Ice-off fishing is the closest thing the fly fishing world has to drawing a limited-entry big-game hunting tag. Ice-off doesn’t last long, but it often produces some of the best fish of the year. I’m normally not a big fan of fly fishing lakes, but ice-off fishing is one of the few things that can get me to abandon my rivers and streams.
However, just as with limited-entry hunts, fishing during ice-off doesn’t guarantee success. You still need to understand what to look for and how to fish during what is arguably the most productive time of the year for stillwater fly fishing.
While a lot of the lower-elevation lakes and ponds have already lost their ice, the high country is just opening up. This is the time of year to find the big fish that do live in your favorite secluded ponds and lakes.
It’s not just about edges
Throwing big streamers on the edge of an ice shelf, then letting the flies fall before starting a slow retrieve, is a time-tested method for fishing during ice-off. And when the ice first comes off a lake, that’s really your only option. You have to congregate around, and cover the most amount of, the limited open water.
However, once you have multiple pockets of open water – or even an entire ring of it around the lake – you should start being more selective about where you fish. Trout prefer cover and structure, which is why we spend so much time fishing around points and other natural lake features. Once you have enough open water, you can almost ignore ice shelves completely and focus on the places you’d normally fish from shore.
You also don’t want to fall into the habit of fishing the same presentation as everyone else. When there’s enough open water on some of my favorite lakes, I end up casting parallel to the ice fairly often. This gives my flies more time in the water, and more time in the lanes where trout cruise in the shallows.
In my experience, color is the least-important part of a fly. Take the Purple Haze as an example – it’s just a parachute Adams with a purple body. That fly works not because of the color purple (although some folks would disagree with me on this) but because of how well the Adams mimics so many aquatic insects.
So, there are very few instances where I pick a fly based on its color. Fishing for Pacific salmon and sea-run dolly varden is one. Ice-off fishing at a handful of big lakes here in the Rockies is another.
I don’t live too far from Strawberry Reservoir, a fishery renowned for its population of 17-22-inch Bear Lake cutthroat trout. Cutthroat up to 30 inches are caught regularly, and it’s one of the few places I know of in the Rockies that offers consistently great fishing for legitimate trophy cutthroat. When the ice comes off at Strawberry, one of the first questions that’s posed on fishing forums and Facebook is what color of streamer the cutthroat want. Generally, they’ll take white and black consistently, but some years they really key in on one color.
With that in mind, I’d advise keeping a variety of colors in your fly box. You don’t need a ton of fancy, articulated streamers (although those certainly don’t hurt). A handful of black, white, ginger, chartreuse, olive, and pink bunny leeches will be more than enough to help you put more trout in the net.
Slow down your retrieve
I feel like I say this a lot when talking about streamer fishing, but it bears repeating – slow down your retrieve. Trout, while opportunistic and predatory, won’t go out of their way to chase a streamer that zips by them like an angler running for the last open spot along the Salmon River.
Especially during ice-off, when the water is colder, you need a slower retrieve. The hand-twist method is a great way to make sure your retrieve stays slow, but keeps enough slack out of the line so you can strip-set when the time comes.
I usually just do smaller strips of 2-3 inches, pause for a few seconds, then repeat that pattern. I try not to fall into the rut of fishing the same retrieve all day, but if you find a speed that works, don’t feel like you have to try something different.
Ice-off fishing is, I think, one of my favorite angling events of the year. Not only are the opportunities for trophy trout more abundant, but ice-off also signals the start of the first big bug hatches of the year. With these tips, I think you’ll see more success at your local lakes and reservoirs during this ice-off season.
Words by Spencer Durrant
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular contributor for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.