Ice Fishing for Rainbow Trout, Tips and Techniques

Ice Fishing for Rainbow Trout

The topic of this article is ice fishing for rainbow trout. Rainbow trout are one of the most popular and recognizable fish in the world! They are a beautiful fish that has it all. Rainbow trout are fantastic game fish that takes artificial lures, flies, and live bait. They put up a great battle on light tackle, often leaping high out of the water. Of course, they can’t do this under the ice, but they still put up a terrific fight.

ice fishing for rainbow trout

Ice fishing for rainbow trout is a bit different than many other species. Trout love the cold water. This means that their seasonal migrations are different than many other freshwater fish. While the majority of fish species move deeper as it gets colder, rainbow trout do the opposite. Fish can be found as shallow as 3 or 4 feet.

Another difference for anglers fishing for rainbow trout compared to other species is that successful anglers are more stationary. While mobility is the key when chasing down yellow perch, walleye, and other schooling fish, this tactic often proves unsuccessful when pursuing rainbow trout. They are spooky and the activity will often get them off there bite.

ice fishing for rainbow trout

Rainbow trout habits and behaviors

The key to anglers having success is understanding the rainbow’s habits and their forage. Rainbow trout will be most often found in two locations when ice fishing. These are submerged weed beds, particularly the edge of the weeds and open muddy flats. These are the areas where rainbow trout will find food in the winter.

ice fishing for rainbow trout

Rainbow trout mostly feed on nymphs, larvae, leeches, snails, and small bait fish. Nymphs and larvae will almost always be found on mud flats. Therefore, that is where the rainbow trout will look for them as well. Small bait fish are usually found hiding in the weeds or relating to deep structure such as a drop off.

Anglers who would like to read more about ice fishing can purchase Capt Jim’s E-book, “A Complete Guide to Ice Fishing” by clicking on the title link.

ice fishing for rainbow trout

Shallow mud flats and weed beds are best fished early and late in the day. Anglers fishing tiny jigs or live baits very close to the bottom should do well. As the day warms up, a change in tactics is required. Moving to deeper offshore ledges and fishing the mid-depths with spoons and plugs is usually more productive.

Tackle for ice fishing for rainbow trout

Tackle used when ice fishing for rainbow trout is pretty basic. A 30 inch to 36 inch long rod with light to medium light action (depending on the size of the fish in the lake or river) is all that is required. Most anglers spool the reels up with 4 pound test fluorocarbon line. Several manufacturers offer line specifically designed for anglers fishing under the ice. It holds up better in the cold conditions.

Anglers can read this article on ice fishing tackle and gear to get more information.

Anglers can shop Amazon for  ice fishing rod and reel combos

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The same artificial lures and baits that produce for anglers when ice fishing will do well for rainbow trout, too. Tiny jigs, small spoons, and very small plugs are the top artificial lures. They can be fished alone or tipped with a wax worm, piece of minnow, or small live minnow. A small selection of hooks ranging from #8 up to #4 and a few split shot will complete the tackle box.

Locating rainbow trout under the ice

Generally speaking, the best spots to find rainbow trout under the ice are large shallow flats and shoals. These expansive areas with muddy bottom and weed beds will have the most forage in the winter time. Areas between 5 feet deep and 10 feet deep are generally best, but every lake is different.

rainbow trout ice fishing

Ideally, the transition from the flat to deep water will be steep. If this occurs in 10 to 20 feet of water, so much the better. Rainbow trout will cruise these edges in search of food. A submerged weed bed in 8 feet of water that drops off sharply to 15 feet of water is an example of an ideal spot to fish. Rainbow trout will cruise both the edge of the weeds and the depth change in search of food.

trout fishing strategies

As mentioned earlier, ice fishing for rainbows is a bit different than other species. The fact that they will often be found very shallow requires a change in tactics. Successful anglers pursuing rainbow trout get out on the water at first light and drill all of their holes early. This allows them to move about as little as possible without making the noise required to drill new holes.

ice fishing for trout

Anglers ice fishing for rainbow trout will start drilling very shallow then move out into deeper water. Once the outside edge of weed beds or the steeper drop off is located, anglers do not need to go any deeper. It is not uncommon to catch rainbow trout in shallow water just a couple feet below the ice.

