Winter Trout from Shore:
Simple and Accessible
As winter begins to take hold in New York and other northern states, freshwater fish that are normally targeted by shore-bound anglers in warmer months will become almost impossible to catch. These “warm water fish” such as bass and panfish flourish in the shallows during summertime, however as the water cools post fall turnover, their habits do a complete 180. Often, winter anglers will find these fish suspended over deep, main lake basins, taking refuge from the chill temperatures. As cold-blooded organisms, their metabolism will slow, and they will feed less frequently and aggressively, typically only catchable to boat and ice anglers by dead-sticked live bait or vertical artificial presentations, worked painstakingly slow. These facts combined with the physical discomfort of being outside in the cold are enough to keep many fisherman from hitting the water all winter long – it just ain’t worth it!
While it is true that the cold temperatures will make it more difficult to catch fish, it is still not impossible. In fact, wintertime presents a unique opportunity to target a fish in the shallows that is normally out of reach of anglers lacking boats, the trout. While it is well known that trout are targetable in very shallow water through the ice, (sometimes in depths as shallow as one foot!) there are many areas which do not freeze consistently, yet still get cold enough to be subject to the seasonal winter “fishing shutdown”. Thanks to various state stocking programs, many lakes in these climates will hold trout. Furthermore, many lakes also have year-round trout seasons where it will be legal to target and harvest these beautiful, hard fighting, and delicious fish. If you have such a lake near you, it is a great option for scratching your fishing itch during the winter “cabin fever” season.
As a resident of the northern extent of the NYC metro area, we will occasionally see safe ice on a select handful of lakes in the area. However, it is not a consistent enough occurrence for it to be a popular activity by any means. Additionally, it requires specialized rods, equipment, lures, and other amenities, and many anglers would understandably rather just wait until spring to wet a line. However, at least as far as winter is concerned, it is hard to deny that we have been seeing a noticeable warming trend in the last few years. This was especially true in the winter of 2019-2020, where temperatures in the NYC metro area seemed to barely drop below freezing. According to the recently released winter forecast published by NOAA, we are on track to repeat this trend, with a 50% likelihood of warmer than average temperatures across the entire northeast coast. The way I like to look at it is: a 50% chance of great shore trout fishing all winter long! The best part is, since we are unlikely to see ice, this great fishing opportunity is accessible to anyone with normal freshwater fishing tackle and some warm clothes!’
Rods, Reels, & Tackle
The setup I personally use for winter trout shore fishing is delightfully simple. That is a 6.5 to 7 foot medium power rod, and any spinning reel spooled with 6-8 lb P-Line fluorocarbon coated monofilament line. The P-Line will still be undetectable to the wary trout as regular fluorocarbon, while also giving you the stretch and forgiveness of monofilament line when fighting the fish. Since the water is cold, you will have to put in extra time and patience to get a bite. Making every bite count is extremely important to putting fish in the net. Nothing hurts more than getting a bite on braided line, only to have the lure rip out of the fish’s mouth during the fight. These fish are notoriously hard to handle, so a net with a decently long handle is recommended.
The rod you chose should load nicely to keep the fish pinned. Power can be adjusted based on the size of fish you are likely to encounter. However, you don’t want to be underpowered if you happen to hook a monster. While trout can and do grow to impressive sizes, in most lakes the average size is around 12 inches. If your rod is too stiff and overpowered, you risk losing the smaller fish.
The technique I personally employ for wintertime trout is also extremely simple, yet it is effective and can be quite exhilarating: casting with slow, steady retrieves. Lure choices are vast and will depend on the body of water you are fishing, mostly based on the main forage and the specific species of trout that are present. An array of suitable spoons is guaranteed to be available at any tackle shop or sporting goods store. Other great options for slow rolling for trout are blade baits, inline spinners, stickbaits/crankbaits, jigheads, swimbaits, or jerkbaits. Hair or bucktail gets brownie points since hair has the most action when worked slow. If artificials aren’t your thing, live bait can and certainly will catch trout still fished under bobbers or even on bottom.
Other equipment to consider is warm clothes, a hat, fishing gloves, hand warmers, and insulated rubber boots. Maybe even ice cleats if conditions permit. If you fall in the water, stop fishing immediately and get to a source of heat. A dry change of clothes might be a good idea too if you are far from home. Make a game plan of how to get to your spot and land fish without falling in the water or slipping on ice and getting hurt. Luckily, fish are generally more aggressive on warmer days, so pick a nice day. Stable weather patterns also lead to more active shallow fish.
There are four main species of trout that northeast anglers will encounter: brown trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, and lake trout. Browns, brookies, and rainbows will generally be found in the upper water column from about one foot to 20 feet deep. Lake trout will venture shallow occasionally in cooler temperatures, but are typically found at depths of about 60 feet. All these fish are prone to follow lures, and will often hit your spoon right next to shore, right before the “bait” is out of their reach. It is important to keep your lure in the water as long as possible, and it might be a good idea to wear some polarized sunglasses to help spot following trout.
If you happen to get a follow and pull your bait out of the water, cast back to the last place you saw the trout as soon as possible. A following trout is an aggressive trout! Even in freezing temperatures, it is surprising just how aggressive these fish can be when they are hungry and decide they want a bait. I have caught plenty of fish casting back after a follow. If you can’t get the one that followed in your first cast, do another longer cast in the same area. These fish will school up in the winter, but are always on the move chasing and herding bait, so it is important to get back out there as fast as possible if fish are in the area.
