As spring days in May go, it was a beauty. The day was bright and mild, with just enough breeze to keep the fleece on. A frequent angling partner and I had found our way back to a spec lake we’d visited many times before. We’d guessed by the date that the ice had probably receded, and when we walked up to the lake edge, there was nothing but glittering water to be seen. The lake felt cold to the touch and I guessed it to be about 6 degrees Celsius. That’s chilly water, but not too cold for good spec fishing. We drug the car topper up the portage and dropped it in the lake. We stowed our rods and gear in the boat, donned life jackets and went fishing. We were both feeling good about our chances, but not over-confident. Ice out spec fishing is always a bit of a gamble. My buddy pointed the boat towards a cedar lined bay were we’d caught fish in past years, and it was here that an amazing day of trout fishing began.
It was my partner who connected first, on a trout that was holding just a few inches from the shore. We were both excited to see the flash of a fat spec in the crystal water. “Feels good doesn’t it,” I said to him, as he wrestled the squaretail.
“I can’t even remember what winter feels like,” he replied with a grin.
He brought the spec close to the boat and I scooped it up with the rubber net. “Nice one buddy,” I said, as he pulled the treble free with pliers.
“Looks like about 18 inches,” he said, while slipping the trout back in the water.
A few minutes later, I was tangling with a fish of similar size that ripped my brass EGB spoon just a few feet from the boat. These trout were on fire. Over the course of the next 6 hours, he and I caught specs in places we’d never caught them before, and in places they shouldn‘t be. There were schools of them, and we could see surface boils all over the lake. At one point, a brook trout wriggled free of the spoon, and another one roared in and nailed the lure. It was like every brookie in the lake had decided that it was the last chance to eat. I won’t tell you how many hook-ups we had, or how many trout we caught and released that day, but I’ve had whole seasons with fewer fish landed. At the end of the day, my buddy and I both agreed we had experienced something we might never see again: the perfect day of ice out brook trout fishing.
For the lake fisherman who chases brookies, spring is one of the few times you can expect any consistency of bite. The two to three week period just after ice-out is one of the prime times to catch specs. The fish are hungry and working the shallows, gorging themselves on freshwater shrimp, snails, minnows and insects. Brookies are less wary at ice out and hit aggressively. It’s also a time when some of the largest brook trout of the year are caught.
The timing of ice out in Northern Ontario varies quite a lot depending where you are on the map. Around Thunder Bay, I’ve seen lakes open up in late April, although the first week of May is a good bet. Further north, the lakes may not appear until mid or even late May. Deeper waters take longer to lose ice cover than shallower, slightly stained lakes. Lakes that are in the mountains, or in the shadow of a cliff, may still be frozen weeks after neighbouring lakes are wide open. Every keen spring spec fisherman has felt the disappointment of grunting back into a distant hot spot, only to find a white sheet of ice covering Nirvana. I keep a close eye on lakes and ponds in late April, and am not above taking a country drive to see how the thaw is coming. I’m also a real believer in getting on lake as early after ice out as possible. Some of the largest specs I’ve caught – including a ten pound brute – have been taken within 24 hours of ice out. Yet the brutally cold water at ice out doesn’t always guarantee a hot bite. Some lakes, particularly crystal clear kettle lakes, can under-perform at ice out.I mean you can get flat out skunked. It’s like they need to cook a bit in the sun before the food chain gets going. Classic Pre-Cambrian trout lakes, on the other hand, are a bit more predictable and generally have fish biting right at ice out. Only “on the water” experience will tell you which lakes are best at what times.
Where To Look
Ice out spring specs are generally found in shallow water, and are usually close to shore. Brook trout especially like to hang out around fallen trees, undercut banks, Labrador tea and beaver houses. In shallow, mud bottomed bays, it’s not unusual to find spring specs cruising the emerging weeds well off of shore, however. I usually try to cast as close to shore as possible and reel back just fast enough to keep the lure from hanging up. In really cold water, the trout move slowly and may miss a spoon or spinner that’s reeled too quickly. There are usually some fish shallow first thing in the morning, but don’t underestimate the effect of the sun. As frigid waters warm during the day, minnow and insects start to get active in the shallows. Big brookies will move in shallow for short periods under a hot sun, if the food is there.
Lures and Baits
For the spring spec fisherman, few lures work as well and cover as much water as a wobbling spoon. They are a dream to cast, come in a variety of shapes and colours and are excellent fish attractors. Some of the better spoons are the Little Cleo, EBG, Pixie, Delfin, Krocodile and Alaskan. Smaller, thicker spoons are always a good choice as speckled trout have preference for compact baits. Both silver and copper finishes are an excellent choice for spoons as are the chartreuse and hot red shades. I’ve been having a lot of success lately with 2/5 ounce brass EBG spoons featuring red and green painted spots. Whether the trout can actually see the coloured spots or not I don’t know, but I’m not switching.
Spinners are another excellent spring brook trout lure. For casting in lakes, go with heavier sonic spinners such as the Panther Martin or Blue Fox Vibrax. These squat spinners are especially hot when tipped with a piece of worm.
The other lure which still goes largely ignored by the majority of trout fisherman is the lead head jig. Whether it’s a bucktail, grub, tube or shad, jigs are strong medicine on brookies. Cast and work them back to the shore or boat with a slow swimming action. Specs hit jigs with gusto and usually stay hooked. The best jig colours are white, black, brown and shad in that general order. Over the last couple of years, the 3 inch Berkley Power Minnow on a one quarter ounce darter head has been tough to beat. A white Berkley Power Grub has also proven to be a good trout bait.
Fly fisherman can have a field day with spring brook trout. Favourite spring spec fly patterns are large and often feature bright colours. Muddler minnows and Mickey Finn streamers are two perennial favourites, but black Woolly Buggers are an excellent choice as well. Use a floating line and if the trout won’t take the fly near the surface, pinch a few tiny split shot onto the tippet of your line. I like trolling flies when the casting bite goes quiet.
Terminal fishing tackle need not be fancy when fishing specs. Don’t overpower them with tackle best used on pike or walleye. A medium light action spinning rod matched with an open faced reel and six or eight pound test monofilament line should handle almost every spring spec situation. For longer casts, try a longer spinning rod of about 8 feet and lighter test line; the further away from the fish you can keep the more liable it is to hit. Long rods are a big help when you swim jigs for trout.
Spring brook trout fishing is arguably the hottest bite of the year. If specs get your blood boiling, don’t wait for summer to feed the fever.
Author: Gord Ellis