Ice Fishing for Rainbow Trout, Tips and Tricks For How To Catch More

We are going to discuss ice fishing for rainbow trout in this article. 

It’s cold. Really cold. But the rainbow trout don’t care. In fact, they’re hungry and they’re readily available to anglers prepared to brave the weather and hit the ice-bound flats, of the 4 to 8-foot range.

Catching rainbow trout is awesome any time you can. But there’s something special about chasing them when the temperature drops to such a point that we can all walk on water.

Catch and release should always be part of a rainbow trip, particularly if you land a prize fish.

However, there’s nothing like cooking a rainbow by the banks of the lake from which you just pulled it.

Smoked, steamed tossed on a grill over a fire or BBQ makes a rainbow trip extra special. 

If you’re well equipped enough to camp out in the freezing temps, all the better.

The following article is about equipping yourself with the basics to ensure a memorable rainbow trout hunt, that’ll leave you itching for next season.

We’ll look at baits, rigs, rods and reels, and other basic equipment. We’ll also look at times and critical geographical tips. 

What is the best bait for ice fishing trout?

Let’s first take a look at the best baits when ice fishing for rainbow trout:

Rainbow Trout Baits

For me, baits will always get top billing. After 40 years of solid fishing, the best tip I can give anybody is to make sure you get baits right.

Live first, fresh second. Everything else is a very distant third. Lures are a separate issue which we’ll look at later.

In the winter, Rainbow trout are working the shallows for nymphs, worms, larvae, and small minnows. 

Sometimes they’ll be ravenous enough to take a cigarette butt. Other times the bite is slow and you’ll swear the circumspect rainbow knows you’re there and wants to play games.

In my experience, others will disagree perhaps, live minnows and lures are attacked most aggressively.

I often recommend live minnows because presentation is easy, and presentation matters.

Arguably a nymph is a better bait. However, a poorly presented nymph is related to the moments where they’ll take cigarette butts. 

Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point.

Keep it simple, keep it live, keep it fresh, and make sure your presentation is the best it can possibly be. 

In a note to those who only have access to dead, un-fresh, and artificial baits, don’t despair. 

If you have bait of any sort in the water, you are in with a good shot at catching a winter rainbow trout.

Best Lures for Winter Rainbow Trout

To be honest, I get the impression a ravenous rainbow will take any artificial that is presented half decently.

I’ve used everything in the bag. Talk about the opposite of match the hatch. 

I’ve used bizarre-looking soft plastics, from cheap soft plastic lucky dip multi-packs that have worked a treat.

I’m pretty sure it was often the jig head that made the difference. But I don’t really approach these things systematically or scientifically as I should, so I’ll never know.

At times I get a little too excited and panic when the bite is on – You know how it is.

After a half-hour, I’ve caught six fish and can’t remember anything I did to catch them …Too blown away to think straight.

All that said, I, like many others, have my favorite lures. Like plenty of winter rainbow trout warriors, the good old metal slice is way up on my list.

I find anglers who obsess about metal slice design and color a little odd. I find little to differentiate between them all.

It’s just a flashy thingy, that looks a little like a baitfish if presented properly.

A 16th to a 10th of an ounce is ideal, and make sure they’re armed with trebles. The Rainbow mouth and solid hook-ups are best achieved with sharp trebles.

Smaller spoons are outstanding and a really common choice. They’re common because they work brilliantly. In fact, I’d never turn up to ice fishing without a selection of spoons. 

I say selection, but to be honest, they all look the same to me. Micro Jigs are another great option. 

Do your research and see how well you can match the local critters the rainbows are chasing. 

Normal jigs can be a little cheaper, and just as effective. Look for jigs that maximize refection potential.

We can’t talk rainbow trout lures without mentioning plugs.

Plugs are probably as popular as spoons, and now that I think about it, I probably use jigging raps as much as my preferred metal slice.

Check out this guy from Rapala, Awesome lures for rainbow trout ice fishing.

Where to find rainbow trout when ice fishing – Locations

When the temperature drops, the rainbows make things easier for us by heading into the shallows to forage. 

Look to the flats, and you can go as shallow as 3 feet, out to as deep as around 15. 

Flats with an adjacent drop-off is a great spot, particularly for a larger class of fish.

Location is important relative to bait and lure selection. Your choice is dependent on whether you’re fishing the weed beds, mudflats, or a stony bottom.

If I’m fishing shallower mudflats, near the bank, I’ll select something for bait that lives in this habitat, such as a worm. 

If I’m fishing the weed beds, close to a drop-off, I’ll choose a live minnow or local baitfish.

Start early morning and start shallow. Drill your holes from shallow to deep and use a sounder to gauge depth. 

A sounder is by no means essential when fishing the shallows, it can be pretty useless and a load to carry.

Generally, you’ll move to deeper water as the sun gets higher in the sky. 

A rainbow trout on a lake of ice

However, if it’s a cloudy day, there’s often no need to move deeper at all as the rainbows will hold their ground in the shallows.

I find it’s always best to get to know the environment in the summer months. 

Learn everything you can about the key terrain, mark it map it, and imagine it covered in snow and ice.

In many respects, this pre-season research is the key to finding fish when the water turns to ice. 

Nighttime is a great time to fish also, so long as you take extra precautions. 

