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The Complete Winter Trout Fishing Guide

Aside from what most people may think, winter trout fishing can be one of the best times of year to get out and catch the fish of a lifetime.

Whether you are targeting Brook Trout in a river or going after giant 40-pound Lake Trout through the ice, the preparation doesn’t need to be complicated. Follow along as we break down what you should consider before you go on your next winter trout fishing adventure.

A trout in a net next to a fishing rod. Winter trout fishing guide.

Important Decisions While Planning a Trip

Open Water or Ice Fishing

This might be an obvious topic depending on where you live in the country, but there are a lot of different situations that are great for winter trout fishing.

Open water or Ice can be present in unlikely places. Rivers and streams can stay open in the coldest of climates because of the current running through them. Ice can form farther south than you think because of freak cold snaps or higher-elevation lakes.

Depending on which situation you plan on fishing, the gear is completely different. Showing up to fish with the wrong type of gear will greatly increase your chances of coming up empty-handed.

Lake or Stream Trout

A pair of trout in a river or stream.

Trout is a broad term used to talk about an entire species of fish. The reality is, there are many different types of trout. The best way to simplify the species is to break them out into two groups. Trout that live in lakes or trout that live in streams or rivers.

Depending on which type of trout you are after, finding the right area that holds the desired species is important.

The most common species of trout that live in a lake are called Lake Trout. They can reach up to 100 pounds, with the average weight being around 40 pounds.

Stream and river trout have a much larger variety of species, with the three most common being Brook, Brown, and Rainbow Trout.

Best Locations to Catch the Desired Species

Trout that live in lakes are generally found in bodies of water that are deep and clear. They can reproduce naturally or are supplemented through stocking programs.

Stream and river trout can live in the tiniest of streams and the largest of rivers. Waterways that are connected to larger lakes or rivers provide good access for spring migrations. There are also many streams throughout the country that are stocked for sport fishing purposes.

To find out more information about the stocking of trout, check your local DNR website.

Winter trout fishing adds another layer of complexity because the conditions may not be right where you plan to go. Streams may be frozen over or ice might not be safe. While it’s important to plan where you need to go, it’s equally important to consider the safety conditions when you get there.

A man fishing on a cold morning.

Open Water Fly Fishing or Conventional Fishing

Aside from ice fishing that requires specific gear, anglers have a decision to make when choosing to go open water winter trout fishing. The options are fly fishing or conventional fishing. Both require casting a bait, but the technique is very different.

If you are brand new to winter trout fishing and aren’t set on fly fishing, conventional fishing gear is a better place to start. Simply cast out a line with a bobber or slowly retrieve a spinnerbait and you can have a blast catching fish.

Fly fishing requires more finesse and practice. The art of letting line out can take time to get used to and can be very difficult along smaller streams. With practice, fly fishing can be gratifying when you land a fish.

Bring the Appropriate Gear

Like any activity you plan on doing, it helps to bring the right tools. Winter trout fishing tackle can seem limitless, but with the right approach, you can have everything you need in a few simple selections.

Ice Fishing Tackle

An ice fishing hole and a rod and lure for ice fishing next to the hole.

Ice fishing is accomplished in a vertical fashion through a hole drilled into the ice, jigging a bait up and down to entice a bite. For this, you need a short rod (40 inches or less) that will allow you to sit close to the hole and work the bait efficiently.

Typically, when winter trout fishing through the ice, Lake Trout are going to be your target species. Since they can reach large weights, a stiffer rod is needed. A 30-inch medium rod is the perfect balance between flex and power.

Winter trout fishing through the ice also has varying baits. Popular choices are spoons or jigs that provide a good amount of flash. Trout tubes are also a staple for getting down deep and attracting big fish to bite.

Conventional Fishing Tackle

Conventional tackle for winter trout fishing is the classic spinning rod and reel. A length anywhere in the 6’ to 6.5’ range with a medium action will allow you to fish in many open-water scenarios. From little streams to big rivers, that rod is extremely versatile and will allow you to fish the way you want.

