Until I caught my first 3-pound rainbow, I thought Art Keeler was an icefishing heretic. I grew up believing, and confirming on numerous trips, that icefishing is a monotony of bottom-bouncing, a tactic about as subtle as a court summons. Bait a jigging spoon with a salted minnow and bump the bottom for walleyes. Or impale a maggot on a microjig and dangle it just above the bottom for perch. Even the few winter trout I had previously caught hit some combination of hardware and bait, fished in the vicinity of Davy Jones’s Locker.
Then I fished Canyon Ferry Lake with Art, the co-owner of Capital Sports in Helena, Mont. We fished small black streamers tied for flyfishing–beadheaded Woolly Buggers, mainly–with Mylar ribbons tied in the tails for added flash. We fished just under the surface of the ice, not in the murky depths. And we caught enough feisty, line-stripping trout to convince me that icefishing with light tackle can be just as dynamic and challenging as open-water fishing.
The key to this shallow winter bite, says Keeler, is finding places where trout congregate. That might be the mouths of tributaries where rainbows will spawn at ice-out in April. Or it might be flats adjacent to weedy or woody cover, or drop-offs that attract minnows. Don’t wait to try it. By late winter, oxygen in the water has been depleted and fish are hunkered on the bottom, conserving energy.
Avoid any high-traffic areas on the frozen surface, and don’t drive your ATV to your fishing spot. Shallow trout are as easily spooked by commotion on the ice as by bass-diameter line. Keeler uses light tackle, 4- or 6-pound-test monofilament and fluorocarbon leaders tied off a swivel. He baits his Buggers with a couple of maggots, pinches a split shot above the swivel to sink the bait, and suspends the streamer just 4 to 6 feet below the surface.
Try this shallow-water tactic on Idaho’s Snake River Plain reservoirs: Chesterfield, American Falls and C.J. Strike. It also works in a quiet cove of Utah’s legendary Strawberry Reservoir or on the less celebrated (but equally productive) Wasatch Mountains reservoirs, Currant Creek or Scofield. The upper end of southwestern Wyoming’s Fontenelle Reservoir is full of trout, or you can fish for prizewinning fish at February’s icefishing derby on Sulphur Creek Reservoir south of Evanston. Colorado has great winter trout lakes in North Park, and any of the interior mountain reservoirs–Ruedi, Rifle Gap, Antero and Eleven Mile–will produce limits on light tackle.
Wherever a major river is dammed to create a trout-rich reservoir, there’s bound to be a productive tailwater just downstream, and consistent water temperatures make these great places to fish for high-octane trout all winter. The Frying Pan below Ruedi Reservoir and the Blue below Green Mountain Reservoir in Colorado are the best-known of these tailwaters, but the Bighorn below Yellowtail Dam and the Madison below Hebgen Dam in Montana are great winter fisheries. Or consider the Santiam below Detroit and Foster reservoirs on the east slope of Oregon’s Willamette Valley or the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon.
If you’re flyfishing these tailwaters, tie up tiny midge imitations for winter trout, or go deep with scuds, Hare’s Ears or Pheasant Tail Nymphs.
If you prefer your trout to be sea-run, intercept the growing wave of incoming steelhead in any coastal stream from the Sacramento River to Washington’s Skagit. Good interior spots will be the Clearwater, Salmon and Little Salmon rivers in Idaho, Oregon’s Deschutes River and Drano Lake on the Washington side of the Columbia.
FINESSE BIG BASS
February can be a big-bass month in the West, but you’ll need to use ultra-realistic baits (or even live bait where legal) in the clear water and present them with molasses-slow action. Good spots for this finesse fishing are Lake Pleasant just north of Phoenix, Clear Lake east of Ukiah, Calif., Lake Hennessey in the Napa Valley and Samish Lake and Lake Whatcom near Bellingham, Wash.
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