Open-Water Winter Trout - The Fisherman

Open-Water Winter Trout

The sparkling blue sky highlighted by wispy white clouds belied what is typically the grayest of seasons. The turn of the new year usually is accompanied by dismal gray skies, blistering cold and a crisp white landscape. Here in New England, this also means hard water. Ice. And lots of it. Of course, there are those who look forward to jigs and tip-ups, hoping to pry from the steely frozen surface a fishy reminder of the fading open-water season now stored only in the memory banks. But for some, the open-water season never ends, or perhaps only for a brief blink of the eye. These are the days of open water, winter trout fishing on Cape Cod.

Hefty brown trout like this one landed by Chris Nashville can be caught right on through the winter on the many kettle ponds of Cape Cod.

Winter in southern New England generally falls into three categories where the typical arrival brings three to four months of freezing temperatures with periodic dips towards zero, but also spikes well above freezing. Snow is expected throughout December to early March, and the average accumulation is from a few inches up to possibly a storm or two with over a foot of the white stuff. Then there are the real outliers, like two years ago, when frigid temperatures remained closer to zero than freezing, along with record-breaking snowfall that kept the northeast in a frozen lockdown. But then we have winters like last year with temperatures well above freezing and practically no snow to speak of, never mind measure.

Nevertheless, Cape Cod located on the southeast coast of Massachusetts, can remain an open-water angler’s escape, a place that due to environmental conditions and its proximity to the coast, regularly stays ice-free for the majority if not all of the winter season. It is not uncommon for an angler to venture by one of his favorite kettle ponds—which were formed thousands of years ago when receding glaciers left deep, freshwater-filled pockets in the earth—to find his favorite cove skimmed over with ice, only to drive to the other side and find clean, open water and willing trout. However, such was not always the case as last year over multiple trips the only ice I found was occasionally fouling my rod guides when the temperature hovered around freezing.

This was not a day for forgetting the sunglasses as the aforementioned blue sky reflected off the rippling surface of the little pond in Sandwich, MA; a complete turnaround from the gray, 50-degree day from the previous weekend at Spectacle pond. No, that day, while bright and sunny, came with a slight breeze making the mid-30s feel a bit chillier. Regardless of the temperature or the brightness of the day, the fishing remained the same for those of us who chose to not only extend but to carry the season straight through the winter. We had been bouncing from pond to pond from the lower Cape to the upper Cape, but that day we found ourselves back at our little honey hole by way of convenience and comfort in the success over the years spent living in the area. That’s not to say this is any better than some of the other great trout ponds located further down the lower Cape, which have been known to produce monster specimens over the years. Either way, with polarized glasses firmly hugging my nose, I was kicking myself for leaving the neoprene waders at home while John Rice and I waded the shoreline. My time for self-pity evaporated in a single cast as my gold Kastmaster found a home in the corner of the mouth belonging to a beautiful and chunky 19-inch brown trout. A few casts later, and another bump, and John was tight to another trout, this time a nice rainbow.

We had been working a corner where there would have normally been a dock in the warm months. This is a relatively shallow, sandy area with a few weeds along the edge, and which was showing signs of a winter hatch, apparently midges. This may have explained why the bite died down after early success; but John recommended we go to plan B: shiners.

The chill was beginning to take its toll when we decided to warm up at the truck, which was just a matter of yards from where the dock would’ve been. We shed the waders, grabbed the bait rods, and sent a couple of shiners for a chilly swim. Expecting the polar bear club to take some time attracting the trout that were seemingly busy with the insect hatch, we opted for hot coffee in the truck and the Bruins on the radio; but our warm-up was short-lived. Before the coffee even hit the cup, both bobbers were pushing water, clearly the victims of an underwater assault. We high-tailed it to the water’s edge, grabbed the rods and closed the bail. Unfortunately John’s bobber was now floating freely. My float, on the other hand, was now gone and I came tight to another nice holdover brown trout. The 6-pound line was tested almost to its limits as a shimmering hen came to the shallows and was shortly swimming free after a quick release.

There was no truck break in the immediate thereafter where we would rely on our coffee mugs to keep us warm, while we spied our shiner rigs and fought trout throughout the afternoon. Sometime later in the day, a few scales were all that was left of a dozen shiners, but we weren’t quite done just yet. As we watched our last few baits get dragged about, we alternated with our other rods, tossing Kastmasters and Finnish swimmers and picked up where the shiners left off.

The majority of the fish that day were brown trout, but interestingly, there were a couple nice rainbows in the mix. This actually didn’t come as a surprise as a lazy outing the week before saw numerous ‘bows hitting PowerBait for my 8-year-old son and I off the nearby beach. However, today the fish were aggressive and taking the spoons with a fiery passion. But, that is not always the case. In the previous, record-setting winter, and as in the years where the weather is extra frigid, the fishing can be a bit more challenging. If safe ice appears, that increases the quality for those hard-water fishermen. But this was not a safe ice day. Rather, while the mercury said no sane human should be open-water fishing, I chose to ignore the warning. After an hour with nary a bite, including on PowerBait and lures, my frozen fingers said it was time to head for the stove. With gear stowed and the heat blasting, I hit the gas and headed for shelter as snow began to fall. But just then, that little voice popped into my head and said, “Drive by the boat landing… Take a couple casts… And work that lure slooowwwly along the wall.”

Expect to catch a mixture of both browns and rainbows like this one landed by the author as the state stocks both species on the Cape.

I let my first cast settle, and with a slight snap off the bottom, I began a slow retrieve with the small gold Kastmaster wobbling enticingly in a snow-speckled, silent pond. Side to side it slow-danced right along the edge of the boat landing wall and immediately behind it a purple-lined rainbow approached and attacked in the same slow-mo manner resulting in a lazy miss on my part. It played out so slowly in front of my eyes that I almost didn’t believe it and probably wouldn’t have if not for the instant replay on the next cast. This time, however, as I got the lure in closer, I gave a slight twitch and the ‘bow didn’t miss this time. All in all, that same slow-mo technique resulted in a total of three rainbows, tempted out of the hole at the end of the boat landing.

Whether it was luck or that voice in my head, I can’t say for certain, but one thing I do know, there are trout in these Cape ponds, and they’ll eat in the winter. Sometimes ferociously, other times like a runway model, but for the hearty anglers willing to brave the elements you’ll have the chance to feed them in open water when most of the region is wrapped up for the season or standing on water waiting for an orange flag.

Choice Artificials Where To Go:

The author’s most productive winter trout lure is a Kastmaster in either 1/4 or 3/8 ounce with colors like gold with yellow bucktail, rainbow trout, perch, silver with white bucktail all having their days. Additional spoons that can be productive include the Acme Kastmaster and Little Cleo, Al’s Goldfish and Thomas Buoyant Cyclone in similar sizes and colors. For stick baits, it’s tough to beat a Rapala and the Scatter Rap, Countdown and Original Floater in the 2-3/4 as well as 3-1/2 sizes all producing fish. He prefers natural colors like rainbow trout, brown trout and yellow perch.

While the Cape is dotted with hundreds of small ponds, here are some of the more accessible and popular spots to put on your list.

Spectacle Pond

Peter’s PondBarnstable:
Hamblin Pond

Goose Pond

Big Cliff Pond
Little Cliff Pond
Sheep Pond



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