As much as we like catching hard water walleye, perch and crappie, few fish get our blood pumping like stocked trout. These cold water beauties are full of spunk and are a blast to catch. Unlike other freshwater fish, trout (including rainbow, tiger, brown and brook trout) don’t always seek out deep water to ride out the winter. Instead, they are voracious eaters that patrol the shallows in search of prey all winter long.
For ice anglers, that means you can consistently track down trophy trout in your favorite trout waters. Assuming, of course, you are armed with the right knowledge. If you struggle to successfully ice fish for trout, then you have come to the right place.
Put aside what you think you already know about ice fishing for trout because there is always room for one more tip or tactic in your ice fishing repertoire. Whether you are chasing brookies, rainbows, browns or tiger trout, by the end of this guide we’ll have you ice fishing for trout like a boss. This is a complete guide, so buckle up and let’s get started!
Finding the best trout lakes near you
You could know everything there is to know about stocked trout but if you don’t know which lakes are the best, all that knowledge goes to waste. After all, not every lake supports a quality trout fishery.
Put the odds in your favor and make it a priority to track down lakes actually worth the time. Accomplishing that task takes some detective work and we’ll show you exactly how we do it.
Lakes that support a healthy population of trophy trout have the following traits in common:
- Clear water
- Variable depths
- Consistent annual stocking
- Below average fishing pressure
Finding lakes that exhibit all the traits above isn’t as hard as you think. Start with Google maps. Take a look at the lake you plan to fish using satellite imagery. Clear water lakes with variable depths and good bottom structure that blend into large flats are fairly obvious on Google maps.
Next, you’ll want to check out your Fish and Game Department website for annual stocking data. They should have an up-to-date list of when trout and fry are stocked. Focus on lakes with consistent stocking for the last few years. Consistent stocking not only means there are more fish, it means that trophy class trout get an annual feast to fatten up on.
Lastly, key in on the lakes that receive less pressure. Remote lakes further from large towns usually fit the bill. That’s not to say popular lakes won’t produce quality trout fishing. However, lakes that experience less pressure often have larger numbers of big fish.
Another decent source for ice fishing reports are Facebook groups or forums. Just be aware that most people don’t want to share their honey holes and you also can’t believe everything you read on the internet.
Winter trout habits
After you’ve found productive ice to try out, it’s time to zero in on the winter habits of trout. Through experience, we have learned that stocked trout have predictable behaviors. Both throughout ice fishing season and within the timespan of a single day. They also respond to varying weather which also benefits the savvy angler.
In our experience, one common theme holds true for stocked trout. Shallow flats. Throughout the winter, trout are constantly on the hunt for food and shallow flats are their favorite hunting grounds. However, trout do roam over deep basins as well when insect larvae, freshwater shrimp and other aquatic forage migrate up in the water column.
First and last ice tends to see the heaviest trout activity in flats when more forage is present. Deeper into winter, trout spend less time in the flats and start roaming more of the lake. However, they still visit flats regularly. Especially, around those prime time bite windows just after sunrise and before sunset.
Regardless of the time of winter, you can count on stocked trout to bite best during the “golden hours.” The first two hours of the morning are unbeatable. Don’t miss that window. Focus your energy on transitions areas near flats during that time.
Trout also respond to weather changes too. Cloudy days help extend the prime time bite. Less light in shallows equates to better hunting conditions. We also notice that sunny days produce a better bite over deeper basins. Our guess is that trout stay high in the water column over deep water to ambush microorganisms that rise from deeper water in response to increased light.
How to target trout through the ice
A good grasp on trout behavior is a huge leg up for successfully targeting them through the ice. Now we can talk about how to find the spots on the spot and the gear you’ll need to start hooking big trout.
Again, shallow flats are the best place to target stocked trout through the ice. That’s always the first place we try. But where on the flat should you setup?
Think transitions. It’s a term thrown out there a lot but it is super important that anglers understand the importance of transitions. You can drill holes anywhere on a flat and probably encounter a few cruising trout. Yet, it’s at the transition zones around a flat that you’ll boost your catch rate.
The best transition areas to setup an ambush on trout are:
- At the edges where the flat drops off into deep water
- Rocky bottom that transitions into soft bottom flats
- Inside curve along the shore
- Weed edges
Satellite imagery from Google maps is a big help for finding transitions. Use the GPS on your phone to head to those spots. Lake mapping on your fish finder is also a huge help for finding likely contours. If either of those fail you, it becomes a matter of trial and error. Just drill plenty of holes and don’t be afraid to bounce around.
