almost always the biggest one of the day. Find a really hot beaver house and you might as well drop anchor or go to shore to fish. You will be busy.

Mind your eyes and ears
Brook trout love spring almost as much as anglers do. It’s an endearing trait. When the ice goes out and the water gets soft, brookies get excited. They start chasing minnows around and slapping their square tails, making all sorts of noise. Some of the best brook trout hot spots my buddies and I have found over the years were revealed by rolling and splashing fish. An active brook trout is usually catchable. One of the great things about splashing trout is that they’re rarely alone. As often as not, a group of trout will be making all the noise, as they race each other to get at food.

Several years ago, Gene and I were on one of our favourite lakes and saw splashing in a small bay. We moved in for a look and saw a jaw-dropping sight. There, in about 10 feet of water, was a 50-strong school of brook trout. They varied from 16 to 20-inches-plus, and were moving en masse.

We pitched spoons to the school and immediately caught a couple of fish. Yet, the others seemed oddly uninterested in our lures. We did our best to follow the school (thanks to clear water and polarizing glasses), but they slowly shook us. A few hours later, we heard more splashing and, sure enough, the school was back. It was good for a few more fish.

I’ve seen this scenario on small inland lakes and also on huge waterbodies like Lakes Nipigon and Superior. It can happen at any time of the year (including winter), but the brook trout schooling phenomenon is most pronounced in spring. You haven’t lived until you’ve stared down 50 paddle-blade-sized brook trout. It’s a good feeling.

As you might have guessed, ice-out brook trout fishing offers big highs and deep lows. Yet, if brook trout make you crazy and you want a crack at the biggest squaretail of your life, don’t miss the opportunity to try it. When you sink the hook into the brookie of your dreams, all those hard lessons will seem well earned.

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  • Horsse

    Wow, what an amazing article! Lots of great information. Thank you for sharing. I’m located in zone 10 in Ontario. It is probably the Brookie capital of Canada. I will be incorporating your insight to my daily fishing adventures. Thanks again!