Ontario Trout FishingTrout Fishing Techniques
Temperature, Tackle and Techniques
Early Season Longlining For Trout From The Gardiner Expressway To God’s Country
Your boat works around a small, rocky knob along the shoreline, and the warm, offshore breeze immediately dries up. With no more chop music on the hull, the only sounds are songbirds flitting in the naked hardwoods and melt water’s crisp day trip down the land and back into the lake. Shade from big cedars, pines and sharp overhangs have kept snow alive in brilliant patches amongst the black, grey and pink rock. Light jackets and sweaters instantly come off. The land is sweating, and so are you. After months of ducking bad winds and fooling with frozen reels, this kind of day is reason enough to love spring trolling for trout. But it gets better. A reel’s drag slips when the stretch leaves a mile of light mono. A long, soft rod bucks to life, and a heavy fish digs in.
Not every spring day will give you perfect weather, and longline trolling isn’t the only way to put trout in the boat. But from rainbows to browns, lake trout to brookies, you can enjoy some great, light-tackle fishing with the boat in gear and the lures a long way behind you in the days, weeks and even months following ice-out. Trout in cold, spring water fight hard, release well and blow out a winter’s worth of cobwebs like nothing else. Trolling habitat varies dramatically in Ontario. Fishermen on the Great Lakes check warm-water plumes near large, inflowing rivers or industrial outflows, while northern fishermen find their warm water in back channels, shallow bays or between islands. Piers, breakwalls and other man-made features are to the urban troller what shoals, saddles or rock walls are to their brothers up on the remote water. The scenery changes, but the basic program doesn’t change much. Whether you’re trolling from a twenty-foot hardtop rig or a twenty-year-old canoe, you can apply similar patterns wherever the fun takes you.
Long before the thermocline has formed, water still experiences temperature differentials. Even though it’s fragile, warm water zones can and will form. As quickly as they arrive, these pockets can just as easily get blown apart with the wrong winds or big drops in air temperature, especially overnight. Warm, calm weather raises the surface temperature in the upper few feet, especially as the days get longer and longer. But this is a fluid relationship, changing literally overnight, sometimes. Run off and inflowing tributaries are a much more consistent source of warmer water. Coloured water, as well. Dirty water can make trout more at ease, and it sucks up more of the sun’s heat than clear water will. Just as rain and runoff triggers inshore migrations, those same conditions get fish moving in the spring.
Anywhere you can find patches of trapped water in warm, stable weather, you can start checking for trout. On natural lakes, these spots can be big coves behind points, long channels, bays or protected saddles between land masses. Water that’s stable and undisturbed is easy to spot with the naked eye. It can have a scummy appearance, with tree pollen, runoff debris or insect casings coating the surface. Water that’s been beaten by the wind will look cleaner and of course, colder. Mid-day surface temps in these types of spots can creep up to 42 or 43 degrees when the open areas are still in the high thirties. Baby steps in temperature make a huge difference at this time of the season. Actually, early spring and late fall are the only times all year when I put any serious stock in surface temperatures. And in both cases, the comfort level of gamefish isn’t my main focus. It’s the food chain.
As we’ve all heard over and over, these types of conditions gather and support the microscopic life that baitfish and insects feed on. (On the flip side, dropping water temperatures can trigger massive forage migrations in the fall as they seek out shelter or spawning habitat.) Nothing revolutionary here. These processes could be the subject of a hundred articles. It’s my belief that in spring, lakers, rainbows, browns and other species are using warm water as feeding stations first and foremost. They’re worth finding, because trout can be grouped up just like they are in fall, and you can get into them early and often. This is especially true of smaller, warm areas that are cut off from larger, colder zones.
Is open water (or deep water, for that matter) unproductive? Not at all. Colder patches of water can still produce, and the right weather leading up to your trip can spread trout over big areas. Anytime you get ‘superficial’ warming of the lake’s upper few feet, trout can really stretch their legs, and their food can be all over. By superficial, I’m just referring to temperatures that are raised solely through combining direct sunlight and calm winds, rather than through structural isolation or inflowing water. Remember, these spots will resist big drops better.
Smelt, shiners, alewives, ciscoe, suckers and perch are all drawn by their food and with the exception of ciscoes, their desire to spawn at one time or another. Forage varies a lot depending on where you’re fishing. In some northern lakes, stocked rainbows, splake or wild lake trout might only have minnow species like suckers or stickleback to follow. Whatever your sonar shows high over deep water or in shallow water, fish it. At this time of year, any activity is a good activity. But in clear water especially, adjust your thinking when it comes to sonar interpretation. In the simplest terms, you can catch fish when there’s nothing showing on the screen. Even the best units have a hard time showing clear signals in the upper four to five feet of the water. Trout will also scatter from the boat as it passes over or near them. With a longline approach, they can settle down and regroup by the time your lure gets there. Naturally, low trolling speeds and in-line planer boards are a fantastic approach here. You’ll be amazed at how many fish you can catch while the screen is totally blank. Little clumps of isolated activity here and there are all I need to confidently work and rework an area. Those fish are in there. Of course on other days, you’ll locate huge smudges of baitfish and predators on the screen, too.