We are often asked what the best depth to ice fish for stocked trout is. There are exceptions depending on the lake but the vast majority of the time we catch trophy trout in less than 8 feet of water. In fact, the 3-6 foot depth is the most productive for us.
For those times when trout are patrolling water over deep basins, you still want to keep close to transition spots. In these scenarios, it becomes more a game of chance encounters. Trout often move around at random, as they chase down prey by sight. And keep in mind, that they’ll be just under the ice a few feet or less when they roam mid-lake.
Sometimes ice fishing gear gets a little burdensome. The beauty of ice fishing for stocked trout lies in the simplicity. You really don’t need a lot of sophisticated electronics, custom rods or expensive tackle to be highly successful.
Aside from the essentials like an ice auger, sled, and safety gear, you need a rod and reel. At a bare minimum, you’ll want a light to medium light ice fishing rod in the 32 inch range. A graphite rod with a solid back bone is ideal (see the line-up of our 9 favorite ice rods).
Pair it up with a reel spooled with 4 to 6 pound mono. You can also opt for a braided main line and a fluoro leader for even more stealth when fish are finicky.
As far as ice fishing electronics go, they aren’t required to be successful. There are plenty of occasions where we don’t even turn on our sonar. It simply isn’t as helpful in shallow water and actually becomes a tangle liability when fighting big fish.
However, that’s not to say you shouldn’t invest in electronics. A good fish finder, like our Hummingbird Helix 7, is a priceless tool for finding new fishing spots using the built in lake maps. You can also use it to quickly check depths and assess bottom composition.
An underwater camera has been a game changer for us when it comes to targeting trout through the ice. Not only is it fun to watch, you can also learn a lot about trout behavior as well as the underwater structure.
Lures and baits for winter trout
Ice fishing tackle for stocked trout can be as simple or complex as you want. Some of our best action happens with a piece of worm on a hook under a deadstick rod. Other days, it seems the trout are fired up and only chase flashy spoons.
Have a wide range of lures, jigs and hooks so you’re ready for anything. For those of you not sure which lures to get, check out our list of the 7 best ice fishing lures for trout that never fail.
But here is a quick review of our recommended lures to start with.
Tungsten jigs and soft plastics: This is always our starting lure and our personal confidence setup for just about any species. A small 3mm tungsten jig (firetiger, red, pink or green) paired with a small insect-like soft plastic is universally effective for all stocked trout. If you only want one lure to try, make it this. Mix and match jigs and plastics for a nearly limitless combination.
Small spoons: Small spoons are another staple for trout aficionados. This is the ultimate search bait for hole hopping. If there are aggressive trout in the area, they’ll come to devour a spoon. A 1/8th or 1/12th ounce Kastmaster or Swedish Pimple is a good start. Don’t be surprised if trout frequently investigate the spoon but don’t strike. Use a second deadstick rod next to it to provide a more subtle presentation for shy fish.
Minnow mimics: Lures like small rattle baits and jigging Raps are great for singling out bigger trout. It’s especially handy when small planters are numerous and won’t leave your bait alone long enough for you to catch larger fish. We use these during the prime time bite when trophy trout are more aggressive.
Ice flies: Sometimes a stationary deadstick rod or a rod on the JawJacker is the way to go. For those occasions, tungsten scud flies or blob flies are absolutely killer. Other flies like weighted woolly buggers and San Juan Worms are equally deadly on stocked trout.
Baits: When you want to simplify and get back to basics, live bait is a well proven tactic. Nightcrawlers and waxworms are tried and true baits for any species of stocked trout. Even if you use lures, tipping them with a small worm piece or one or two wax worms helps seal the deal. Dough baits are particularly effective for most stocked trout too. We shy away from it though because it can be very messy.
Active jigging vs. Deadsticking for trout
There are two primary techniques for catching trout under the ice. You have active jigging techniques or a deadstick approach (still fishing). Ice anglers always seem to argue that one is superior over the other but really, each technique is only half of the entire equation.
If you are legally allowed two lines where you fish, then the absolute best strategy for catching more trout is to have an active jigging rod and a deadstick presentation working at the same time.
However, there are plenty of us that prefer specific techniques so let’s compare the two and identify when you might want to use one over the other.
