Sweet shoreline tricks for early season success
While the period between ice fishing and open-water action puts some anglers in limbo, it’s actually one of the best times of the year to wet a line for a variety of winter-weary trout, including rainbows, browns and lakers.
“Hungry trout cruising predictable shoreline areas add up to the best bank fishing you’ll ever experience,” says veteran guide and compulsive salmonid stalker Bernie Keefe. While Keefe plies pristine lakes and reservoirs in the idyllic high country around Granby, Colorado, his strategies hold water in fisheries across the continent.
The first step is finding an A-list trout lake or pond where the ice is beginning to recede from shore. “I look for open water off points, here and there along darker banks, and near tributary inflows,” he says, explaining that each of these scenarios offers trout a place to fill their stomachs after a long winter under the ice.
“This pattern is all about food,” he says. “Everything is hungry right now. Browns and lakers are totally focused on eating anything they can. And even though rainbows and cuttbows may be looking for spawning areas, they need to eat, too.”
Let’s start with shorelines and points. “Both of these areas offer increased bug life, especially spots with darker bottoms,” says Keefe. “But it’s important to understand the baitfish connection as well.“
Here’s how it works. “All winter, juvenile trout and suckers cruised the shorelines,” he begins. “They survived by darting toward the bank whenever a predator appeared, and by tucking themselves into inches of water, where large trout couldn’t reach them. Now that the ice is going out, this sanctuary is gone—and big, old, smart trout know these smaller fish are fair game.”
Which explains why Keefe’s lure of choice for such scenarios is a 3- to 5-inch-long, shallow-running slender stickbait, in natural shades of silver, gold or rainbow trout. Wielding a 7-foot, medium- to medium-heavy power Fenwick HMX spinning rod—paired with a Pflueger Patriarch reel spooled with 10-4 FireLine—he tiptoes quietly to the waterline and fires long casts parallel to the bank.
“Keep the bait close to shore, in about two feet of water,” he says, noting that a 5-foot leader of 10-pound test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon helps fool line-shy fish in gin-clear water. “Make a slow retrieve interspersed with rodtip twitches that give the bait an erratic action, so it acts like a disoriented baitfish.” Keeping all casts tight to shore, Keefe methodically works any stretches of open water between the bank and main icepack.
Many shorelines drop quickly into deep water, but some offer slow tapers that create expansive feeding grounds for trout. When Keefe reaches such a flat, he makes long casts from shore, then wades in and gradually works his way out to about waist-deep water. “Obviously, a good pair of waders is critical,” he laughs.
Early mornings are prime time for Keefe’s shoreline stickbait pattern. “Cloud cover and ripples on the water can extend it, but it’s generally over by 9 a.m.,” he explains. “On our mountain lakes, you typically get glass calm conditions with full sun about this time of day.” When that happens, it’s time to shift gears. He rigs a 3- to 4-inch softbait such as a Berkley Gulp! Jerk Shad or PowerBait Minnow on a 1/8- to 3/8-ounce leadhead jig and tosses it out into deeper water a long cast from shore.
“Let the jig sink to bottom,” he says. “Lift the rodtip and, while lowering it, quickly reel in slack to make the jig swim just above bottom. Continue this cadence back to shore. Work your way down the bank, casting every few feet to pick off trout that have moved into deeper water to feed on crayfish and minnows.”
Once he’s thoroughly worked near-shore depths in this manner, Keefe moves on to fertile inflows ranging in size from small creeks to mid-sized rivers. “Tributaries are usually running high and a little darker than normal, and offer trout an abundance of worms and bugs,” he notes.
Presentational options include various flies and jig-and-softbait combos. “Or, you can do it the really easy way and bounce an angleworm along bottom on a split-shot rig,” Keefe confides. Keys to successful worm rigging include threading the bait on a size 6 baitholder hook, and using just enough weight to allow the sinker to hop downstream with the current, without becoming anchored in one place. “Bouncing catches more trout than suckers, while anchoring gets you more suckers than trout,” he explains.
To present a worm rig, Keefe casts slightly upstream and lets the rig wash down-current until it sweeps toward the bank. Strikes typically register as solid taps, and are met with a quick and solid hookset. “Focus on the rivermouth,” he notes. “On a large creek you can work your way upstream, but the lower reaches are often the hot zone.”
Keefe notes that the timing of ice-out bites varies from lake to lake. “In my area, it’s starting right now in some of the high mountain lakes, and usually runs through the end of May on larger waters that are slow to lose their ice.” By following Keefe’s lead and monitoring the progression of ice-out on lakes in your area, it’s possible to enjoy first-class shore-fishing for trout all spring.