No matter what you’re trolling for, with what lure or in what season, depth, speed and direction changes are going to be what makes it all come together. Great Lakes fishermen can run two rods apiece. This is a tremendous, tremendous asset for finding the trout and figuring out what they’re interested in. Two in-line planer boards with shallow-diving baits, run off opposite sides of the boat will cover the surface. In between, one rod with a deeper diving flatline is offset by another with weight or a small, diving planer like a Jet Diver or Dipsey. By all means, run your downriggers if you have them, focusing on the top 1/3 to 1/2 of the water column. In clear water especially, multiple depths can be hot all day, where trout can see a long way. I’ve had days outside Owen Sound Harbour when rainbows and lakers took turns hitting A.C Shiners eight feet down and Sutton West River Spoons fished past twenty feet with 3/8oz keel weights. Fish in dirtier water usually exhibit much tighter depth tolerances. Hot colours, banging the bottom and baits with rattles are three ways to trigger trout where visibility is low. This certainly isn’t anything new. Slow-crawling is effective at all times in the early season, and it can be really key in water that’s badly roiled by current/run-off or waves.
Always try to match lures with complimentary speeds. In-line spinners and minnowbaits are really flexible. Bananna-style lures, like Flatfish or Apex, are a little more sensitive. Spoons also have a much narrower speed range than jointed minnowbaits, for example. At the end of the day, I like to move slowly overall at this time of year, from 0.5 mph to 1mph, so lure-matching isn’t as critical as it is when you’re fishing faster. Planer boards will really wander out the slower you troll, speed sucks them back inline with the boat. Lures with heavy vibration and/or rattles can be just as effective as those that move quietly and delicately.
If you take nothing else from this article, remember one thing: salmoniods can tune into specific colours and sizes as acutely as any fish that swims. I’ve seen it time and time again. I’m sure that the depth and the speed each magic lure runs at is very important too, but when the fish get onto a specific lure pattern, expect them to wear the paint off of it until they stop hitting it. And they will stop hitting it. The drought might last a few hours or right through next season, but all good things do come to an end sooner or later. One day, it will be hot orange, J-11 Rapalas. The next, 2/5oz Cleos in gold/red. Then X4 skunk Flatfish will be the only game in town. Fish tuned into one or two specific baits can make the others seem like a waste of time. I guess at one time or another all fish species do this, but it seems really pronounced with the trout. I carry a good range of trolling baits, from tiny, dressed spinners to large, jointed plugs in hot colours.
In water where salmon are present and possible, be ready for them. Even in ice-out conditions, they’re still fully capable of emptying a lightweight reel with light line. By the same token, small lakes where fish run smaller are a riot with ultralight rigging. Make sure you’ve got reserve capacity after you’ve let out between 150 and 250 feet of line. For flatlines, long, soft rods give you good spread away from the boat, and wear down fish quickly. Diving and side planers are typically fished with line-counter reels, monofilament and rods that are long and soft. I’ve been using planning devices for trout and salmon for about twenty years, and prefer springy, stretchy mono over the zero-stretch line. Easier to rig in the clips and fish simply don’t get away. I had a guest on board one time for rainbows with his brand new 11-foot steelhead rod and six-pound Fireline. I went 9/9 that morning while he boated one of four. He ran the tiller while I swapped out his reel and re-rigged with one of mine with six-pound mono. I’m not sure if he enjoyed driving the boat for those few minutes or not, but he definitely enjoyed me netting his next five trout in a row for him as our afternoon rolled along. (One rainbow and four lakers.) Watch any underwater videos you can get your hands on that show trout or salmon hitting trolled lures, and you’ll see why line stretch isn’t a bad thing.
I carry diving planers, side planers, weights and spare clips in large, plastic tackle cases in a tackle bag. Weights range from BB-sized splitshot to one ounce keelweights. A second tackle bag contains four or five divided cases with my lures.
Stubby-profile lures and slim profile lures. Wide wobbling and tight wobbling. Natural finishes as well as hot colours. Willow leaf blades and Colorado blades. Baits with rattles, baits without. Suspenders and floaters. Everyone’s got their favorites, and in the spring, I normally carry the whole ball of wax because fish can really lock into certain lures, like we talked about. Crankbaits and minnowbaits are some of the most effective, but they’re rougher on the fish than single-hooked spinners or spoons are. You can run small Siwash hooks on certain plugs, though. Flatfish and divers like the Shad Rap are two examples off the top of my head. Spring after spring, jointed and suspending Rapalas, Bomber Long A’s, Rebels, AC Shiners, Flatfish, Mepps Aglia Longs, Williams Wobblers, Little Cleos and Dominion spoons produce. Rapala’s Tail Dancer is a multi-speed, multi-trout species lure I’ve had a lot of success with. You can move it fast for a hard, thumping vibration or slow it to a snail’s pace and it runs almost like a bananna-style plug. Very versatile.
In a larger rig, you can troll with a small gas kicker or your bow mounted electric motor. Remote areas might require a canoe or small aluminum boat. Longline trolling out of a canoe is a lot of fun. Rod holders are light and easy to pack with the rest of your gear. Keep your eyes open at this time of year, and if you have a sonar that displays water temperature and speed, pay as much attention to these two variables as the clouds/hooks or structure. Remember, you’re going to catch fish you never mark in a lot of cases! Remember that wind, land masses and moving water are what dictates water temperature in the spring. Pay extra attention when you find areas that are isolated from the main lake in any way (behind a long pier or through a set of narrows, for example). The heavy insect hatches don’t occur early in the season, but the larval stages are out stretching their legs along the bottom, and trout will eat them until they burst. Bug hatches only intensify as the weather and water gets warmer. Crayfish and perch are two colour patterns you don’t hear much about for trout fishing, but they’re both deadly at this time. Trout will grub around for all sorts of food under the right conditions.
With any luck, you’ll be able to lock onto some trout at ice-out this year. Compared to muskie lures, small spinners and spoons are cheap, and most people already have enough lure selection to get started anyway. Here’s to a sunburn, watching the wildlife and the start of another open-water season in the boat. Get a good picture of your trout, they’re beautiful!
By J.P. Bushey