TRACKING ICE-BOUND BROWNS — Matt Straw

Big Fish Guide Service owner Eric Haataja’s son Cal with a 28-pound monster brown from Milwaukee Harbor.

 

Browns cruise in-and-out during winter, but usually not much deeper than 60 feet. They can be caught even shallower than 10 feet at times, especially around wood cover (funny how browns gravitate to wood in both streams and lakes).

 

Thunderous cracks rolled underfoot as icebreakers busted trails leading into distant harbors. I reached for my breast pocket, reassured by the rounded Picks of Life my fingers found resting there.

 

Sitting on my Clam shelter with the top down in a slight breeze. All alone on the hard water, standing over 10 fathoms of Lake Superior. Nobody in sight. Except—who else?—Chris Beeksma, friend and owner of Get Bit Guide Service (715) 292-4410.

 

“These browns can be anywhere,” he said. “Friends and clients have been hooking up in 50 feet one day and 10 feet the next.” Unlike steelhead, browns tend to stay inshore, on the ‘Conti-nental shelves’ of the Great Lakes.

 

Back in 2014, we covered Captain Mark Chmura, Pier Pressure Charters, (231) 864-4051, trolling for steelhead through the iron-hard swells of winter miles offshore on Lake Michigan. Chmura is one of the few captains that will take clients out there in January or February, if they really want to freeze themselves to a gunnel. Some steelhead—generally fall-run fish—cruise the shorelines, waiting for rivers to suit their fancy. Some steelhead find the Stability Zone way offshore in winter. It’s something Chmura dis-covered all by his lonesome—a huge tract of water where tempera-tures and oxygen levels remain stable year ‘round. “We don’t catch many browns out here in winter,” he said. “Sometimes—but it’s rare. Mostly kings and steelhead.”

 

Like coaster brookies and splake, Salmo trutta typically re-quires some structure nearby. They can be found suspending over the abyss at times, however.

 

Big Great Lakes browns can be brought through the ice on light 4- tp 6-pound lines with long, medium-light blanks. Because the water is generally clear, fluorocarbons like Seaguar Invis-X—an ice-friendly line to spool up with—are recommended.

 

Incidental catches of those other species, and the occasional laker, make this something worth doing every winter. Not to men-tion the fact that big-lake browns can push 20 pounds—some range up to 30, even 40 pounds. Thomas Healy boated a world-record, 45-pound, lake-run brown on the Manistee River in 2009 (with a Rapala Shad Rap that just might have been given to his guide by me, but that’s another story). An 11-year-old—Audrey Morgan—boated a brown weighing over 31 pounds near Chicago in July, 2021. Dozens of browns over 30 pounds have come to net in Great Lakes waters. And recently they’ve been coming through holes in the ice.

 

Ice fishing in Milwaukee Harbor with Capt. Eric Haataja, Big Fish Guide Service, (414) 779-0479, on a day so cold that egg-spitting fish left dangerous, slippery little orange “ball bearings” all over the deck, frozen hard as steel, we managed a 20 pounder on a jig tipped with a soft-plastic fluke. Haataja himself iced at least one brown over 30 pounds in the past few years, and has put clients on big numbers of fish over 20. (Milwaukee Harbor is, quite probably, the greatest brown-trout fishery on earth during the winter months.)

 

Lake Superior is the last frontier for giant, ice-bound browns. Not for fish over 30 pounds, but a 20 is possible, and fish in the high teens are caught most days the ice is safe out there. The key area is around the Apostle Islands, where those big Superior cur-rents are blunted by the gorgeous archipelago of islands thrown like jewels on the “big sea water.”

 

Brown Patrol

Browns cruise in-and-out during winter, but usually not much deeper than 60 feet. They can be caught even shallower than 10 feet at times, especially around wood cover (funny how browns gravitate to wood in both streams and lakes).