A pair of fishing rod on a dock on a cold, foggy day.

A medium size reel is ideal for its lighter weight but still has enough line capacity to make a long cast. There are a lot of great combos available for this application, like the St. Croix X-Trek Spinning Combo, which comes in a two-piece model for easy transport.

Slow-moving baits are key for winter trout fishing, and a classic bobber and hook or inline spinnerbait will do just the trick. A bobber (float) will allow you to use live bait like grubs and worms as it meanders downstream. Cast the bobber upstream and let the current bring it slowly back towards you.

Spinnerbaits require a more active approach, repeatedly casting and retrieving. Just like the bobber, cast the spinnerbait upstream or near stagnant water and slowly reel back the bait. The current, along with your retrieve, will mimic small bait getting washed downstream.

Fly Fishing Tackle

Man holding an open box of fishing flies.

If you are new to fly fishing and want to give it a try for winter trout fishing, there is no better place to start than with a pre-designed kit. Pick one that has a line weight of 5 or 6, great average weights that can be applied to many different situations.

For fly fishing, a rod in the 8.5’ to 9’ range is ideal. It’s enough length to give you good power for a long cast but is still manageable for anyone looking for a first fly rod. The Wild Water Standard Fly Fishing Combo Starter Kit is a great option, and even comes with flies to help you get started.

There are two types of flies you want to have handy when winter trout fishing, nymphs, and dry flies. Nymphs imitate small insects that float beneath the water’s surface while dry flies are designed to float on top. There are many great assortments designed specifically for trout that come with both!

Winter Trout Fishing Tips

Locating Areas that Winter Trout Inhabit

Finding the right areas that hold winter trout is the most important factor in having success. This can be done by understanding the seasonal patterns of trout. Like all cold-blooded animals, trout become lethargic in the winter months. Conserving energy is a top priority.

In streams and rivers, look for the deepest holes or slack water areas where the current is slowed or stopped. Less current equals less energy expense. Oftentimes once you find one trout, you will find many, as they stack up in areas better suited for them in winter.

A Minnesota river or stream in the winter.

In lakes, trout inhabit deep glacial bodies of water with steep drop-offs and clear water. As the fall months turn to winter, trout will push out to deeper water. Often suspending at the desired comfort depth.

Slow Down

As mentioned above, winter trout are in their most lethargic state of the year. They are still willing to eat when an opportunity presents itself, but trout will not chase after a bait like they would during other times of the year.

If you think you are going slow, go slower! You may even have to present a bait in the same location multiple times before you can get them to attack it.

Downsize Your Bait

Generally, everything is smaller in winter. Insects and bugs are not growing, or are even in hibernation. The few insects that do hatch during the winter are small as well.

Match your bait accordingly. Winter trout will become suspicious when a large bait passes them, making it harder to catch them.

The Sun Helps with Fish Activity

Just as the cold winter months slow fish activity down, the opposite can happen when the sun beats down on a body of water. If you are looking to find success in winter trout fishing, sleep in!

Even though trout are less active during the winter, they can become even more lethargic during colder nights. Fishing first thing in the morning can be tough because of the drop in water temperature.

If the water temperature rises, even just one degree, it can have a positive effect on the trout’s activity. Look for areas that have had the longest sun exposure to find the warmest water.

Wrapping Things Up

Person holding a rainbow trout.

Winter trout fishing is the best time of year to get out and avoid the crowds that often plague the experience in all other seasons. With the right preparation, the daunting task of picking the perfect gear can be accomplished in a breeze.

Minnesota is one of those states that have many winter trout fishing opportunities. From open water streams in the southeast corner to deep glacial lakes in the boundary waters, there is an abundance of trips that can be planned during the winter.

If you are interested in more fishing adventures and opportunities, make sure to check out our full list of fishing information for the state of Minnesota.