Time to get ready for annual ice-out
As Adirondack anglers wait for the winter to come to an end, most brook trout fanatics have already completed the process of readying their gear and scouring the maps. All they are waiting on now is for the local ponds and lakes to shed winter’s hard cover.
Ice-out typically occurs in a series of fits and starts, as the warm weather of spring struggles to fend off the remaining hard shell of winter. However, when the ice is finally out it provides brook trout fanatics with some of the finest fishing of the entire season.
Although the action may prove fast and furious in the first week, it often shuts off just as quickly as it began.
In the northern Adirondacks, ice-out has traditionally arrived around the first few weeks of May, often coinciding with Mother’s Day weekend. Although trout season officially opens on April 1 throughout New York, it’s rare to see a boat on “open water” in the Adirondacks before the first weekend of May.
However, in recent years, the arrival of ice-out has steadily encroached on the seasonal calendar. I’ve been fishing on open ponds by the middle of April for four of the past five seasons, and last year I was on the ponds for opening day.
In 2012, a majority of Adirondack lakes and ponds iced out in March, and for many local waters, it was the earliest ice-out in more than a century.
The incremental advancement of ice-out dates has added nearly a full month to the traditional Adirondack trout season.
Despite the recent expedited seasons, nature’s calendar remains as reliable as ever, and the usual indications of spring are still important to note. It begins with increasingly longer days, as steam billows from the sugar shacks and pussy willows and wild flowers begin appearing in the woodlands.
The most reliable indication of open water on the ponds is the mournful tune of a loon announcing that the ice is finally out. The loons have yet to arrive, but the advance guard of Canada geese has already been around for more than a week.
With the precision of a fine Swiss watch, the call of a loon provides the most consistent measure of ice-out.
However, there are many other natural indicators to help gauge the arrival of the brook trout season, the spring woods and the awakening season.
Brookies will be on the take when trout lilies and trilliums begin blooming on the forest floor, and when the leaves of cripple brush (witchhobble) bushes are about the size of a mouse’s ear.
When the full season arrives in late April, anglers will watch for signs of ospreys, gulls, kingfishers and even ravens assembling near the mouths of tributaries. The winged messengers will be on hand to announce the beginning of the annual smelt spawn.
A wide assortment of migrating birds have already returned, including song sparrows, warblers, and red-wing blackbirds, and their sweet notes can now be heard once again.
The frogs in the bogs have yet to mutter a sound, but the wild turkeys have been strutting their stuff.
I watched a flock of turkeys traveling through my backyard for most of the winter, and my dog has recently been engaged in a battle of scents with a vixen fox that has established a nearby den. The two canines have been enjoying a proverbial peeing contest for almost a month.
Anglers seeking active fish during the early season should center their attention near the inlets of ponds and lakes or at the base of waterfalls and rapids where turbulent water pumps oxygen and warm air into the water in places like the Wilmington Dam, the Flume Pool and Monument Falls on the AuSable, at the base of the Mill Pond dams on the Chubb River or the Lake Flower dam on the Saranac.
Productive waters will also include Lake Clear inlet and the outlet, Bog River Falls on Tupper Lake and open holes that result from runoff on the Cascade Lakes and Chapel Pond. I’ve taken some nice early season lake trout while casting lures off the dock at Mirror Lake beach, where the outlet of the lake creates a current.
Turbulent or flowing waters provide plenty of oxygen and food for minnows, nymphs and a host of insect larva. As a result, larger fish will gravitate to such locations seeking food.
Most of the early feeding on the ponds is not centered on insects. Rather, the brookies will be feeding low in the water column, where the water is warmer and the leeches are oozing out of the bottom. Leeches are an early-season delicacy.
Anglers will find success with small, black or olive jigs made of fur, feathers or even rubber. I’ve heard reports of some great early-season brook trout taken on small micro jigs and tiny spinnerbaits that were tipped with a small piece of worm or a maggot. Often in the early spring, smaller offerings prove more enticing that a big gob of crawlers.
The major hatch of the spring occurs directly following the first spring rains after ice-out, and it only happens once a year, when thousands of spotted salamanders exit from under the leafy cover to venture to the ponds to breed.
In the period of less than a week’s time, brookies will be gorging on the black and yellow spotted salamanders. After this event, the brookies may not feed for nearly a week or more until the water temperatures begin warming into the low 50s.
When minnows and other bait fish begin spawning in late May and early June, the brookies will again begin to feed heavily again.
The location where bait fish spawn depends on the species of fish. Smelt and suckers will move into the tributaries or small streams to spawn, while others, such as grass minnows, shiners or blue gills, will spawn along the shallow shorelines or on rocky shoals.
Their spawning areas are often located along southeastern shores, where west winds push warmer surface waters and the turbulence of waves provides the necesssary aeration for incubation.
When trout are feeding on spawning minnows in the shallows they’ll often take small lures such as Phoebes, Mepps, CP Swing, Super Dupers or such traditional streamer fly patterns such as Hornberg, Mickey Finn, Muddler Minnow or Grey Ghost.
It is important to match both the size and color of the offerings to imitate the appropriate bait fish on the spawn.
After the bait fish have finished the spawn, brookies often go into the doldrums for a week or more. Generally, as water temperatures begin warming into the low 50s, the trout, which had been slow to feed except for a small window of time directly after ice-out, will begin to feed heavily again on insect larvae as nymphs, emergers or on the surface for adult flies.
The next big feed on the ponds will be prompted by the first fly hatches of the year, and the action will pick up increasingly as dragonfly nymphs become the prime meal during late May and early June.