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Great Lakes Winter Brown Trout Tactics

Focusing on some of the conventional techniques and new-school presentations that have been popularized by brown trout fishing experts in the Great Lakes.

On the Water
Great Lakes Winter Brown Trout Tactics

Amongst the iconic brown trout fisheries worldwide – Tierra Del Fugeo in Argentina, coastal fjords of Sweden, Chile’s Navarino Island – the Great Lakes potentially exhibits some of the greatest trophy potential for giant brown trout. Despite decades of ecological and environmental changes to the ecosystem, the Great Lakes still remains one of the best brown trout fisheries in the world. Two previous International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world records were subdued from Lake Michigan: A 43.75-inch behemoth caught by Tom Healy in August 2009, and a 40.6-inch leviathan boated by Roger Hellen in July 2010. Hellen’s world record brown trout exhibited an immense 27-inch girth and a weight of 41 pounds, 8 ounces. Lake Michigan brown trout feed on an abundant pelagic forage base consisting of alewives, smelt and shad, yielding incredibly fast growth rates, and they enjoy a long lifespan. As water temperatures fluctuate during the transition from fall into winter, large browns vacate their summertime homes in the main lake basin and transition into the rocky shorelines for food and spawning. These favorable conditions contribute to aggressive winter foraging behavior throughout the winter.

Winter Trout Behavior

Compared to stream trout behavior, the brown trout of the Great Lakes demonstrate flexibility and variability in their winter seasonal behavior. The diversity of baitfish species in the pelagic waters of the Great Lakes, combined with widespread variation in invertebrate diversity, presents brown trout with a multitude of prey items. Whether in a backcountry stream or the backwaters of a harbor system, each of the Great Lakes presents solid opportunities to catch the brown of a lifetime. Based off two strains – German Brown and Seeforellen – brown trout are stocked by state agencies along all five Great Lakes. Natural reproduction occurs in some fertile stream systems of Michigan. As surface water temperatures diminish from the 60s and eventually into the 50s (degrees Fahrenheit), browns vacate the deeper main lake basin and search out transitional habitats in shallower waters of large harbors connected to mainstem tributaries. Water temperature is an important determinant of brown trout foraging behavior and reproductive ecology throughout the Great Lakes. Decreasing daylight and colder nearshore water temperatures trigger the pineal glands of brown trout for upstream spawning migration into interconnecting tributaries. Others theorize their early autumn arrival into harbor systems is to follow salmon upstream and forage on their eggs. Speculation about brown trout entering Great Lakes tributaries after salmon revolves around a definite proclivity for brown trout toward eating salmon eggs, an important protein-packed resource.

Brown Trout - Mike LundeSeasonal habitat utilization by lake-run brown trout varies considerably throughout the winter with environmental and water conditions predetermining their day-to-day habitat selection. The main objective of their journey into these tributaries is to partake in their upstream reproductive spawning run. The lower regions of Great Lakes rivers are characterized by slow flows caused by the construction of shipping channels. Specifically, the channels are wider than the middle and headwater portions of these tributaries, with slower flows and deeper pools. In the middle regions, the habitat yields increased diversity in pools, runs and riffles, as well as bottom composition ranging from cobble bottoms to sandy flats jam-packed with large woody debris. Other mid-depth to deep pools and runs commonly feature mixed composition of coffee table-sized boulders and clumps of vegetation. An occasional mid-channel boulder obstructs current, particularly in faster flows, where browns can conserve their energy before later swimming upstream.

Although the majority of browns participate in their annual upstream spawning migration into the Great Lakes tributaries, there is a percentage of the population that overwinters in harbors. This is likely due to large concentrations of alewives and smelt scattered sporadically around the shorelines, drawn to the 3-to-6-degree temperature difference afforded by warmwater discharge plants. This in turn attracts browns to feed there specifically. Shallower harbor areas such as marinas, backwater lagoons, and river mouths also concentrate browns seeking a safe-haven from storms and wave activity. Winter storms and windy low-pressure systems that coincide with either full or new moon phases trigger increased brown trout foraging and migration activity throughout winter. Roughly the first two hours after daybreak and before pitch-black darkness in the evening are other windows of foraging opportunity. Brown trout will remain in shallow water until March or April when surface temperatures eventually warm, forcing them to follow of schools of suspended pelagic forage back into the main lake basin.

Winter Techniques

Throughout the Great Lakes, lake-run brown trout will succumb to a variety of conventional and fly fishing techniques. With an immense amount of techniques available, it would take volumes to effectively cover every nook and cranny of this subject, so we cannot provide a full comprehensive breakdown of all the effective tactics here. This article will specifically focus on some of the conventional techniques, with special attention given to proven traditional techniques combined with modified and/or new-school presentations that have been popularized by brown trout fishing experts in the Great Lakes.

