A brookie bag of tricks for winter anglers

by Gord Ellis | January 1, 2013

brookie bag - Winter brook trout
Few fish inspire as much passion in winter anglers as brook trout. In part, it’s due to their natural beauty. No other Ontario freshwater fish can touch them for sheer good looks, colour, and overall aesthetics.

Brook trout, also known as speckled trout, live in the province’s most spectacular and pristine lakes, and thrive in wild and remote waters. The farther you can get off the beaten path, the better you will find the fishing. Wherever you find them though, beware, brook trout will crush your dreams faster and more often than any other game fish. Ask any angler who has targeted these beauties and they’ll recount long, fishless days on the ice, even in lakes brimming with trout. That’s how brookies roll.

Sometimes, just one small adjustment is all you need to turn that frown upside down. Here are a few tips to help to keep the skunk trips to a minimum this winter.

Live-bait tactics
Brook trout actively feed under the ice — even on super cold days — and from what I’ve observed, they aren’t picky eaters. The average winter brook trout’s stomach contains nymphs, snails, leeches, minnows, amphibians, sticks, rocks, and mud. Brook trout are grazers. They will eat nearly anything that moves, and (as is evident by the sticks and rocks), even things that don’t. This wide-ranging palate is a real advantage for the angler, as just about anything is potential trout food. Worms and minnows are consistently appealing and they’re easily obtained. Each has its own charm, but can be tricky to use in winter conditions.

Worms are the closest in texture and appearance to brook trout fare, so there is really no wrong way to fish a worm. That’s the good news. The bad news is worms and -20˚C don’t go well together. To prevent them from freezing, I keep them inside my snowsuit in a baggie filled with some dirt or bedding. They don’t freeze, but they do occasionally escape.

You can catch specks with a worm on a hook, on a jig, or as a sweetener on a spoon. One effective trick is to tip a half worm on a 1⁄4- or 1⁄8-ounce brown or black bucktail jig. The bucktail offers a buggy look and the worm adds flavour. Although any worm will work, I find garden variety earthworms catch trout more consistently than their cousins, the larger night-crawlers. Garden worms are a different creature than those pink things sold as trout bait. They aren’t as juicy as night crawlers, but through my unscientific comparison of garden worms and commercial “trout worms” I’ve observed that trout prefer the more natural product. However, getting a line on the real deal in January can be an issue.

Minnows make fine brook trout bait, as they are constantly active under ice, giving off that creature-in-distress vibe no predator can ignore. But, not all minnows are created equal. Over the years, I’ve had great success with redbelly dace, a minnow relatively common in parts of northern Ontario. Red is a trigger colour for brook trout, so when the bait has this colour built in, so much the better.

You can catch a brook trout on any old minnow, as these things eat stickleback like candy, but make sure they are lively. A listless minnow on a set-line is rarely going to get hit.

Over the years I’ve noticed that many brook trout anglers pick minnows that are really small, about 2 to 3 inches on average. That’s fine, if you’re only targeting foot-long trout, but if you want to get the attention of a big speck, upsize your bait. How big? I’d say a four- or five-inch minnow is not out of whack. A couple of winters back, I caught a large brook trout pushing five pounds that had a bulging stomach. It was caught in a stocked lake, so I kept it to eat. When the fish was cleaned, there were a dozen lake herring in its stomach, some eight inches long. Really.

Jigging spoons
One of the best and most consistent lures for winter brook trout is the jigging spoon. The flash and pound of a metal spoon calls brookies in when nothing else will. In fact, my most recent, really large winter speck was caught on a spoon, and it was a corker.

I was fishing with my father, Gord Sr., on a lake neither of us had explored before. It was the dead of winter, and cold. We got to the lake and did what just about every other first timer does: we looked for sticks — or gads — in the snow, left by previous anglers. Sure enough, there were a few sticking out of some drifts on a point across from us. So, off we went. A good general rule on a new brookie lake is to assume everyone else knows more than you do. It’s not always the case, but it makes weeding out the dead water a little easier. Signs of angling are always worth checking out.

