The harbor has just begun to thaw from the Lake Michigan’s winter grip. The boat launch is still frozen solid. This is my best chance at a true giant. I slide my Hobie® Pro Angler across the frosted shore, crunching through last night’s thin skim ice. I’m hunting big brown trout before the power boaters can reach them.
The west side of Lake Michigan is home to some the best brown trout fishing in the world. Trout weighing ten to fifteen pounds are common with true giants over 25 or 30 pounds possible. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources heavily stocks the harbors and rivers along Lake Michigan with brown trout that return throughout the fall and winter to spawn.
The weather is nice, sunny and warm for the season, in the mid to high forties with a calm breeze. The water’s still cold, in the mid to high thirties. I’m wearing a waterproof floating suit to counter the cold.
Brown trout are vulnerable to a wide variety of techniques but my first plan of attack is to troll the harbor with crankbaits to cover water and find fish. The harbors are warmer and richer with nutrients than the rest of the lake. I often patrol the shallow water along the rows of slips.
I use 7-foot 10-inch trolling rods that are moderate fast action with soft tips. The soft tip is important. It vibrates with the action of the lure so I have an idea what my baits are doing and if they are fouled.
Crankbaits dive deeper as more line is let out so I use trolling reels with line counters so I know exactly how much line is in the water. I start trolling two or three rods each with different lures and stagger them to cover different depths throughout the water column.
I keep my rod holders horizontal to the water to maximize the distance between my lines to reduce tangles. This also keeps the majority of my fishing line in the water for better depth control. Trolling multiple lines is fairly easy until a fish bites. Then I use my rudder and pedal large circles around the fish and keep my other lines away from it.
My sonar helps clue me into where the fish are holding. I adjust my lines every few minutes to fine tune my presentation.
Once I locate fish I change lure colors and styles. I like a variety of shallow diving stick baits and deeper shad style baits. Some days the fish suspend near the surface and the stick baits really shine. On the deeper days the shad baits work well.The color selection depends on water clarity and light conditions but my favorites are combinations of gold, pearl, and green.
Taking a systematic approach allows me to quickly zero in on a pattern. Once that pattern is established, it is important to be flexible as the pattern can change multiple times throughout a day. I usually dedicate one rod for experimenting with new baits just to keep the fish honest.
When fishing starts to heat up it is common for a second fish to bite one of my other lines as well. This gets a little crazy but the best thing to do is just land the first fish and grab the second rod once the first is in the net. It important to keep my drags a little loose so the second fish can run.
On one particular trip the fish were biting better as the day warmed up. Then a true giant bit. My rod bent in half and stayed that way like it was snagged. My Pro Angler instantly turned ninety degrees. I knew it was a big fish. I took my time landing the big female brown that was still full of eggs. I took three attempts to net her. It turned out to be a beautiful twenty-four-pound trout – caught long before any power boaters could get on the water.
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