Pothole Lake Tactics for Wisconsin Trout

A young Wisconsin angler with a beautiful Rainbow Trout caught by suspending a fathead under a tip-up just off the break.
A young Wisconsin angler with a beautiful Rainbow Trout caught by suspending a fathead under a tip-up just off the break.

The often overlooked plethora of Wisconsin pothole lakes offer a unique opportunity to the ice angler. ‘Pothole’ is defined as a 20 to 60 acre lake that is normally secluded. These lakes are largely ignored by anglers due to rough access or lack of a boat launch. Anglers can take advantage of an underutilized WI resource: ice fishing for trout. This tasty species is swimming around just under the frozen layers, and with a little research, proper gear and time on the ice, you can rest assured that the lemons and butter in the fridge will be put to good use.


The adage make your own luck is applicable here, as a consistent switch from ‘fishing’ to ‘catching’ is a fine line. Successful anglers depend on research, as a few hours spent accessing the where and the how before setting a boot on the ice can positively alter that cruel mistress of luck. The attractiveness of this stage of locating trout is completing it from the comfort of your living room. Open the laptop, grab a cup of coffee, and settle in.

The Wisconsin DNR is a huge help in your search. They post yearly stocking data, which is an enormous advantage. This Stocking Database provides the angler a map of our great state divided by counties. Simply click on the county you wish to target, and scroll though the bounty of information. If you already have a lake in mind, you can type into the search bar and go to town. This website allows you to pinpoint those pothole lakes the DNR drops massive amounts of trout into each year.

The Next Steps

Once you have identified the trout-filled water you want to target, head over to WI DNR Lake Maps. Check for special regulations and know what you need to do to fish legally. Next, pull up the bathymetric map and pinpoint areas you see as likely placements for your lines. More on that later, but understanding what the bottom of the lake does in terms of structure is key to finding fish with consistency.

Another place to check for structure is Google Maps. Switch over to satellite view, and scope the shorelines. You can easily identify areas that contain inside turns on dropoffs. Look for “V” or “U”-shaped shorelines by noticing where the shore changes from light to dark. Switch back and forth between the bathymetric and satellite maps; you can define exactly where you want to target. The benefit of the smaller lake will become apparent, as you can find 3 or 4 spots you’d like to fish, and if a few other anglers have beaten you to one spot, you can walk a few yards down and still be on productive water. There’s no need to caravan up with snowmobiles or trucks to access the distant spots like when fishing big waters.  This lack of huge distances between productive spots is also family friendly, and makes for a quick transporting of gear when little ones are in tow.

Satellite maps can highlight turns and changes in the shoreline breaks. Locate and target these to find active trout.
Image credit: Google Maps: https://www.google.com/

Equipment and Set-ups

Trout fishing rigs are almost identical to walleye. Load your tip-ups with an ⅛-ounce splitshot and a 12-18 inch fluorocarbon leader. Terminate with a size-6 or 8 Gamakatsu Octopus hook. Great debates exist between lip or back hooking fatheads. I’m a fan of hedging my bets on new water and will use both methods. If I notice any trends that affect success, I adjust accordingly. Remember that every fish you catch is a window into catching more fish in the future. If you notice more hook-ups on the back hooked fatheads, use your instincts and switch over.

Explore and Experiment

Trout will eat a variety of minnows and invertebrates. I like to set my tip-ups the same way almost every time, but I will explore other methods of catching trout with a rod and reel. Sonar is key with this approach, because you will need to see the fish on their approach and change presentations if you mark them but they’re not eating. Often, a few trout hit the ice on the classic fathead and tip-up, but the guy who gets the hot hand is sitting on the five gallon bucket. He figured out through sonar, trial and error that the magic happens with a waxie on a gold jigging spoon. Investigate, explore and experiment with different baits and jigging cadences to fool these fish into becoming supper. Pack options in both colors and sizes with your jigs, and sweeten the deal with a fathead tail or a spike or waxie.

Trout Behavior, Presentation and Placement

With the maps in mind (and perhaps screenshotted on your phone) and the gear on the ice, it’s time to drill some holes. Trout are sketchy critters, and above-ice noise will cause shyness. Place the flags first, at least 20 yards away from your home base and jigging setups. Start shallow, and move off the breaklines into the lake’s bowl, or deepest water. Take depth readings at every hole, and match up the water depth with what you see from your lake maps. Visualizing exactly what the bottom is doing while you set flags is critical to gathering data while you fish. If that flag gets action, why? Are there other spots nearby you can replicate that bottom contour, depth or cover?

Rainbow and Brown trout will often school up and swarm an area to feed. They cruise breaklines looking for easy meals. Your job is to figure out what depth they are using, and then understand what section of the water column they are feeding in. This can change from day-to-day, so it’s important to get this pinned down.

The Process of Catching Trout

Start with flags just off the breaklines. This is usually 8-10 feet of water. Set one flag suspended at 5 feet, and another close to the bottom. As action dictates, start moving one flag out to deeper water. Vary depths of your presentation by suspending your baits from a few feet to about halfway up the water column. If you begin to see a pattern in action, move your baits to similar areas and depths. Remember that trout will use turns in both the weed edge and depth to corral and eat prey. This can be a spot-on-the-spot game, and the successful angler will locate and use those areas of cover and structure to their advantage. If the fish are not collecting on the breaklines or weed edges, suspending fatheads out over deep water in the main lake area is also a great place to contact fish.

Sonar To Fine Tune The Approach

Using the jig rod and electronics can also help you determine which section of the water column the trout are feeding. If you’re marking fish 9 feet down in 16 feet of water, adjust those tip-ups to match it. Experiment with presentation on the jig rod, but collect information as you go, fine tuning your approach with both rod and tip-up until you can establish and exploit a pattern of feeding fish. Frequently, when 4 or 5 anglers are all strung down a shoreline, you’ll hear an angler exclaim that his or her Vexilar is showing fish, one flag will pop, then another, then another. The flags set at the correct depth will collect fish, the flags off the desired depth or suspended too deep in the water column will not.

Trout will swarm an area, feed, and move out quickly, and you might get only a handful of shots at fish during these ‘frenzies’ each day. They patrol the shore at a certain depth, eating voraciously.  Any information you can gather and utilize in real time to maximize your chances at putting a bait in front of a hungry trout is essential to angling success. When these frenzies occur, it can be some of the hottest action over the ice you’ll ever see. If you have kids that like to catch fish but you have trouble finding that steady, active bite to keep interest high, the trout in these stocked pothole lakes will be sure to entertain the entire family.

Protecting the Resource

Trout in the numerous small deep and clear pothole lakes in Wisconsin are a finite resource. Stocking bolsters the numbers of fish, but overharvesting can reduce populations dramatically. Take only what you’ll eat, then switch to barbless hooks. This helps for easy live releases after you’ve harvested enough but want to continue fishing. The stocked fish don’t reproduce, but each one taken out is one less for the next angler. Responsible harvesting is a fundamental duty of each Wisconsin angler on the ice.

Money is required to raise and release these fish. Purchase the inland trout stamp, and be sure to donate a few bucks when you purchase your license. That money goes to good places, and allows the state of Wisconsin to boast some of the best fishing in the United States.

Fishing through the ice is a proud Wisconsin tradition. By making sure these stocking programs are funded through licensing fees and small donations, we can ensure this tradition through generations of anglers.

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