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First Ice Trout

11/14/2016 10:32 AM

First ice is a magical time to pursue many species of gamefish, and members of the trout family are no exception. Just ask veteran trout and salmon guide Bernie Keefe, who plies the high-country lakes around Granby, Colorado.

"Rainbows, brookies and browns are all hungry right now," he says. "The spawn is over and trout are feeding up before the winter crunch settles in." 

As a bonus, a lack of fishing pressure in recent months often has trout at ease. "Nobody's fished them for awhile, so they're 'dumbed down' a little bit compared to the rest of the year," he laughs. 

Keefe targets skinny water in early winter, where trout pursue crayfish, baitfish and other sizeable sources of sustenance. "They eat insects, too, of course," he concedes. "But trout have big appetites this time of year and prefer larger forage when they can get it." 

He focuses on depths of four to seven feet, especially where bottom transitions sweeten the pot. "Changes from rock to sand or muck can be trout magnets," he offers. "And green weeds can be a plus where available." 

On the flip side, vertical inclines are out. "Forget steep drop-offs," he says. "Gentle slopes and flats in the backs of bays or alongside points are ideal." 

When he finds a promising fishing area, Keefe quickly pops a trio of holes and sets up shop. "I drill two holes 30 inches apart, which allow me to fish two lines," he explains. "Then I add a third hole in between, so I can sight-fish both outer holes simultaneously." 

To maximize comfort and manual dexterity while fishing, he pops a Clam portable shelter over the work zone and fires up a Mr. Heater to ward off the chill. "I like fishing without gloves for better feel, as well as the ability to quickly unhook fish, rebait hooks and retie lines," he says. 

In one hole, Keefe drops a flashy attractor lure like an 1/8-ounce Clam Leech Flutter Spoon. In the other, he deploys a more subtle presentation, such as Clam's tungsten Caviar Drop Jig. Spoons are often fished without tippings, but traditional jigs are tricked out with a small soft-plastic or live bait dressing. "Berkley Gulp! and Maki Plastics work very well," he says. "Mealworms and waxies are always good choices if you like live bait."

Spoons are fished with flair. "Give the spoon a 6- to 8-inch lift, then let it flutter back down," he says. "Dance it in place, pause and repeat the process. When you see a trout rush in, kill the theatrics. Most fish prefer to crush it on the pause." 

Keefe cautions to keep your spoon performances well grounded. "You don't have to pound the rocks or stir the mud, but always keep the spoon within a foot of the bottom," he says. 

Jigs are fished with a slower hand, tighter to bottom. "Jigs like the Caviar Drop Jig imitate fish eggs, which don't jump around a whole lot," he says. "But you have to add a little movement to get trout's attention. I favor slow, methodical, 1-inch lift-and-drops, but nervous shakes also have their moments. With either approach, keep the jig within an inch of the bottom." 

Whether jigging or spooning, Keefe wields a 28-inch, medium-light Jason Mitchell Meat Stick ice rod, which he says offers a great balance between strength and sensitivity. "The high-vis tip also makes it easy to see light bites when you can't see the lure," he adds, noting that 4-pound Berkley Trilene 100 Percent Fluorocarbon is his line of choice. 

Since trout are on the bite, Keefe rarely lingers in an unproductive area. "If you don't get bit within 10 minutes, move," he says. 

Most days, the bulk of the action comes early in the day. "Under clear skies, it's usually over by the time the sun hits the ice," he says. "But it's a great way to spend a morning. And cloudy conditions can prolong the action until noon or later." 

Keefe says the first-ice flurry usually lasts around three to four weeks, depending on fishing pressure. "When crowds move in, trout slide out to deeper haunts," he says. "They're still catchable, but the early season magic is over for another winter."

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Fishing with Bernie