It was 3 degrees and snowing here in Montana as I wrote this a couple weeks back. Skiing season. Maybe ice fishing season. But a few days before writing it was nearly 50 degrees, and now it seems like the first lower elevation melt is really on. A couple of my lake fishing buddies have already texted me, excited for the upcoming Stillwater fishing season. I’ll admit that I am a bit excited too. I wrapped up a few (dozen) flies for my lake boxes. And now, through writing this, I’ve organized my thoughts in anticipation of ice out, which is coming a bit later than normal this year.
Throughout the mountain west ice out is a much anticipated event for many stillwater anglers. For those who do not live in cold climates or have never visited a frozen lake, ice out is the short period of time on a lake where conditions change from the ice capped, frozen surface of winter to the open water of spring, summer, and fall. From the time that the ice begins to peel away from the shore, until two weeks or so after the lake becomes completely ice free, there is often a fantastic window of opportunity for anglers to get out on the lake shore, beat the cabin fever of late winter, and find some great fishing. Anglers who don’t have the luxury of owning a boat really enjoy the ice out fishing, because the fish tend to concentrate near shore. Even when things don’t completely work out when fishing ice out, it’s fun to get out of the house, see some country, and maybe connect with the first open water fish of the new year.
Why is Ice Out a “Thing”?
I believe that ice out is a “thing”, because of the trout’s desire to find ideal conditions when it comes to water temperature, dissolved oxygen, light, and food or insect activity.
It’s well known that, when a lake is covered with ice and snow, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water is not continuously replenished by the action of wind and waves. Lack of light under the ice also reduces aquatic plants ability to produce oxygen. By winter’s end, when the ice begins to recede from the lake’s margins, the dissolved oxygen in the lake water under the ice may be at it’s lowest point for the entire year. As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the air and wind can hit the water again and reoxyegenate it.
Also, remember that water is less dense when it is frozen than it is when it is at 39 degrees F (4 degrees C). That’s why ice is on the top of the lake. It also means that the warmest portion of the water column is likely toward the bottom of the lake in winter. As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the sun can hit the water and warm it up locally.
So, long story short, at ice out, the increased temperature and dissolved oxygen in the water at the lake’s edge stimulate the ecosystem, get some chironomids and perhaps other trout food sources active, and create conditions more favorable to the trout than anywhere else in the lake.
Once the ice fully dissipates, the effects of wind and sun warm the lake, and mixing or turnover evens out water conditions over a much larger portion of the lake, you will find that the ice out bite dies. The fish spread out throughout a much larger portion of the lake at that point, making them harder to find, especially if fishing from shore. When that happens, either find another lake that is starting to ice out, or fish the rivers for a while, until other factors on the lake begin concentrating the fish again into summer feeding areas.
Where are the good places to fish at ice out?
Well, IN THE WATER! It’s a bad joke, but if you are really on top of things, or maybe just a bit over zealous and out at the lake a bit too early in the year, look for any open water you can find. Remember , though, that open water doesn’t guarantee the presence of fish. Some areas of a lake are always better than others.
Think back to why ice out is a “thing”. Water temperature is a hugely important factor. Warmer water is better at ice out. So, inlets and outlets that alter lake temps are a good thing to look for. Warmer water may be entering a lake and helping thaw the ice. Warmer lake water from down deep (remember water is most dense at about 39 degrees F or 4 degrees C) getting pulled up and out the outlet stream if there is one. Also, ice free shallows with dark bottoms that soak up the heat of the sun, or drop-offs adjacent to said shallows are great places to find warmer water. These same shallows, if the bottom is soft or muddy, will also be the place where the first chironomids of the year emerge.
Another good spot to look for fish are submerged points that funnel fish into and along travel lanes, creating concentrations of fish and increasing your own odds of intercepting one with your fly. It’s no secret that similar places are great Stillwater spots the rest of the year as well.
Gareth Jones’ quote “Stillwaters are NOT still” applies at ice out as well. When only the edges of the lake are ice free, there may be currents in the lake from inlet streams, springs, or other factors. If you have ever ice fished, and dropped a bit of bait down the hole with no weight, you may have noticed that it doesn’t always sink straight down. Even under the ice, the water can be moving. Just after complete ice out, winds begins to really have an effect on the movement of water, and warming of the water begins to slowly initiate the currents that will eventually turn the lake over. A buddy of mine down in California (who fishes the high Sierra lakes passionately) once mentioned to me that at ice out it seems like either one side of the lake or the other is good, but not often both. This is a clever observation that I’d not thought of, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the movement of water and its effect on temperature and dissolved oxygen.
In my experience there are also definite ice-out “hot spots” for fishing that must have some secret (to me) combination of several factors that draw fish back year after year. If you are at a lake at ice out for the first time, and the spots you tried at first aren’t producing, it pays to be mobile, walk, look, cast, and explore. If you find one of those zones where it all is happening, make a note!
What about Flies and Presentation?
On stillwaters, summer is all about the bugs – Callibaetis, damselflies, caddis, tricos, scuds, chironomids, and more. At ice out, though, the insect activity hasn’t really gotten rolling yet. With the exception of some early season chironomids hatching (which you should absolutely be prepared for), ice out fish seem to be very opportunistic, looking to put on some pounds, and are willing to at least consider eating more general and larger attractor patterns. Buggers, leeches, baitfish patterns, and some of the other gaudy attractor type stuff seems to work best for me and my fishing partners. Experiment with colors on your home waters for sure, but never fear starting with standby stillwater colors like black, olive, and brown. If you have your own favorites, by all means give them a shot, too. We’ve also had luck with bright colors or natural colored patterns with bright trigger points like hot beads.
In terms of presentation, it seems like slower is usually better in the cold water. When casting and retrieving your flies on floating or sinking lines as the ice recedes, try hitting the very edge of the ice shelf and let it sink down for a bit before starting any retrieve. Often the fish will come out from beneath the ice and eat it on the fall. If they don’t eat it, and it sinks to the depth you want to target, work a slower retrieve with emphasis on the pauses. Be ready for a grab especially during the pause.
If the ice is still very close to shore, it can be effective to cast parallel to the ice shelf, and retrieve your fly back along the edge of the ice, just like you might do on a weed edge in summer.
Once the ice is well off shore, or gone completely, cover water by fanning casts and moving your feet, and working around visible submerged structure like drop offs and boulders. It maybe goes without saying, but if you actually see fish, cast to them! If access conditions permit, this may be the time to launch your boat or float tube for the first time and really cover some water.
Another effective ice out presentation method uses a floating fly line and strike indicator system to suspend your flies and allow for an extra slow presentation. You can do this with the typical chironomids and also balanced style leech patterns. Remember, this isn’t just basic bobber fishing. Adding motion in subtle ways to your indicator presentations is often a key to success.
Now, for the catch. Even in cold water conditions where you’d expect trout to be lethargic and prefer a slow presentation, I have seen instances where the trout may follow, but will not commit to eating anything but a FAST moving fly. If you have fish following your fly right to the rod tip, but not eating, or if things seem totally dead, change things up and move your fly in a different way. Especially if you have seen fish cruising the area and they aren’t eating your offerings. Speed it up, shorten the pause, make longer pulls, or shorter pulls, and experiment until you get some feedback! When it all comes together, it’s a beautiful thing…