 

Over the shallows, browns know when you’re overhead no matter how quiet you are. So, we stand or sit well away from a trap line of Automatic Fishermen (basically hook-setting rod holders) placed in key spots—over a boulder, rock pile, or in a depression. When fish bite, the rod tip snaps up. If the drag is set right, you can reach the rod before a titanic brown topples the rig over. Stand where you don’t want the fish to travel. Stand walk or sit well away from the holes. Light coming down the holes is a huge factor. Use hole covers or snow to block the light. It’s especially important on Lake Superior, especially during the middle of the day.

 

Browns are versatile feeders. They root out crayfish and take sculpins off bottom, yet sometimes they suspend under lake herring over deep water.

 

Guide Aron Kastern, Unlimited Trophy Outfitters (715) 765-4210, says river mouths can be key areas at times. “Brown trout fishing is the bulk of our winter busi-ness,” Kastern said. “We have two types of browns. German and Scottish strains run up rivers in fall to spawn and they fun-nel back out. Some winter in the streams, some along shorelines under the ice. In the lake, Seeforellens and St. Croix strains can be around wood in 4 feet of water or out suspended over depths of 100 feet. At first ice—usually around Christmas time every year—we’re looking for browns on struc-ture. They might be on the first break down to 8 or 10 feet of water or on the second break down to 30, 40, or even 50 feet along a shipping-channel or typical Superior shoreline.”

 

River mouths can be key, but Kastern avoids “community holes.” Beyond that, likely-looking habitat stretches for miles. The intersection of rocky breaks and softer flats becomes one key to location. “Finding them is tricky,” Kastern said. “We look for places where rocky structure comes close to soft-bottom flats. Browns are versatile feeders. They root out crayfish and take sculpins off bottom, yet sometimes they suspend under lake herring over deep water. Looking down the hole, you see them come through in pairs or groups right under the ice at times. They’re all over the place, so we set pretty high for them in clear water. If hungry and close to bottom, browns come zipping right up for it.”

 

PRODUCTIVE LURES

  • TOP: Kalin’s Darter Head/Z-Man Jerk Shadz and Today’s Tackle Jig Disk
  • MIDDLE: Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnow
  • BOTTOM: Moonshine Lures Mainliner, Acme Tackle Little Cleo and Kastmaster Spoons

 

When ciscoes predominate, wall-eyes suspend. When perch have bigger year classes, walleyes hug structure. How browns react to abundances in winter is much the same. If not marking suspended bait and the attendant hooks that repre-sent predators, pound the bottom. But if the food chain is suspended, start fishing 2 feet below the hole. Jig for several minutes, drop down 5 feet and work it, repeating that process down to bottom.

 

Cold as she is, Superior grows stupen-dous browns. “The average brown is 20 to 24 inches,” Kastern said. But we don’t get too excited until they get up to 30 inches. A 34 incher is a great fish on a short rod. We use the Automatic Fisherman with 8-pound test and 10-pound braid backing because you have no idea what size fish you’ll hook. We sometimes walk around hole-to-hole and jig, but we always have some tip-ups or Automatic Fisherman trap lines set up. When fishing shallow, you have to keep quiet. Get the set lines out and sit down. It’s so typical to find them in 8 to 10 feet, and they’re really spooky at those depths.”

 

Kastern’s clients catch browns on Acme Little Cleos and Kastmasters any-where from 1/8 to 1/2 ounce, depending on depths being fished. “Jigging Raps, marabou jigs—browns can be taken on a wide variety of things,” he said. “If they’re shallow on a buggy bite, we get them on spawn bags and light line. Sometimes we’re pursuing them in 50 feet of water with lipless cranks—whatever efficiently covers the necessary depths. All these tactics appeal to incidental steelhead, splake, and cohos, too.”

 

Interesting that browns can tolerate water warmer than any other salmonid, and lakers have the least tolerance for warm water. Summer finds the two species miles apart at times, but they often share the same shoals in winter. In cold water un-der the ice, we’ve caught lakers in 15 feet of water at times. And both species react to the same lures.

