The Ice Off Gamble: Pre-Turnover Tips and Observations

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

An Early Ice Off Kamloops Trout for the Kid! An absolute blast watching her reel it in!

So the Ice has just come off on one or some of our favorite interior lakes and you've been itching to get out. Early ice off in general is some of the most hit - or - miss fishing you'll encounter each year. I've had stellar days right at ice off but more often than not it is a time that generally proves to be challenging and sometimes a bit confusing, where you just don't know what piece of the puzzle you're missing. And depending on how soon you get out to the lake it could already be in "Turnover" which occurs in most cases around 6-12 days after ice off. It's exact timing can be difficult to predict and will vary from lake to lake and differ from year to year, a good windstorm can mix a lake up quickly and sometimes send it into sudden turnover before you even get the chance to wet a line. Some lakes don’t always fish well early ice off perhaps due to the chemistry of the lakes and others don‘t seem to suffer as badly, this is where local knowledge can work in your favour. Turnover can be puzzling especially to those who are unfamiliar with the process. To lay it all out quite simply for those without a degree in biology, the lakes will settle into layers over the winter and with regards to oxygen, a necessity for fish's survival, it is no longer present in the lower parts of the lake and is spread pretty thin. After the lake thaws in spring, nature does it's thing and the lake is then "stirred up" and basically does a 180. It will quite literally turn itself upside down, the bottom waters will rise to the top as the top water will lower to the bottom, the layers will mix, and then everything re-settles so to speak (the turnover process). For those who may be reading and are unfamiliar with identifying turnover, some key tell tale signs the lake is currently in this state is very poor water clarity, and floating decaying vegetation throughout the lake. This is a good time to stay home or try another lake that has either already "turned" or one that has yet to. Fishing a lake during turnover is in most cases hardly worth your efforts. The fish are under tremendous amounts of stress and for the most part stop feeding entirely. There are many ways to learn to identify the turnover process and much more that could be discussed further on the topic, but perhaps I will save a "Turnover" blog post for a later date. For the purpose of this article I am going to focus on "pre-turnover" fly fishing conditions on small interior lakes exclusively. There are a number of things we can expect and therefor use it to our advantage to target trout more effectively. During this period, the insect hatches are sparse to nil, and the fish are still undergoing higher levels of stress due to depleted oxygen less and less than ideal water temperatures from a cold winter. They may have survived the harsh winter but will not reach their optimum comfort zone and peak feeding until the water is between 55 and 65F (12 to 18 C). Most of the lakes oxygen has stratified into the upper water column and for this reason anchoring out in 30ft of water and tossing out a full sinking line out is probably not going to produce the best of results. Try to focus most your efforts in the top water, the upper layer which is where the fish will be frequenting. The stratified layer of oxygen left over from a long winter could be 12ft perhaps maybe even less than 6ft. As a golden rule I basically concentrate most of my efforts using a floating line with my presentation fished no deeper than 10ft and generally fish between 5-6ft point as ideal target depth as it lies somewhere in the middle of where I think the fish will be and more than likely catch more fishes attention that is just above or below that depth. But more so than this I like to concentrate much of my efforts in shallow water. Sometimes very shallow water. I first learned this when fishing Pass Lake some years ago in Kamloops the day of, or day after ice off. I know this because there was still a lot of ice spread about in various places of the shoreline. I struggled that day to get into fish, but after multiple failed attempts to catch a fish later discovered the key to success that day was stripping balanced leeches in perhaps 3ft of water (approximately). We landed a few decent fish this way. I was very surprised to find bigger fish actively feeding in such shallow water. The trickiest part was not getting my line snagged up along the reeds. It was a cloudy day so perhaps the lack of sunlight worked in my favor as Pass is a clear water lake and generally trout spook easily in such low clear water, so focusing on stealthy tactics is key. Splashing down with hard casts of a big indicator or banging around in an aluminum boat certainly isn't go to help matters and trout will vacate the scene in a hurry. Fast forward to another year to ice off at Jacko lake, early ice off a day in which I won't forget as it was a miserably cold day mixed with snow, sleet and hail and caught nothing that day to top it all off. No one that I witnessed on the water was having a whole lot of luck either so I didn't feel like an absolute failure, but I considered myself to be pretty good fishermen and days like this are definitely a humbling experience. What I later found out was that there was a couple guys were lighting it up in the far back of a shallow bay I had avoided fishing and were having an extremely productive day fishing in no more than waist deep water. And it's from many of these various experiences like these that during early ice off I have learned not to overrule or overlook the shoreline or ridiculously shallow water but instead seek them out quite often especially on days with good cloud cover. Another personal pre-turnover experience of mine that comes to mind was at six mile/pat lake. I didn't know the lake very well, as I had hardly ever fished it but there I was amongst the crowds of boats and eager fishermen all itching for the same thing. Because of my unfamiliarity with the lake I followed everyone else's lead. I looked at what appeared to be a popular area to fish based on the congregation of boats flocking together and nestled in on a bit of a ledge I found on my fish finder and giving a respectable distance between myself and the nearest angler. I am guessing we we're all fishing in probably about 10-12 ft of water. I sat here for a few hours and watched as everyone around struggled to catch fish. One here or there, but few and far between no one