With auger in hand, I popped down a dozen holes in this spot, running from close to shore to about 50 yards out. Water spewed out of the holes and quickly created an ocean of slush. Luckily, both Dad and I were wearing insulated rubber boots. Using a flasher, I checked each hole for depth. They ran from three feet to about 20 feet deep. There was a nice finger point and gradual drop off as well. Whoever had been using the sticks knew something about fishing winter brookies. Dad set up on the flat while I chose to go a bit deeper. The lure of choice was a small Hopkins Smoothie sweetened with a bit of crawler. The flasher said there was 15 feet of water, so a good depth for jigging. The spoon went down the hole, and settled on bottom. I lifted it up a couple cranks and began jigging. On my second upstroke, I got snagged, or so I thought. Then, the line moved. Fish! I began to play the trout, but the spinning reel had seized with frozen slush. Without further ado, I grabbed the line and started playing in the fish by hand, old school. It felt big, yet seemed to not realize it was hooked. Before either of us knew it, the trout was in the hole. I grabbed it by the gills and heaved it onto the ice. It was a beast — fat and dark — with deep blue halos and an orange belly. The tape read 22 inches. It weighed just north of five pounds.

Not every brookie you catch with a spoon will be a monster. It just doesn’t work that way. However, it does seem that larger brookies have a special hankering for spoons. They work in just about every angling situation you will encounter.

Traditional winter-jigging spoons like the Swedish Pimple, Luhr Jensen Crippled Herring, and Hopkins Smoothie are all great choices for trout. Spoons of 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 ounce will usually cover the brook trout spectrum, with lighter spoons being better in shallow water. When catching really big brookies is a possibility, try cranking some serious heavy metal. I’ve seen some large trout slam jigging spoons weighing as much as one ounce, especially in deeper water. The thump of that big metal seems to drive even tight-lipped trout crazy. You should also consider classic, concave trout spoons such as the Acme Little Cleo, Little Jewel, and Eppinger Devle Dog. Spoons of the classic cup shape fall in an entirely different way, and can make the difference when regular jigging spoons aren’t cutting it.

Silver spoons are my favourite, although brass have proven themselves on darker days, and gold spoons are always worth having in your tackle box. Some people like to tie a barrel swivel up the line about 12 inches to reduce line twist. To each their own, but I feel the swivel impedes the action of the spoon. Just make sure you let your line spin out, or you will have line snarl.

While not always necessary, chumming has proven its worth over the years, especially on shallow flats where trout are roaming around. Generally, if there are a few dead minnows in the bag, or half-frozen worms, I will cut them up and drop the pieces down the hole. The chum adds a little scent, is sometimes visible to the fish as it falls, and attracts other minnows to your fishing area. You can also use salmon eggs, or even pieces of eggshell. Don’t overdo the chumming, as you don’t want to give the fish so much they don’t want to eat your bait. A little goes a long way with chum, and might just get the feeding-juices flowing.

Sight fishing
One of the most interesting things about fishing brook trout is how shallow they can be. I’d guess 90% of winter brookies are caught in less than 10 feet of water. Generally, these fish are found within about 50 feet of the shoreline as well. In lakes with clear water, you can easily sight-fish for trout in the shallows. If the slush is not too bad, lie on the snow, cover your head, and look down the hole. On one trip, I did this and watched an enormous brookie take a half-hearted swipe at my bucktail jig, literally missing it by inches. It then promptly inhaled my partner’s set jig and minnow just 20 yards away. That brook trout measured 25 inches. It was quite a thing to see.

When you watch brook trout at work, you quickly realize how often they miss a bait or lure on the first pass. This is why when jigging with spoons, you will occasionally feel a strike but not be hooked. It’s almost like they do a fly by.

You will also see trout cruise in for a quick look, then slink off without a bite. It’s instructive and fascinating to sightfish trout and you will learn a lot about how they work under the ice.

Brook trout are a fantastic winter fish and provide action right across the province. Add some of these tricks to your bag and catch yourself the trout of a lifetime this ice season.

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