 

The winter-brown arsenal is practical-ly endless. It includes Rapala Jigging Raps, other minnow- shaped jigs, rattling spoons, Acme Little Cleos, lipless crankbaits, tubes, soft-plastic jerkbaits, jigs or plain hooks baited with spawn bags, wigglers, or wax worms. Try whatever trips your trigger and it will probably work. But I am defi-nitely going to work a jerkbait with one of Bruce Mosher’s Jig Disks. Mosher, owner of Today’s Tackle (218) 926-5682, likes to fish under the ice the same way he does it in open water, using his Jig Disks—small plastic discs that slip over the eye of a jig, turning it into a gliding jig and a crankbait at the same time.

 

Browns can roam into 4 feet of water under the ice, where it’s best to set “traps.” The Automatic Fisherman allows anglers to stay away from shallow holes where trout are spooky and set hooks at a distance.

 

“Works all winter long,” Mosher said. “Find a jig with a tall enough eye that stands well off the head of the jig,” Mosher said. “You need to clip the jig on with a Berkley Cross-Lok or similar snap to keep the Disk from riding up the line. If the shank is higher off the jig it’s amazing. It creates a little wobble on the sail if it’s got some freedom to move on the shank of the eye.

 

Wobbles like a Rapala and sails way out there beyond the cone of your trans-ducer. It’s gone— wiggling 12 to 15 feet out away from the hole.”

 

One perfect example of the right jig is Kalin’s Darter. It has a tall eye standing off the head, and the bullet or cone-shape is always trying to find center as it glides, wobbling slightly on its own. When wall-eyes are aggressive, adding a Jig Disc to a Kalin’s Darter creates a waggling, wiggling, sailing, fish-catching machine that covers so much water you can drill holes 20 feet apart, cover the entire water column down to 60 feet and keep truckin’. And what makes a better trailer than a Z-Man Jerk ShadZ, which can ice 100 browns or more before wearing out—especially if you glue it to the Darter.

 

I work spoons, lures, and jigs aggres-sively most of the time to grab a trout’s at-tention before slowing it down to twitches and nods as marks approach on sonar. 

But last year we had a couple tough days, marking few fish—nothing suspended. Browns were hugging bottom and not mov-ing much. So, late in the afternoon I finally downsized.

 

My biggest brown last winter came on the smallest Moonshine Lures Shiver Min-now in a brown-pearl pattern. Deadsticked. With no bait. That’s right. The jig was just hanging there 5 feet off bottom with the rod in a holder.

 

I was actively jigging a spoon about 10 feet away from the deadstick setup to draw them in, occasionally walking over to check on the tiny Shiver Minnow with my flasher. The third time I checked, the bitty mark of the jig had bulged into a huge red balloon. Whatever movement I gave the jig as I lifted the rod from the holder triggered the strike. A back-and-forth tussle ensued, the trout giving ground only to strip line back to bottom. Beeksma ran over and finally hauled the fish out of the hole—a hefty, double-digit brown.

 

Guide Chris Beeksma (Get Bit Guide Service) with a hefty Lake Superior Brown. Beeksma’s two favorite presentations are a Swedish Pimple tipped with a minnow tail and a live Golden Shiner on fluorocarbon under an Automatic Fisherman.

 

We ended up having decent success by downsizing to smaller lures. Oddly enough, the tactic Beeksma’s friends and clients had been most successful with for weeks was not effective at all. Live golden shiners hooked under the skin by the dorsal and presented on Automatic Fisher-men with 6-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon produced zero action all day. But it can be a mistake to chase ice-bound browns without some shiners—primarily emeralds in the lower Great Lakes, goldens in the upper. Some should be deployed under Automatic Fishermen, some sacrificed as a head or tail tipped onto the trebles of spoons and jigs.

 

When the food chain is marking up high, set minnows and deadsticked lures halfway to bottom and move less. When fish aren’t showing up on sonar, set everything within 2- to 4- feet of bottom and keep mov-ing. Out deep, drill lots of holes. When the action is taking place shallow, browns will be spooky. Drill fewer holes, set traps and sit still while jigging.

 

Rock piles, hard-bottom points, river mouths, humps, reefs and other forms of structure are key spots when browns focus on sculpins, crayfish, gobies, and perch. But “browns can be anywhere” when follow-ing pelagic baitfish around like Bedouin nomads. Brave the cracking ice and wander after them, but have those Picks of Life handy.

 

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