Winter's wrath was slow in coming to many areas of the Ice Belt, resulting in a belated freeze-up that has anglers scratching their heads over how to tailor their tactics to such untimely first ice.
If broad-shouldered lake trout are on your hit list, veteran guide Bernie Keefe of Granby, Colorado, has a boatload of hard-won tips to put you on fish fast.
"There's more to dealing with a late freeze than going out and fishing the same areas you normally go to at first ice," he begins.
One of the main reasons for this is, in many lakes, the food supply and location of that forage is different in January than it was in late November or early December.
"Most of the spawning action that concentrates lake trout forage such as small trout, salmon and other baitfish in late fall is long since over with," he says. "So the lakers are back to dining on normal winter forage, including crayfish, small trout and young salmon."
With potential sources of sustenance available from the shoreline out to mid-lake structure, hungry lake trout can be almost anywhere. To keep the search process manageable, Keefe recommends deciding which bite you want to pursue.
"Shallow lake trout eating suckers and rainbows tend to be more aggressive and rarely see anglers' lures, so they're generally biters, not lookers," he says. "But they can also be the hardest fish to connect with because only so many fish move shallow to feed every hour, and when you divide that by all the miles of shoreline in a decent-size trout lake, the odds against being in the right place at the right time can seem astronomical."
To tip the odds in your favor, he advises focusing on two to 10 feet of water in high-percentage areas such as points and shallow humps near shore. "Where stocked rainbows spawn in winter, boat ramps can be hot zones because the fish return to their stocking area to spawn," he adds.
When fishing the shoreline, Keefe gears up with super-size softbaits. "Go big or go home," he quips. "Lake trout are feeding on 8- to 12-inch fish, so they hit 8- to 10-inch plastics without batting an eye." His favorites include the 10-inch Original Hogy plus beefy tubes and Berkley Jerk Shads, rigged on a ½- to 1½-ounce homemade jig armed with a 5/0 to 6/0 heavy-wire TroKar jig hook.
"I also keep a 4-inch pre-rigged Berkley Swim Shad handy for times a fresh year-class of forage turns trout onto smaller meals," he adds.
To help tame the fury of a trophy laker hooked in shallow water, Keefe spools 36-inch, medium-heavy and 40-inch, heavy-action Dave Genz Split Handle ice rods from Clam with 10-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon.
"Even with heavy tackle, you can only muscle a 40-inch laker so much," he cautions. "They're incredible fighters that love to wrap around rocks and saw your line against the ice. You will lose a few to rocks and break-offs, but that's part of the excitement of the shallow game. When you're hooked up to a trophy, savor every second of the fight as long as you can."
To tempt these behemoths into striking, Keefe fishes a string of holes spaced 50 feet apart with aggressive jig strokes that attract attention and trigger strikes. "If that doesn't bring them in, try a more passive approach," he says. "Mix subtle strokes with plenty of deadsticking, midway in the water column."
As for the deep bite, Keefe says mid-lake fish are warier but often found in predictable areas on structure. "Finding them can be easier, but making them bite can be harder," he explains.
Top fishing areas include humps, ridges and saddles in 20 to 70 feet of water that drop quickly into 100 or more feet. "Big flats in 20 to 60 feet can also be good," he notes. "The trick is finding places where juvenile salmon, plus some rainbows, cruise over structure feeding on plankton. Due to current and other factors, the fish often frequent the same spots on different structure elsewhere in the lake. So pay attention to where your bites are coming from."
The same rods, jigs and big baits used shallow are equally deadly deep, though Keefe adds Berkley Havoc tubes to the mix and may use jigs as light as 3/8-ounce. He also spaces holes closer together, since deep-water trout are often hesitant to move more than a few feet to check out a lure.
"Target deep trout one of two ways," he says. "Either gently snap-jig near bottom or deadstick halfway up in the water column. You miss more than you hook on the latter method, but it's still worth trying. And it's always a rush when a fish races up to grab your bait from the abyss."
For more information or to book a trip with Keefe,
visit: fishingwithbernie.com or call (970) 531-2318.