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Early Season Ice Fishing for Rainbow Trout

Photos Source: Scott Olson, HSM Outdoors, Midwest Hunting & Fishing

Photos Source: Scott Olson, HSM Outdoors, Midwest Hunting & Fishing

Early ice is a great time to target rainbows in the Black Hills and elsewhere as they are still on the prowl for food sources before bug hatches start to taper off.  They can usually be found in the middle or upper areas of the water column, much like during open water season.  Many times, I’ve caught them just below the ice.  Thanks to their wide ranging appetites, trout can be caught on numerous jigs and spoons through the ice, but live waxies, spikes, or bug and small minnow plastics are the ticket to getting them to bite. 

My absolute favorite lure to use on rainbows is Clam Outdoors’ ( 3/64 oz. Ant Drop jig in chartreuse and blue or white and pink patterns.  This jig is in Clam’s Tungsten Drop series which means that despite its small size, this lure will get down faster than standard lead jigs and punch through slush in your ice hole as well as weeds on the bottom. 

I fish with tungsten nearly 90% of the time now because of its fast sinking and better control characteristics.  If the fish aren’t around my hole, I’ll throw down the Speed Spoon, another one of Clam’s lures.  This lure features a heavy flat sided jigging spoon with Clam’s exclusive fire tiger bar pattern on it and a dangling dropper chain that moves and dances with the slightest movements.  The spoon calls them in from a distance and the dangling hook catches them when rigged with waxies, spikes, or small plastics.  These two lures make for a deadly one-two punch when fishing for rainbows.

Speaking of plastics, they have exploded onto the ice fishing world over the last few years.  Better and more flexible plastics have caused many an ice angler to switch from live bait to plastics, though both have a place on the ice. 

I like to use Clam’s Maki plastics or J and S Custom Jigs ( plastics when I’m on the ice.  The Maki Jamei and the J and S Versamite are my go-to plastics when the fish are around.  Both are highly effective thanks to their moving antenna and legs that do not require hardly any movement in order to quiver and undulate and bring the fish in for a bite. 

I find myself using plastics more and more out on the ice.  When it comes to plastics, it is important to have confidence while using them.  Try them out when the bite is hot and you will start using them more often. 

When selecting the appropriate rods for trout fishing, I recommend using Clam’s True Blue or Legacy series combos in ultralight and light actions.  I use both of these models many times because the action on the rods is optimized for either jigs or spoons.  Use the ultralights for light jigs and the light action for spoons up to 1/8oz.  I like to use nitinol spring bobbers that Clam makes on the ultralight rods as well since trout will not always aggressively hit the lure hard.  Sometimes they will act like panfish and lightly nibble on your bait.  The spring bobber will detect these small hits and improve your hook-up percentage.  Both ultralight models can be purchased with or without a spring bobber.  The light action models of True Blue and Legacy series are a little stiffer and will give you better cadence control over the heavier spoons while still maintaining a soft tip to detect bites when they occur.

When looking at a location for trout at first ice, I like to look at lake maps first to see what depth the lake is and look for bays and points to scout out.  Once on the lake, I like to drill some holes in areas I’ve designated to try and then snake an underwater camera down to check the structure. 

Trout like to hang out on sandy or weedy flats, though they will relate to sharp breaks in depth as well.  Trout are usually pretty solitary and don’t hang out in large groups and they will swim through an area pretty quickly if there isn’t anything to hold their attention.  It is important if you are hole hopping for trout to have a rod or two prepared for a quick drop if you see any bars on your flasher screen.  Here is where heavy spoons like the Speed Spoon or tungsten jigs like the Ant Drop shine.  They will get down the hole fast and be on top of the fish before you know it. 

If you want to stay in one area, then it is important to keep your lure moving and keep the bait fresh if you are using live bait.  If you are on a small lake, like many here in the Black Hills, trout will swim through your area and it is important to be ready for them.  They can come in quick and aggressively hit your lure or they can come in very slowly, checking on your presentation.  But when they show up, be ready.

What is probably the most important piece of gear I bring out on the ice you might ask?  It’s not anything that attracts the fish.  It’s my flasher, specifically my Humminbird 45 ice flasher.  The reason I have the Humminbird 45 is because it has a large LCD colored screen and shows me the actual depth digitally on the screen.  Otherwise, it does what every other brand does. 

We can sit and argue all day which brand or model of flasher is the best one and we’ll come up with a dozen different answers, but the most important thing is does the flasher show you the bottom, the depth, the fish, and your lure.  These in a nutshell are the biggest reasons why having a flasher is so critical on the ice. 

If you think about it, without a flasher, you could sit around in the same spot all day not knowing whether or not there are fish around.  With a flasher, you can actually tell if anything is near you, making the decision to move or stay in one place so much more efficient.  And once you are on fish, the flasher will show you whether or not your presentation or cadence is effective.  A flasher is probably the number one most important piece of equipment you can bring out on the ice with you.

Early season ice fishing for trout can be a great way to spend any day out on the ice.  The fish are fantastic fighters and a two or three pounder will give your gear a run for its money.  They can hit hard and fast and catch you by surprise or they can sit and stare at your bait for what seems like endless minutes until they decide whether or not take your bait. 

Some of the best trout fishing occurs during the early ice season and it is important to not only have the right gear and accurate information, but to also be safe out on the early ice.  Remember, as much fun as it can be and no matter how much you may want to get out, no fish is worth going through the ice for.  So stay safe this coming ice season and tight lines everyone!