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Great Lakes Trout on Ice: A Beginner's Guide

Brown trout and steelhead in the Great Lakes has been one of the most popular fisheries to date and its popularity continues to increase every year. However, from an interested outsider's perspective looking in, most would say "bobber fishing, looks easy enough". Newcomers quickly realize exactly how wrong they can be... having no clue just how important the little things in your approach can be.

Over the years in SE Wisconsin, ice fishing for giant steelhead and trophy Great Lakes brown trout has become nothing short of a commodity. To someone that's never attempted to catch these fish, even in open water, you quickly find they are full of surprises. For example... on the ice, one quickly realizes the importance of hook-setting devices.

Set Devices and Attention to Detail:

Here in SE Wisconsin, hook-setting devices like the Automatic Fisherman and Jawjackers are legal to use. In Wisconsin, anglers are allowed no more than three lines in the water per person. These devices allow you to fish 100% of the time which is usually the best approach in such a highly pressured area with crystal clear water. Trout are picky, but when they're really hungry they tend to throw caution to the wind (or the current rather) and in a day you and your buddies could ice double digits of browns and rainbows.

This is not always the case though... Once you learn how to operate your set line devices, extreme attention to detail becomes the most important factor. This attention to detail boils down to finesse, and can very easily be the difference of a good day, or a blank. It is important to pay close attention to the way the current in the lake influences how fish set themselves up. These currents in the Great Lakes are entirely dependent on the speed and direction of the wind. Knowing and understanding how these currents work is your key to initially locating fish.

Bait Selection and Care:

The next key factor, and possibly the absolute most important one is bait. Fresh salmon eggs, or trout eggs are going to get anglers more bites versus just about any presentation. Loose (single) salmon or trout eggs are best utilized fresh. Meaning when you harvest your eggs, they do not come in contact with any form of single egg cure, river water, skein cure, or borax. These eggs have a surprisingly long shelf life in the fridge and freezer if cared for and packaged correctly. Air tight freezer bags, or vacuum sealed packaging is best. Cured eggs will of course play their own role, but not when going up against highly pressured fish in clear water.

Terminal Tackle:

While proper bait selection and care is critical... it is also meaningless if not utilized on proper terminal tackle. One of the surprising reactions I've heard the most over the years has certainly been "YOU CAUGHT THAT FISH ON THAT!?". Trout in Lake Michigan grow to an average of 6-10 lbs with many fish in excess of 12-15 lbs and even reaching the mid to upper 20's. The finesse approach is highly overlooked by most when such big fish are involved. Hooks as small as size 12 octopus style can be the most effective in most situations. Including leader material consisting of very light fluorocarbon in 6lb test, and some cases as light as 4lb from 3.5'-5' in length.

Rod and Reel:

Terminal tackle needs to be properly matched and presented on the right rod and reel for giant trout. A reel equipped to spool mainline, whether it be braid or monofilament is important. I prefer monofilament as it provides some stretch to keep big fish from coming loose. 6-10# monofilament on 2000-2500 size spinning reels prove best. This is because the adequate rod for these big trout range between 34" and 38" light moderate, and medium light moderate. Shock absorption is critical to compensate for big violent head-shakes, and in some cases like with big steelhead, very fast and long drag burning runs.

In my opinion, finesse was not always an approach to Great Lakes trout fishing whether it be float fishing, drift fishing, or ice fishing. In the end, the more you pay attention to these minor details, the more success you'll have. With proper preparation and mastering of techniques - time and opportunity will surely pay off with more (and bigger) fish!

Pat Kiehm

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