Trout best option at drawn-down Pathfinder

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    CASPER, Wyo. — Most years, the recipe for a Pathfinder Reservoir winter walleye is to fish off a rocky point or gravel shoreline.

    The best walleye action is typically where the rocks transition to sand, and you can find those spots, even under the ice, by reading the shoreline.

    This year that's a tough proposition.

    The central Wyoming lake is a good 75 feet low, and while there's an awful lot of structure showing, the fish have retreated to the remaining deep water or are scattered in remote coves.

    A few anglers are reporting good walleye days, but more are catching numbers of sizeable rainbow trout.

    In fact, the trout fishing is so consistent, and the walleye fishing so spotty, that Sam Faigle at Bullwinkle's Bait and Tackle (307-234-7001) in Casper, Wyo., recommends sticking with the adipose-sporting rockets of the lake.

    "Trout fishing never seems to drop off," said Faigle.

    "Walleye are wherever you find them in both Pathfinder and Seminoe, but because the lakes are so low, you'll probably have to do a lot of prospecting to find areas they're using."

    "And in the winter nobody wants to do a whole lot of running and gunning without
    a fish."

    Faigle said Seminoe has borne the brunt of the drought, and is more than 80 feet below full pool.

    Pathfinder, the next reservoir downstream on the North Platte River, is about half full.

    Before the ice formed, trollers were catching a mix of larger trout and midsized walleye in Pathfinder's main channel, and that's where ice fishers should head this month too.

    The most productive rigging is simple: A painted jig and a live minnow. You can get as fancy as you want.

    Faigle said a number of anglers hunting both trout and walleye are having success with one or the other, or both, with a Jigging Rapala.

    Others are using a light-wire fluorescent jig under a Kastmaster or Swedish Pimple spoon, which gets your bait to deep water quickly and also flashes and glints to attract fish to the live bait.

    That extra flash is especially important if snow covers the ice and reduces visibility.

    Stay shallow for trout

    If Pathfinder's walleye are mainly scattered in deeper water and hugging the bottom and canyon walls of the upper reservoir, trout are widely distributed and suspended over both deep and shallow water.

    In a word, they're ubiquitous, said Faigle.

    And they're big, though the crop of 5-pound trout that ice anglers reported a couple of years ago probably is dwindling, replaced by a large age-class of 2-pound trout.

    Last year's gillnet survey of the lake indicated that the average Pathfinder rainbow measured 15 inches and weighed 1.4 pounds, according to Wyoming Game and Fish biologists.

    Rainbows were by far the most commonly netted fish, though walleye tended to be the largest average fish, with an average of 2.1 pounds.

    Cutthroat were the second-most captured fish, followed by walleye and brown trout.

    The largest rainbow in the agency's nets was only 2.6 pounds, while the largest walleye went 12.5 pounds.

    That fairly small average rainbow is probably a mix of poor forage conditions in the drawn-down lake and perhaps the timing of the net survey, which tended to target medium-sized trout.

    In the past few years one of the cautions on Pathfinder is that the average size was too big.

    The lake's limit of six trout, with only one over 20 inches, meant that anglers who kept one big fish early in the day might fish for hours without landing a smaller fish.

    This winter that shouldn't be a problem for anglers looking to fill their limit in just a few hours of fishing.

    A 20-incher will be a whopper this year, but expect good fishing for 14 to 17-inchers.

    The other detail that can make an outing to Pathfinder productive is that anglers are allowed to use as many as six lines through the ice.

    You must be within 300 yards of all your lines and you are required to check your own lines, but this liberal regulation means that ice fishers can cover a lot of water, searching for fish in various depths and over various types of structures.

    It also means you can present a variety of baits, find out the preference of the day and then dial in on active fish.

    Start with basic baits, advises Faigle, either live minnows (which will also appeal to walleye) or nightcrawlers on light jigs.

    Power Bait is a good choice, but it's likely to only catch trout.

    Spawn sacs, shrimp and cheese are other options through the ice.

    Pink and orange are both solid colors for jigs and spoons on Pathfinder. Glow-in-the-dark and light green are also consistent colors.

    A number of winter anglers suspend dark stonefly nymphs and smaller beadhead streamers through the ice.

    Some are baited with maggots, others are fished with no bait. That's a good early-winter tactic for shallow trout.

    Use light line, no heavier than 6-pound, and string out rods along rocky points that drop into deeper water.

    This is also a good option for anglers who want to explore the upper end of Pathfinder.

    Beware thinning ice as you near the Miracle Mile, the stretch of North Platte River that's famous for its abundant large trout.

    But also beware that you're likely to tangle with a higher proportion of larger brown trout in the upper end of the lake, so go armed with heavier line.

    The upper end of the lake can also be a good place to find winter walleye, so if you make the long trek south, be sure to take some live minnows to appeal to low-water 'eyes.

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