Surefire strategies for icing trout now
The midwinter doldrums deter some anglers from hitting the ice, but fine fishing is close at hand for anyone within a short cast of a trout lake. Just ask veteran guide Bernie Keefe, of Granby, Colorado.
“Rainbows and browns reliably cruise shoreline shallows throughout the winter wherever oxygen levels allow,” he explains. “Armed with an auger and a few basic jigging lures, you can catch them a short walk from the bank.”
Keefe’s near-shore trout program hinges not so much on finding structural sweet spots such as breaklines or sunken islands as it does on covering water rich in rocks. “A boulder the size of a Volkswagen sticking out of the ice is a good sign,” he says. “Bows and browns gravitate toward big rocks because they offer protection from larger predators like lake trout that are cruising a little farther offshore.”
Where such boulders exist, Keefe drills a few holes around the perimeter and sets up shop in his Clam Runner flip-over shelter. “It’s a large one-person portable that works great for these kind of missions,” he notes. The reason? Keefe prefers to ply a pair of holes simultaneously, using the jig in one as an attractor and the other to close the deal. “Drill two holes 30 inches apart,” he says. “Swim one jig in small circles to draw the trout’s attention, while deadsticking the other. Switch off every few minutes to vary the presentation.”
Gearing up, Keefe favors a 28-inch, medium-action Jason Mitchell Meat Stick rod paired with a large-arbor reel like a Clam Ice Spooler or Eagle Claw Inline Ice Reel. “The combination gives you power and sensitivity, with the perfect drop speed for triggering trout,” he explains. After tying a dainty jig like the 1/32-ounce Clam Duckbill Drop or Dingle Drop onto his 4- to 6-pound Berkley Trilene XL mainline, he sets the rod on a bucket, leaves the reel in freespool mode, and lets the lure descend toward bottom.
“Trout see it falling nice and slow, and move in to check it out,” he says. “When you see a fish on sonar, don’t panic and stop the bait. Any changes in the fall can spook the fish, especially on lakes with lots of fishing pressure. Instead, let it fall a little farther and gently begin your jigging cadence.”
Keefe prefers a subtle lift-drop that causes the jig to swim in a circle roughly 12 inches in diameter. Tipped with a small soft-plastic trailer like a Clam Maki, the tiny jig yields tantalizing action. If no fish rush in on the drop, Keefe stops the drop midway in the water column, deploys a second identical setup in the other hole and begins jigging that while giving the first jig a rest. “Fish often move in to look at the moving jig, and then hit the motionless one,” he notes.
Lure color choices are straightforward. “This time of year, oranges, chartreuses and other bright colors work best,” he says. “The fish aren’t as aggressive as they were earlier in the winter, but they still like gaudy patterns.”
Hunkering by a productive rock is a top option from daybreak to 9 a.m. After that, Keefe adopts an ice trolling approach to search for scattered fish.
To work a promising shoreline, he often punches a string of holes along a section of the bank, sometimes covering as much as a quarter-mile of territory in one pass. “It’s great if you’re fishing with a buddy,” he says. “Fish alternate holes spaced 10 feet apart, jigging one and deadsticking the other, with two lines apiece, so you cover 30 feet of water at a time.”
On lakes with ample oxygen in three to 10 feet of water near shore, the pattern holds water all winter. “If the oxygen level starts to drop, trout move offshore,” Keefe cautions. “But the good news is, they suspend over deep water and the same jigging patterns work just as well.”
For more information or to book a trip with Keefe, visit: fishingwithbernie.com or call (970) 531-2318.