If you notice that a fish is following your spoon right up to shore, and can react accordingly in time, try stopping your spoon right next to the shoreline and begin vertically jigging. When doing this, it is important to crouch down so the fish is less likely to be spooked, and to keep the spoon moving constantly. Be careful not to jig too aggressively and get your treble wrapped in your line. Try to crouch but peer over the bank, making sure the trout is looking at or following your bait. This technique is especially effective on Brown Trout in my experience and is likely to work on Brookies and Rainbows, which are more apt to go shallow compared to Lakers. Once you feel the fish, grab your net as soon as possible as fish are more likely to come off in a close-quarters scenario with the angle of the line constantly changing.
My home waters of Kensico Reservoir contain Brown and Lake Trout. As such, I will commonly cast my spoon into deep water and let it sink all the way to the bottom. Common knowledge dictates that Lake Trout will be found close to the bottom, and Browns will be found in the upper 20 feet, however in reality their depth can vary widely. Trout ice fishing techniques are often described as a game of keep away, as fish will chase a bait up and down through the water column, changing depth rapidly. This is especially true of Lakers, which will chase bait all the way to the surface if they need to. Additionally, fish eyes are situated on the top of their head, so while they will often chase a bait that is passing over them, they will often not notice a lure that is underneath them. Another thing that will influence their depth is baitfish locations. On warm and sunny days, bait will most likely be close to the surface, trying to find warmth. However, on cold days bait will likely be deeper taking refuge from the cold temperatures. In basically all situations, the best chances of getting a bite from either a brown or a laker at Kensico are had by letting the spoon hit bottom initially in deep water, and then working it back slow and steady. By the time the spoon is back to shore, it will be close to or at the surface and will have worked the entire water column thoroughly. If specifically targeting browns, rainbows, or brookies, it is probably better to avoid having the spoon sink more than 20 feet if fishing deep water.
Most of the time I will use a steady retrieve, as slow as I can possibly get away with without snagging up. This will take time to figure out and get the hang of from spot to spot. Giving a twitch or jerk to the lure or stopping the retrieve momentarily can often entice more aggressive fish, but I believe that baitfish and trout are less likely to move erratically on colder days.
If you see surface activity, be sure to cast at it right away and retrieve the spoon just under the surface. If you feel hits but don’t hookup, keep reeling steadily and keep the spoon moving in the water as long as possible. This is often a scenario I would see with browns at Kensico at dawn and dusk. Remember that they can be quite aggressive when they are feeding!
What to Look For
As I have already mentioned, Browns, brookies, and rainbows will generally be found in the upper water column from about one foot to 20 feet deep. Lake trout will venture shallow occasionally in cooler temperatures but are typically found at depths of about 60 feet. These fish will often school up, and are almost always on the move, herding and chasing baitfish, often into the shallow flats or the upper water column. Both baitfish and trout are somewhat structure oriented, and will often travel along dropoffs or steep shorelines and transition areas (such as mud to gravel). As is the case with most fish, they will be found in deep main lake basins in the wintertime. A main lake area with warmer than average temperatures will be an attractor as well. As spring approaches, and baitfish start pushing to shallow bays/creek arms to their spawning habitat, trout may start relating closer to the mouths of bays or creeks.
The ideal fishing location for winter trout will include a sizable shallow to mid-depth flat with fast access to deep water. If you can find and fish the transition from shallow flat to steep dropoff, you are surely in a prime location. Living weeds and other features that attract baitfish will get extra brownie points. Features such as transition areas, points and channels also concentrate fish and provide high probabilities of getting bit. Try to alternate casting over deep and shallow areas when targeting brown trout, as they often suspend off deep water.
Another huge factor in predicting fish locations in freshwater lakes is wind, and the current it creates. A majority of the current in lakes is created by wind, and although it seems insignificant when compared to current in rivers or tidal waters, it can have a huge effect. In windy conditions, baitfish will be pushed by the current and pile up on wind-swept shorelines or structures. If a huge blow rolls through for a few days, it is a good idea to fish the most downwind portion of the main lake during and afterwards. Structures that block current, such as points and bridges, or create current, such as channels/neckdowns will also create current seems. These are also good areas to target trout as they ambush disoriented baitfish in windy or rough conditions.
When choosing a lake to fish, don’t shy away from larger lakes, which will have stronger fish populations and larger fish, and larger chance for holdover stocked fish. Fishing pressure, and stocking numbers are other factors in choosing a lake to fish. Kensico is a great option, but plenty of other great options exist throughout the region. To name a few: Cross River Reservoir, West Branch Reservoir , Croton Falls Reservoir, Titicus Reservoir, Round Valley Reservoir, Big Pond, Squantz Pond, Massapequa Lake, Deep Pond, all Long Island trout ponds, Quabbin Reservoir, Wachusett Reservoir; any stocked lake with an open season near you is worth fishing!
Instead of suffering from cabin fever all winter long, be sure to get out and try to catch some trout from shore. It will take patience, persistence, and a lot of coldness, but catching one will be an experience you won’t soon forget. Catching a fish in such difficult conditions is surely an accomplishment and a fun challenge, and a testament to one of the greatest parts of fishing: you never know what’s going to happen!