Hair Jigs

Traditional bucktail jigs have long been a mainstay for anglers targeting multiple species of freshwater and marine gamefishes, and have also proven to be one of the most highly successfully techniques for the Great Lakes brown trout angler. Perhaps the biggest reason is they can effectively cover all zones in the water column. Additionally, hair jigs can be used to target aggressive fish during prime fishing times (late fall and late spring) and during finesse situations in severe cold-front scenarios and winter. The magnitude of aggression or finesse of the presentation is determined by the angler. My favorite brown trout hair jig rod-reel combo is a 9-foot, medium-light power, fast-action spinning rod that is rated to cast jigs in the upper spectrum of the 3/8- to ½-ounce realm. The other personal favorite is a 7.5-foot medium to medium-heavy spinning rod for vertical jigging applications around harbor gaps connected to the main lake, around offshore reefs, and in warmer water pockets near discharge plants. Reels are spooled with 10-pound fluorocarbon given the intelligent, spooky behavior of browns in the extremely clear water. Avoid braided line during the heart of winter because braid birdnests easily and creates chaotic terminal rigging nightmares. Personal jig color combinations I recommend include white, chartreuse/white, black and purple/white, firetiger, and black/olive. During winter, focus your presentation on the bottom, reeling in at a slow retrieve speed followed with series of one to two downward twitches of the rod tip. Experiment with brief pauses and continue with the retrieve. Fishing in deeper water out of a well-equipped, seaworthy boat is definitely the recipe for vertical jigging applications. Boat position is generally dependent on wind direction and speed. For example, winds blowing far offshore to the opposite shore of the lake create scenarios where a light drift is more than adequate to keep the jig in proximity to the bottom. This creates calmer conditions on the near coastline, which benefits anglers focused on maintaining proper vertical jigging boat position as less effort is required to prevent the boat from rocking in the waves. During rougher conditions, with the assistance of a powerful bowmount trolling motor, the angler can create an ideal position to stay vertical as possible while jigging. Use your pointer finger to grasp and hold the line while engaging series of vertical jigging strokes to allow for increased sensitivity of strike detection. Basic vertical jigging with hair jigs out of the boat is called snap jigging. Compared to shoreline angling, initiate a series of one- to two-foot snaps of the rod tip followed by a momentary pause and then repeat. Majority of browns typically bite the hair jig when it is paused and don’t be surprised if you tangle into a bonus giant 25-pound lake trout as they often share and utilize similar habitats browns do.

Night Fishing with Cranks and Jigs

Mike Lunde Brown Trout While other species of trout are visual daytime predators, brown trout increase their foraging behavior throughout the night. Theories on why browns are more aggressive at night include their deeper location during the day, increased susceptibility to predation, angling pressure, and spookiness. With brown trout vacating the deep water in search of shallower habitat, they forage on alewives, smelt, and round gobies over rocky bottoms of Great Lakes harbors and river mouths. Traditional night fishing tactics for browns originally started in the classic tailraces of Arkansas and Tennessee, which consisted of steady retrieval of shallow-running crankbaits, pitching dark colored jigs, and stripping larger articulated streamers. Popular crankbaits for fishing Great Lakes browns include #11 and #13 jointed Rapalas, Mag Lip 4.0s and 4.5s, Rattling Rogues, Berkley Flicker Shads, and Bagley Shads. Use an 8.5- to 9.5-foot moderate-fast- to fast-action spinning rod spooled with 8- to 12-pound fluorocarbon. Trolling applications with downriggers and planer boards call for 8.5- to 10-foot medium- to moderate-fast-action composite trolling rods that exhibit more flex to allow the baits to increase their wobbling action. Baitcasting or trolling reels should be spooled with 20-pound fluorocarbon. Experiment with a combination of continuous, steady retrieves, occasional pauses, and twitches to see how the fish respond during shoreline fishing expeditions. Typically, winter browns respond best to slower presentations at night because of the reduced visibility. Their water column location varies considerably as well with some individuals located just below the surface feeding and others cruising near the bottom. This is where a mixed arsenal of crankbaits and jigs provides the ultimate knockout punch. Aim for using darker colors such as black/white, purple/white, purple firetiger, and hues of blue. Perhaps the deadliest color combination is any glow-in-the-dark variant that browns can see at night. Some anglers will experiment with painting their jigs with glow-in-the dark paint. Glow-in-the-dark water-based strips are also available to wrap around bodies of straight and jointed crankbaits. Shoreline anglers have the advantage of making casts parallel to the shoreline to work windswept boulders in backwater lagoons of harbors. Comparatively, anglers in boats can longline troll mid-depth to deep flats with downriggers, flat lines, and in-line planer boards with either straight-line or jointed minnow baits suspended between 4 and 12 feet down. Look specifically for flats adjacent to river mouths as these are excellent trolling zones to cover.


There is a bright and promising future for the trophy potential of giant brown trout across all five Great Lakes due to successful fisheries management and conservation of the important forage base necessary to sustain fast growth and healthy conditions. While brown trout can be caught all year, it is the beauty of the winter season in which shore anglers can access the shorelines of harbors and connecting tributaries to implement their quest for a 20 pounder, which many consider the holy grail of the species. With an advanced understanding of their foraging behavior, we have gained a better perspective of their biological nature. Furthermore, the willingness of anglers to experiment with multiple tactics such as the ones covered herein will allow them to increase their angling skillset. Hence, they are better prepared to catch more and larger fish, regardless of the environmental conditions they encounter. With a new year underway, don’t let the doldrums of winter leave you cooped up inside until the arrival of spring. Instead, embark on a joyous expedition into the cold winter wonderland of the Great Lakes and you might be rewarded with the brown trout of a lifetime.

Author & Photo Credits: Mike Lunde, "Musky Mike"

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