Trout are highly mobile predators. They are always on the move in search of food. While they are generally aggressive feeders, you still need to get their attention. This ends up being the primary advantage of active jigging.
As an experiment, we set up two identical baits near each other and left one stationary while jigging the other. The jigging rod got hit over the deadstick every time. When trout are in full feeding mode, active jigging is the way to go. With active jigging, use soft plastics and spoons tipped with bait if needed.
But here is the thing. Trout are not always in full throttle feed mode. Sometimes an active jigging rod actually turns them off, regardless of what lure you use. That’s when a stationary deadstick rod excels.
You can go one step further and use your stationary rod on an automatic hook setter like the JawJacker. This is a setup that really converts your time into fish. Even if you prefer active jigging, always setup a JawJacker if you can. Take a look at our ultimate JawJacker ice fishing guide to capitalize on this tactic.
Dough baits, worms, waxworms and maggots make great deadstick bait. Blob flies and other ice flies are also potent tackle on stocked trout.
Rainbow trout ice fishing tactics
Rainbow trout are probably the most popular stock trout species in the world. As such, there is lots of advice on catching them. Yet, when it comes to ice fishing for big “bows,” a few tips have served us well.
First, target rainbows shallow but don’t be afraid to push out over deeper water. Of all the stocked trout, rainbows tend to cover more water and they aren’t afraid to scrape their dorsal fin on the ice out over deeper parts of the lake.
Next, size down for big rainbows. Use baits that mimic insect larvae. Rainbows feed primarily on micro invertebrates. You can certainly catch them on other lures but small baits are a good starting point. White and black colors constantly produce.
Lastly, use your deadstick rod. Rainbows are aggressive but they definitely are pressured easily. A deadstick rod with a small bait is very appealing to wary fish.
Brook trout ice fishing tactics
The biggest brookies we catch are always shallow. 3 to 4 feet of water is our sweet spot. Stick to shallow weed edges and don’t be afraid to jig. Use small spoons or tungsten jigs with soft plastics. Dark colors seem to work well and brook trout have a particular proclivity to purple.
Brown trout ice fishing tactics
Brown trout don’t get a ton of attention through the ice but they are beautiful fish and can grow quite large. Browns seem to be perpetually on edge and spook easily so use a JawJacker and stay quiet on the ice.
Size down your baits. A waxworm or two on a tungsten jig is a versatile technique that browns readily gulp down. You’ll also find that brown trout go on the hunt before other trout. Low light is their preferred environment, so get on the ice early and stay out a bit later.
Tiger trout ice fishing tactics
Tigers are a mix between brook trout and brown trout. These are super aggressive and incredibly stunning fish. Ice fishing for tiger trout is some of the most fun you’ll have on the ice. Tigers are the most piscivorous of all stocked trout, which means they feed heavily on minnows.
Use that to your advantage. A minnow and a jig, spoons or minnow mimics are excellent tactics for isolating big tigers from other fish. Lure colors that produce well are white, black, minnow colors and rainbow trout colors. Like brook trout, these big fish stay shallow. We’ve done well in 4 feet or less along weed edges close to the shoreline. Rocky transitions are also a key spot.
Low light is critical to finding tiger trout in the shallows so don’t miss the prime time window. When the sun comes up, move to shady areas over the flats.
Game plan summary
That was a lot of trout fishing information all at once, but it will drastically improve your odds on the ice. Let’s make a game plan summary that you can put into action on your next stocked trout mission.
Find the best trout waters near you. Make use of online mapping and satellite imagery. Use stocking reports and ask around so you know which lakes are worth your time.
Aquire the right gear. It doesn’t take much to ice fish for trout but a small selection of baits and a good rod and reel are a must.
Find your spot within the spot. Don’t underestimate the importance of understanding trout habits. Our number one tip is to fish shallow. Plus, use transitions to set an ambush on these roaming fish.
Utilize both a deadstick rod on an automatic hook setter and an active jigging approach. You never know what mood trout will be in from day to day. Or even one hour to the next.
Tailor your tackle and approach to specific stock trout. You can certainly catch multiple species with one approach but improve your odds by favoring tactics that each species falls for most.
Practice proper catch and release on trophy fish. If you want to always have an opportunity to catch big trout and lots of them, catch and release is a must. Handle fish as little as possible and get them back in the water quickly. Keep only a couple smaller fish for a meal. That way these beautiful trout can provide joy for another day.