Jigging for Cutthroat Trout at Bear Lake
Fishing is now starting to improve at Bear Lake, and it should become better and better as fall progresses. The Bear is a great fall and winter fishery, but traditional trout fishing methods are often unproductive. Anglers need to learn to troll or jig deep to catch the trophy cutthroat and lake trout living in the lakes cold water.
Andy Parker, a local fishing and hunting guide, taught me innovative and very effective jigging techniques when we fished Bear Lake on a cold, stormy day in early winter. We had a great time catching nice fish.
Bear Lake is unlike any other water anywhere, with its interesting combination of fish. Cutthroat and lake trout become aggressive when the lakes endemic cisco and whitefish spawn. Fishing success picks up as the water cools in the fall, often becomes excellent in late December and January, then settles back to very good in February.
"As soon as the cisco start moving, fishing goes crazy," Andy said. "I've caught macks with three cisco hanging out of their mouths, and they still hit my jig."
Andy uses a skirted plastic gitzit-type jig on a 3/4 ounce lead-head, tipped with a cisco tail. (Dead cisco may be used as bait on Bear Lake.) I was amazed by the effectiveness of that combination for both cutts and lake trout. Cutthroat in particular hit again and again. A fish would get a taste of that cisco and keep coming back, even after having the rig jerked out of its mouth as we attempted to set the hook. I've never seen anything like it.
That does not mean the fishing was easy. I had a difficult time learning to identify bites, and also setting the hook. We were fishing with sensitive, stiff graphite rods and low-stretch 12-pound test line, working the bottom in water 30-60 feet, and I often could not feel the bite. I would raise my rod in a jigging motion and then let the hook fall toward the bottom. Sometimes the fish would take the jig on the upswing, the fish moving toward me, and the only way to tell there was a fish on the line was by observing that the line went slack at a time it should have been taught. More often the fish would take the jig as it fluttered toward the bottom - when the line was already slack - and I could not tell I had a bite until I noticed the line stayed slack after it should have come tight.
Andy is a hair-triggered fisherman. He jerked to set the hook any time he noticed anything strange about the way the line acted. He would jerk if he didn't feel the weight of the jig, if the line went slack, if it suddenly went tight, or if he felt any bump. He was constantly yanking on his rod. I failed to recognize some subtle strikes, and was slow picking up on others because I figured I should wait until I was sure the fish had the hook in its mouth, not wanting to move the bait and startle the fish prematurely. Not Andy. He was constantly dancing up and down as he thought he felt strikes. Many were false alarms. I was more reserved. Different styles. But Andy hooked the most fish.
I had a hard time getting a good hook set. A fish would take the jig and my line would go slack. By the time I reacted I would sometimes have to deal with a few feet of slack line. By the time I pulled the slack tight, I would have little force left to propel the hook into the fish's mouth. I tried reeling in the slack before popping the rod to set the hook, but often the fish would let go before I was ready. I learned to be more hair trigger.
The way the jig is rigged is important, Andy said. When he catches cisco he vacuum-packs and freezes them, thus making them available for use throughout the year. If they dry out or get freezer-burn they are worthless, he said.
Andy likes to use a cisco tail that is about one inch long. He threads the point of the hook into the flesh below the spine, pushes it in a half-inch or so, then brings it up through the spine and out the back. The hook coming up through the spine holds the tail on firmly - it stays on even after being chewed by fish.
Andy uses a lead-head with the eye set toward the middle of the hook, not at the end. The weighted part of the hook is pushed inside the plastic jig, and then the eye is pushed through the plastic. The jig's skirt hangs down near the point of the hook. When the cisco tail is threaded onto the hook, the result is a lure with a plastic gitzit on the front, the skirt coming down against the cisco tail, and then the tail itself extending back past the hook. A ball-bearing swivel is used to connect the line to the hook's eye. When suspended, the rig hangs horizontally, balanced, and when lowered into the water it flutters and bobs as it descends, looking much like a strange fish.
A predator fish, usually striking from behind, hits the cisco tail. The rig looks like a fish, tastes and smells like a fish, and feels pretty
White-and-blue, white-and-black, and chartreuse-and-brown are effective jig colors. Speckled bodies also work well.
Most of our action was right on the bottom. It was essential to be able to work the bottom. We let the jig fall until it hit bottom, then pointed the tip of the rod at the water and reeled in the slack. With the rod tip just a couple inches above the water's surface, the jig on the bottom and no slack in the line, reel in a turn so the jig hangs just inches off the bottom. Then you can jig up and when you point your rod back at the water you can control how far off the bottom the jig will be when it comes to rest. If you touch the water's surface with your rod tip, your jig will probably bump the bottom. It you stop your rod a foot above the water, your jig will flutter down and then stop about a foot off the bottom. In most cases you don't want your jig hitting the sand, you want it to stop a couple inches above the bottom. (If you see a fish moving through at a higher level, you can quickly reel up to it. If you have a good graph you will be able to see your jig as you move it, so you can tell when you bring it to the fish's depth.)
We varied our jigging strokes to entice the fish. Several short movements, with pauses between, then a long sweeping movement. Vary the length of the pause between the jigging strokes. Shake your rod now and then to give a different action. In most cases it is best to give the hook enough time to come to a complete rest before beginning the next stroke.
We worked the reservoirs east side, concentrating on an area where there are springs just off shore. Cutts and lake trout moved in and out of the area. A fish finder was essential to finding the springs, and locating fish. We anchored so we could hold over the springs and watched the graph. When a fish moved in, we almost always got bites.
As the cisco start to spawn in early-to-mid January, spots closer to Cisco Beach will be very productive. Many cisco also spawn over the Rock Pile, and that can be a very good spot. The Rock Pile is productive throughout the year, but can be very good for larger fish during the spawn. There are usually several boats clustered around the Rock Pile, which is located on the SW side off Ideal Beach.
Some folks were trolling along the east side, and catching cutthroats consistently, along with a few lake trout. The most productive lure for trolling appeared to be a number nine Rapala, jointed, in black and gray. Anything which resembles a cisco should be effective.
Bear Lake is located on the Utah/Idaho border at an elevation of 5,990 feet, where it is often cold and windy. The air temperature with wind chill can become extremely cold any day during the fall, winter and spring. When the wind blows at you from across the lake the water can become dangerously rough. Be prepared for harsh weather.
The lake is big and deep and freezes slowly, even when the air temperature falls below zero. During normal years the lake freezes in mid to late January. Many years the lake does not freeze at all.
We faced a stiff breeze and two-foot waves rocked us most of the day. It is difficult staying right off the bottom when the boat is moving up and down that much. It's difficult detecting subtle strikes under those conditions. It's often easier to jig on Bear Lake when it is frozen. Take a tent or shelter and a heater and you can sit in comfort, holding over the exact spot you want to fish. Action can be very good. Andy's technique works very well through the ice.
We caught a lot of cutts in the 14-18 inch range, but couldn't connect with anything bigger. No lake trout that day. The lake regularly gives up 2-5 pound cutthroats, and 8-10 pounders are not unusual. Lake trout up to 15 pounds are caught occasionally, and a few 20 pounders are caught every year.