seemed to get really dialed in. I even caught a few myself on some micro leeches. It was cold windy and quite frankly the fishing wasn't very good. Many people started to pack it in and go home. Well I wasn't done trying to figure it out. I seen a very small bay at the far back with literally no one in it. Not a single boat dropped anchor in there all day and I could only assume there must be a reason for it, too shallow I thought? But at this point I had begun to learn very shallow sometimes pays off and so does finding your own piece of water away from the crowds. I pulled anchor went in and set up shop. WHACK! THUNK! ZIIIING! It was bobber down left right and center, every cast and didn't take long for some others to notice and follow suit. I found where the feeding fish were and this whole time this great piece of real estate was for some reason completely overlooked by everyone that day. This is another reason why if there's room to cast, shore fishing can be great option this time of year as you in many cases will literally find most hook ups within casting distance of the lakes shoreline. But what do all three of these short ice off stories share in common about catching more fish in challenging conditons? Depth, yes, but even more so location! Finding the active fish is key. Don't sit in one spot all day unless you're consistently catching fish. Even if it's a spot that has been extremely good to you before, at this time of year especially, they can be very moody. So we've covered fishing low low water and upper column limited to depths of approximately 10ft or less and locating active trout but what about choice of flies? It is at this time of year that, well quite anything goes really, it is now more important than ever having a wide variety of flies in your arsenal can truly work in your favor. No NOT a wide variety of chironomid pupa patterns, their time to shine will come very soon but you're going to want damsels, dragons, bloodworms, scuds, leeches, boatman, blobs etc etc and whatever new creations you may have. Anything and everything particularly attractor type patterns. Something that grabs their attention and speaks louder than the rest of available food sources they are seeing. If you can figure out a food source they are actively feeding on then try to imitate it of course, no doubt, but more than likely chances of finding these are a rarity. You can strike gold on rare occasions and encounter some excellent chironomid hatches on days right at ice off but these days are not the norm. Stomach contents often reveal Daphnia, a scud or two perhaps some extremely small size 20 chironomids, these are often challenging times. Work the water with a wide variety of patterns and change them up frequently until you find something that works. You may get lucky and hit a fish or two here or there, But you also may stumble upon one that works exceptionally that day. If you catch a fish with one pattern give it another 15maybe 20 minutes or so and if it doesn't then produce take it off and tie on another. For me It is better to catch less fish changing flies frequently in hopes of finding one pattern that could potentially catch me a dozen in an hour VS fishing one or two all day that catches me a fish or two an hour. It's a toss up and sometimes you lose, but sometimes you learn something new which is what makes us better fly anglers. Not just sticking to what you know works, but always adapting to new situations or circumstances, trying new things, experimenting and always learning. I for one rarely fish scuds, they are not one my favorite patterns to use, based perhaps from my limited success in fishing them however I do find a pregnant scud to be great option this time of year when in the later in the weeks to come I will pretty much put them on the back bench for a good majority of the rest of spring fly fishing season. Blobs and boobies are a great option and I know guys who absolutely hammer fish early ice off using them and it has even converted me somewhat, however admittedly I have some disdain for such "flies" and have reserved them almost exclusively for desperate times, and to each their own, perhaps I will leave that topic for another blog post in the future, but I thought these were well worth mentioning simply because some guys just wanna catch fish and especially if your driving from as far as say the Lower Mainland I'd rather see a guy hook a pile of fish and enjoy himself than the opposite. Truth is, they work, and they work exceptionally. My wife absolutely loves to fish a blob of daphnia or jelly fritz under an indicator and quite often catches many more fish than me doing so. There is no doubt about it and they are some of the most productive pre-turnover patterns to use. Finally, one thing I personally have found from my own past experience and observations, which I also have no idea if it true or not, It is a theory I would like to test more in the future. But from my own personal experiences I have found pennasks to be particularly more finicky at ice off then Fraser Valleys and especially Blackwaters. My hypothesis is that because the pennask strain are primarily insectivores and blackwaters are naturally a very piscivorous and more aggressive strain that they are more susceptible to be enticed to strike and more active by their aggressive nature and thus an easier fish to target especially during this particular time of year. I generally tend to see better results fishing blackwaters during pre-turnover, I tend to think one has a better chance of producing more consistent results on the water by seeking out and targeting this strain of fish during pre-turnover. It's always a learning process each and every year we take to the lakes, the learning is a never ending process and I don't certainly don't profess to have it all figured out, but many of the basic techniques and principles for the most part stay the same for each sub-season (pre-turnover, post-turnover/early spring/summer and fall). This pre-turnover blog merely scrapes the surface but I hope it may of helped someone or maybe was just an interesting read to see a glimpse into the mind of another fly angler from different perspectives and experiences than that of your own. Thanks for taking the time to read my 1st blog post and expect to see many more similar fly fishing related blogs to be put out here in the near future. I would also like to hear from you about your own personal observations of pre-turnover fishing so that we may all learn from one another. Please Feel free to leave a comment in the comment section below.

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