How to Ice Fish for Rainbow Trout: Learn from the Pros

September 15, 2021

In the bodies of water suitable for ice fishing for rainbow trout also know as (Steelhead) like the Great Lakes, you will find anglers braving the cold in an attempt to catch them. Let’s take a look at topics like fish location, lure and bait selection, and other key factors and tactics. We’ll go over exactly how to ice fish for rainbow trout.

If you live in the region where ice fishing for rainbow trout is possible and want to try it you will find loads of help in the post. 

Location, Location, Location

You aren’t going to catch too many rainbow trout if you don’t know where to find them. The Great Lakes are well, huge, to say the least. Lucky for us, finding rainbow trout is actually fairly easy, despite the epic size of these lakes. 

Steelhead will sit in transition outside of the river mouths that they were born in, they patiently live in these areas throughout the winter, waiting for mother nature to give them the green light to run upriver when conditions like water levels and temperature. 

Bays and Harbors are also great areas to try catching Rainbow Trout.

You can sit right offshore in a harbor, drill holes right next to the piers, and catch rainbow trout. Rainbow trout will frequently travel to these shallower areas and can be found in under five feet of water.

One thing to remember is that harbors can be full of anglers in the winter months, all of whom are trying to catch trout, so it can be claustrophobic for some, and you may have to deal with anglers cutting in on your area. 

Gear Selection

Rainbow Trout on Ice in the winter

You are going to want to start with some ice rods in the 3 to 4 foot range that are fairly limber, or you could choose 5 to 6 foot jigging rods with a light action. 

If you aren’t jigging by hand you are going to want a solid rod holder and base to hold the rod, otherwise, an 8-pound rainbow trout that can swim with a top speed of 35 mph will take the rod into the abyss never to be seen again. 

This is why strike set rod holders like the automatic fisherman or the jaw jacker are so popular among ice anglers who are chasing trout.

Regular tip-ups can work as well, but trout are very sensitive to line tension, which traditional tip-ups have more of due to spinning the T section to release the flag. Many trout will feel that resistance and drop your bait. 

In terms of line, 6-8 pound line is hard to beat, you could use either monofilament or fluorocarbon, but in my opinion why not just use fluorocarbon for the ultimate stealth approach.

If you use monofilament, I would recommend a fluorocarbon leader at the least attached via a swivel. 

About and suitable spinning reel will work, just ensure it has a smooth and sensitive drag because once that rainbow trout starts running, you’re going to need a quality drag system. 

Lure and Bait Selection 

Bait selection similar to location is pretty straightforward. It’s hard to be a spawn sack, and is the most commonly used bait for rainbow trout through the ice.

If you catch and harvest a female brown trout, the roe you get out of that trout can last you a long time on the water, and the fresher it is the better at catching more trout. 

Another easy and effective option is to use 6mm or 8mm bead like the Lindy bead. Use a silicone strand or something else like the end of a toothpick to secure it to the line above a single hook at 2 inches. You can also create tandem rigs with multiple beads and hooks. 

The beads look like spawn to the trout, but beads can be much more vibrant in color, and also come in a variety of colors, you would be surprised at how many fish will eat an egg that’s pearlescent lime. 

Jigging other bait like waxworms and maggots can work at times. Pairing waxworms with a small bucktail jig can hammer rainbow trout.

Don’t forget minnows, sometimes minnows will work when nothing else does, and you might catch a big brown trout to boot. 

When it comes to hooks, it’s pretty hard to beat a #8 to #6 Owner Mosquito hook. 

Artificial Lures 

We did list beads earlier which are technically artificial lures, but there are others you can try as well. 

Spoons like the Buckshot spoon by Northland Tackle or an old-fashioned and faithful Swedish pimple tipped with spawn can catch fish as well.

You could even try lures like the Rapala jigging rap to see if you can entice any rainbow trout to bite. 

While artificial lures for rainbow trout can and will catch fish through the ice, in the vast majority of cases, spawn will still be the front runner for catching fish and should be what you fish with more than anything else.  

There is also a decent selection out there of artificial spawn presentations as well, like the Berkley powerbait spawn sacks or one of my personal favorites in terms or realism, the Pautzke fireballs

Rainbow Trout Ice Fishing Tips 

There are some tricks of the trade once you get on the ice that you should practice, they will go a long way and catch you more fish. 

Be Quiet

As mentioned earlier, fishing for rainbow trout on the ice is typically done in shallow water and in areas like river mouths and harbors.

Due to the short distance from us and the roaming fish below, it will be very easy to spook them with vibrations from stomping feet. It’s important that you stay still and not walk around more than needed. 

Bring a chair or bucket, and set up in a spot about 15 to 20 yards from your rod holders, and be sure you can observe them all easily. Relax, when a rod goes, run like the wind and grab your rod. 

Fishing Mud Lines  

Fishing mud lines if you are in the shallow areas off of a shoreline, like near a creek or river, for example, can be a good tactic to catch rainbow trout. 

Typically this is easier when on clear and thinner ice, as you can easily see these mudlines.

You will want to get as close to the line between water with low visibility and sediment and the clear water as you can, with your bait being in the clear water. 

Your rods need to be checked frequently when fishing mud lines, as mud lines can shift quickly, and within 10 to 20 minutes, the current may have pushed the line past your presentations. 

Trout don’t like the heavy sediments and low clarity on the other side of the line, they want to be able to see, so they typically won’t be in the “dirty” water. 

Currents 

rainbow trout on snow

Obviously, rivers create current, and creeks and streams will as well, but not nearly as much. Try to steer clear of the currents.

In the winter months, the water temperatures will be in the low 30s in the shallower water and mid to upper 30s in the deeper water. 

The water coming from the rivers and creeks may be warmer at 40 degrees or more but this is still cold, and trout will not spend much time fighting and swimming in this current, which is a waste of energy that could be better spent on finding meals in an easier environment. 

Safety First 

When traveling on the ice anywhere, but especially on the Great Lakes and around rivers and creeks, be sure that you have all of your safety gear. You could be very far from shore or civilization, and if you fall through the ice you are going to be in serious trouble. 

Ice picks, Radio, or walkie-talkie, and other safety gear should not be an option. Be sure that you let people know where you are heading and how long you plan to fish for. 

Final Thoughts 

Fishing for rainbow trout through the ice is fairly simple, much more simple than many anglers who have never tried it initially think it will be.

From finding fish to fishing setups used to catch them, it’s all pretty easy to figure out, but when fishing is tough, that’s when it gets tricky, and adjusting your presentation can make all the difference. 

Happy hunting!

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