By: Tim Moore
Some of the first ice fishing opportunities for anglers across the ice belt are often for shallow water trout. Once trout waters freeze, rainbow and brook trout can be caught in as little as a foot of water, which means you can safely venture onto thin shoreline ice while you wait for your regular spots to thicken up.
The exhilaration of fishing on just a few inches of crystal clear ice and watching fish swim in from a distance to devour your lure may very well turn you into a trout fishing addict.
During the open water months, trout normally avoid shallow water because it leaves them vulnerable to aerial attacks from birds of prey and shoreline threats from predatory mammals. However, as soon as the water freezes, the fish have less to worry about and they move into shallow water to feed, but they are far from easy picking. They are wary, spook easily. Stealth is key when fishing in shallow water through thin ice.
Rainbow trout prefer sandy bottom. During the winter months, rainbows constantly cruise shallow water and scour the bottom for whatever insects, eggs, or baitfish they can find. On water bodies with rainbow trout, you will often find clusters of fish houses gathered around town beaches, all targeting rainbow trout, but some hardcore rainbow trout ice anglers will venture off to lesser-known areas with less fishing pressure and noise. Private beaches or secluded sandy areas will provide your best chance at better numbers and bigger fish.
One of the most popular techniques is to drill many holes along a shoreline in 12”-24” of water as soon as you arrive at your fishing location. Set tip ups (or jig rods) rigged with a Caviar jig tipped with a salmon egg in some of the holes and, in states that allow it, drop a couple of plain salmon eggs in the remaining holes. Silently inspect each of the holes with salmon eggs every 15-20 minutes. If the salmon eggs are gone, move one of your lines into that hole, because chances are the rainbow that ate the salmon eggs hasn’t gone far.
Brook trout will also frequent sandy areas, but they congregate in front of stream inlets to capitalize on any food that washed in. Use caution when fishing these areas, because the moving water will keep the ice thinner than surrounding areas. It might not present an immediate safety concern, but a wet leg can end a trip. Drill several holes in depths from 12”-36” around the front and sides of the inlet. A 1/8 ounce white or red blade spoon tipped with a white w/red flake Maki Minnow Head is almost irresistible to hungry brook trout. Keep the blade spoon moving, stay alert, and stay still. Watch the edges of the hole you’re fishing. Brook trout may swim around for several minutes before committing to eating your bait. A wisp of silt off to the side of the hole is a telltale sign that a fish is interested in your offering. It may very well dart in at any moment and devour your blade spoon, so stay focused.
The addition of a camera system, such as the Vexilar Fishphone, will not only add an element of excitement to your trip by letting watch fish take your bait, it will also help you determine how the fish are behaving toward a certain lure or cadence. The Fishphone will also let you see first-hand just how easily trout spook in shallow water. The Wi-Fi capability of the Fishphone allows you to view camera footage on your smart device from shore without spooking fish.
Remember, there is no such thing as truly safe ice. You still need to use caution and check ice thickness as you go, but for the most part the only thing you have to fear when shallow water trout fishing is wet feet if you breakthrough. Use stealth to your advantage, but stay mobile. Trout rarely sit in one spot, so you shouldn’t either. Drill lots of holes, but drill them when you first arrive to allow spooked fish the chance to calm down and return. Experiment with different colors and presentations until you find the combination that best triggers bites and as always, have fun, be safe, and catch fish.