Again, don’t hit a spot in the evening unless you have checked it out in the daylight hours.

If it’s midday and the sun is high in the sky, it’s likely you’ll be fishing at depths greater than 12 feet, and as much as 20.

This can make things a little tricky, as you’re going to have to work harder to find where they are in the water column.

If you’re fishing deeper, start working about 6 feet then 12, all the way to the bottom. 

If you’re using a jig of some description, you may even want to try a few bounces directly off the river bed.

When you’re fishing deeper, a flasher or a camera can be an awesome tool. Particularly if you’re new to the area.

How do you ice fish for rainbow trout – Presentation is Key

When we think of presentation we tend to think of the way we bait up or work our lures. 

This is very important of course, but when I think of presentation I tend to think of a few other things.

Firstly, the ice lake we fish for rainbows often has very clear water. 

It’s been my experience and the experience of many I’ve spoken with, that a visible, unnatural-looking rig can turn off the bite.

I also had a demonstration of the impact of noise, which I must admit, never really paid too much attention to.

When you’re working a hole, keep noise a movement to a minimum. Keep essential kit at arm’s reach and some snow beneath you. 

I’ve even seen plenty of hardened rainbow warriors who refuse to use electronics, such as sounders because of the noises they emit.

When the fish are really on the chew, I don’t find this gently, gently approach so necessary. 

However, this is a sensible approach to start the session and a sensible approach when the bite seems timid.

Choose a line that’s invisible. Fluorocarbons are the best for this, with the added advantage of mitigating damage caused by the sharp edges of an ice hole.

Fish 4 to 6-pound line. For those with less experience landing fish through a tiny hole, it may be wise to up the line class a little to avoid disappointment through…mishaps.

Another good tip is to use the simplest of rigs. Tie lures directly to your mainline. 

It’s better to use a lure weight that gets you to the place in the water column you desire without the need for any led.

My favorite rig is a minnow weighted ever so slightly with a tiny split shot placed directly above the eye of the hook.

Your default strategy for rainbows should always be stealth. I get the impression that trout are cautious as a rule, so all aspects of your strategy should revolve around ensuring a subtle presence.

Remember, however, this is a rule of thumb. I’ve caught plenty of rainbows with a virtual party dancing around a hole with only 5 feet of water beneath me. 

Don’t take this as a wise tactic, however. It’s a silly approach if your goal is maximizing your chances.

Also Read: Ice Fishing For Northern Pike

Rod and Reel

There are as many options and preferences as there are trout anglers. My preference is to keep things as simple as possible.

I like a 2000 to 2500 spinning reel. I spool up with 6-pound fluoro and I’m extra careful with knots, knowing that fluoro is not the best for knots, and my hands are usually freezing.

A rod to 36 inches is ideal. A light-medium action rod is great, but medium is fine also if you’re careful. 

Ideally, you’d like a little give in your rod owing to the soft mouth of your target. The light-medium is a happy…medium.

A rainbow trout can put up a pretty significant fight, particularly a larger class of fish. 

If you’re new to wrestling fish from small holes, you’re probably better off being a little more gentle with a rod that sports a little more backbone.

See Also: Ice Fishing For Walleye

Frequently Asked Questions

What Depth Should You Ice Fish for Rainbow Trout?

The shallows are the best depth when ice fishing for rainbow trout. You can fish anywhere from 3 feet of water to 2 feet of water.

While depth is important, it’s not simply about depth alone. You should consider depth and structure if you wish to find a healthy school of rainbow trout.

Do Rainbow Trout Bite at Night When Ice Fishing?

Evenings are a fantastic time to chase rainbow trout. Like the early mornings, they venture right into the shallows and feed freely.

Just be aware that you should be extra careful fishing the ice at night. 

It’s strongly advised that you never go alone and that you always take the appropriate kit to deal with the cold, misadventure, and potential disorientation.

Best time of Day to Fish for Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout are like most fish, the ideal times to chase fish is when they are feeding. Usually, this is dawn and dusk.

While countless angles will tell you this, I tend to believe that bait and presentation is a more critical consideration.

With the best baits, knowledge of the river geography, you can fish all day and evening with great success.

The Rainbow Trout Ice Fishing Wrap

If you wish to do some ice fishing for rainbow trout when the river is frozen I think of three things – bait selection, stealth, and river bed structure. 

These three rules are underpinned by a general rule of keeping things simple.

Live baits are arguably the best bait of all, baited to simple rigs, as light as you dare. 

Stay quiet and stay still and remember that structure is critical, as structure holds the buffet on which the rainbows will feed.

Importantly, if you do all of these things and hook up to a prize rainbow trout, take care with the fish. 

The rainbow has a soft mouth, and aggressive wrestling will see you disappointed.

Get the basics right, and you won’t be chasing rainbows, you’ll be catching them.

Sharing is caring!

Picture of Sean Ward

Sean Ward

Hey there, my name is Sean – OnTrack Fishing is my site. I’m based in the UK yet I’ve been fortunate enough to catch bass in the States, barramundi in Australia, trout here at home and carp on the Danube delta. If I’m not fishing, or talking about fishing, then….I’m probably asleep.


Join our Fishing Community

Subscribe today to get the latest Fishing Hacks and to be notified of the Best Prices on Fishing Equipment