While fish finders are crucial in some ice fishing applications, they are less important for anglers ice fishing for rainbow trout. This is mostly due to the fact that rainbow trout do not school up and cruise much more than most other game fish in the winter. However, sonar machines can be very useful in locating submerged weed beds as well as the structure breaks.

ice fish finder

Click to shop Amazon for an ice fishing fish finder

Rainbow trout ice fishing tactics

A good approach for anglers ice fishing for rainbow trout is to start fishing shallow water early and then work deeper as the sun gets higher in the sky. Like most game fish, rainbow trout are most active early and late in the day and even at night. On cloudy days, the fish may stay shallow all day. By mid day, most fish will be cruising the deeper edges in 15 feet to 20 feet of water. As evening approaches, the pattern will reverse itself and fish will move shallow once again to feed.

ice fishing

While moving around a lot is often the key to success when ice fishing, this is not so much the case when pursuing rainbow trout. Since these fish don’t really school up and do a fair amount of cruising, often times the best approach is to sit patiently in one spot and either lure a fish in or wait for one to cruise by. Running around from hole to hole is generally not productive.

However, this does not mean that an angler ice fishing for rainbow trout should set in one spot all day. As outlined above, starting in 3 feet of water to 5 feet of water early in the day than slowly moving deeper is a good approach. Every day fishing is different and experience is a great teacher. There is no substitute for time out on the water!

Ice fishing for rainbow trout using live bait

The best live baits for anglers ice fishing for rainbow trout are mealworms, wax worms, spikes, and small live minnows. These are all readily available at tackle shops that cater to ice fishermen. Live baits can be presented on a small hook. A small split shot can be used to get the bait down to the desired depth.

rainbow trout fishing

Live bait can also be used in conjunction with artificial lures. This two-pronged approach is often the most effective as it combines the advantages of both. Tiny jigs can be tipped with waxies or mealworms as well as the head or tail of a minnow. A small spoon tipped with a tiny minnow is an extremely effective combination as well.

Ice fishing for rainbow trout with lures

The same basic lures that produce fish for anglers ice fishing for other species will catch rainbow trout as well. Tiny jigs can be very effective when worked just off the bottom or just above the tops of submerged weed beds. Most modern ice fishing jigs are made of tungsten. This material is very dense and results in a very small jig being heavy for its size. Anglers can add a small split shot 18 inches above the jig if needed.

Spoons are very effective lures when ice fishing for rainbow trout. While jigs are the most popular ice fishing lure, spoons are more effective on rainbow trout for a couple of reasons. Rainbow trout are more active than most other species and will respond to a larger bait being work more aggressively. They also often want a larger meal, which the spoon represents

Spoons work very well in the middle periods of the day when rainbow trout are suspended over deeper water. Anglers should start fishing the spoon about 5 feet below the ice. After jigging it aggressively and working it for several minutes, a few feet of line can be let out and the process repeated. Before an angler gives up on a spot, the spoon should be bounced off the bottom several times sharply, then raised a foot or so above. Disturbing the bottom will at times kick up forage and attract rainbow trout to the lure.

Using plugs for rainbow trout

Plugs are also effective lures when ice fishing for rainbow trout. The standard in the industry is the Rapala Jigging Rap. It has been around a very long time and continues to be a productive lure to this day. It has an eyelet in the middle and a fin on the rear which results in an erratic circular swimming motion when jig. Jigging Raps come in a variety of sizes and colors. Anglers should match the locally available forage for best results.

Flies can also be used effectively as long as they can get down to the fish. While conventional fly fishing tackle cannot be used, weighted flies and nymphs can be used to fool rainbow trout. If the fly itself is not heavy enough to reach the bottom, anglers can simply add on a tiny split shot or two.

In conclusion, this article on ice fishing for rainbow trout will help anglers catch more fish under the ice!

Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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