Raps for Trout: Strategies Through the Ice Using Hard Baits
By Nick Johnson
Two years ago I became acquainted with a method for catching trout through the ice that quickly developed into a go-to strategy. I found success not only locating active fish but tempting skittish biters into taking the bait. I’ve watched a fair amount of ice fishing shows on TV and the web using various jigging methods that hold a striking similarity to those used for walleyes and the fisherman had great success. Most of these shows revolved around lake trout but a few targeted rainbows and browns. If it works out west and up north why not in Iowa right?
Anyhow, I went to one of the local ponds near my home town stocked twice each winter with rainbows only to find a mild crowd taking up a fair piece of real estate around much of the ice. As I walked through the groups of fisherman I found it surprising that not many trout were laying on the ice. A few fisherman had close to their limit but most had less than two fish. “Slow bite” I said to one guy and his kid who answered with an immediate and disappointed “yes”. Most of the fishermen from what I could tell were using wax worms tipped on jigs and small spoons. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had great success using the old waxie and spoon routine but today wasn’t that day.
I picked a spot twenty yards or so from the nearest angler on a steep drop off that I had fished in the past. I scanned through my tackle box and a small shad colored Northland Rippin Shad caught my eye. I generally use this bait for walleye, bass and sometimes crappie but what the heck, I suppose a trout would eat it too being a pretty voracious predator. Jigging hard baits such as these give off a lot of vibration in the water, swim down like a crippled fish when the line is let slack and are great for calling in fish from a distance.
With my flasher rolling I dropped the hard bait down close to the bottom and jigged it a couple times 1-2 feet up and let it swim back down like its designed to do. The third time I picked the bait up a heavy mark appeared just below it on the flasher and something absolutely crushed my bait. A fat rainbow came through the hole soon thereafter. This proceeded to happen a couple more times over the course of the next half hour and I soon had five trout on the ice much to the dismay of nearby fishermen.
Why They Work
If any of you have seen footage of trout under the ice you may have noticed they have a very fixated yet cautious attention span. Trout in ponds and lakes are extremely mobile fish and you need to get their attention when they pass by. Sometimes this means finesse and sometimes it means flashy. They are also curious in nature and will often circle and approach a bait many times before taking it or deciding against. You need to put something in front of them that captivates.
I have found that baits imitating small fish really play on a trout’s sense as a predator. A fish is a big meal for a trout and one they are definitely not shy about taking on. Mix the baitfish profile with a little color and something that rattles and it can really get them stirred up. The sound and vibration calls them in from a distance and the action and profile keep them interested if not bloodthirsty. You will even have reaction strikes from fish that may not even be hungry, just aggressive.
To Finesse or not to Finesse
Some jigging hard baits have little to no action other than what your rod can provide. Clam makes a cool little minnow bait called the Psycho Shad that does just that. It has minimal action until you jig it where it darts up and forward. I often find this style of bait to be effective during mid day when the trout are less aggressive and prone to shying away from something more gaudy. Another good option in this instance is the Rapala Jiggin Rap which has been gaining popularity among ice and open water anglers in recent years.
During low light periods in the morning and evening and even on overcast days I like to go with something that has more action such as the Rippin Shad or a Dynamic HD minnow bait. Both have an aggressive rattle when jigged and a subtle fluttering swim when given slack line that does an unbelievable job imitating a struggling fish. Trout in the morning and evening seem to be a little more tuned up and hungry.
I generally start out with a more aggressive style of bait regardless of the time of day and wait to see what the trout want. If I see fish after fish coming up to that bait on the flasher only to turn away at the last second then I know to switch to something with a little less attitude. Sometimes this even means downsizing to a tiny Jiggin Rap.
I have experimented with a lot of different colors and to be honest I try not to go too loud unless the water is somewhat stained. Golds, silvers, whites and blues have always been productive. I have Rippin Shads in both natural shad and golden shiner and they generally have similar success. I have even had good luck on the perch color.
Stocked pond trout tend to be less color prone than educated stream trout but on some days the color will matter. If the fish routinely shy from a lure of one color then try a different color, and so on, until one hits the mark. A good rule of thumb I like to practice is to start out with gold or something natural and move on from there. Rarely do I find a need to tie on the whole box to find what they want.
If there is one tool aside from an auger I will rarely be without when chasing trout it’s a flasher depth finder. Flashers let you cater your presentation to the depth and passing fish. All too often trout will cruise through suspended well off the bottom and if you cannot see this then you likely miss out on a lot of fish. I have had cases before where I was fishing in 14-16 feet of water and ended up catching most of my fish a few feet below the ice. Had I not seen the marks of passing fish I wouldn’t have known, nor thought to fish that high up.
Flashers also show you the mood the trout are in. If you start seeing fish race up or down to slam the bait then you can guess that fish is pretty fired up and likes what you have rigged. In other cases the trout will cruise up and shy away, cruise up and shy away almost like someone flicks it on the nose every time it gets too close. This will tell you the trout is cautious and may not like the lure or presentation style, a key sign that change is needed if it happens repeatedly. Flashers plain and simple take a lot of the guess work out of ice fishing and help you to be more productive.
Make Them Chase
One little tidbit I’ll throw in before I wrap things up is a trick I’ve learned from crappie fishing in the past. Trout love to chase and pulling a bait away from them to coax them into pursuing can many times trigger a strike. This again is where a flasher is key because it lets you watch the fish follow, when to pause the bait, drop back down, keep them chasing, etc. I will employ this tactic when a trout has made more than one rush at the bait and still seems interested, or especially when multiple fish show up. Before changing lures if the trout are curious but not eating, try this first to see if that fleeing baitfish look can seal the deal.
Trout through the ice are a blast. They hit hard, fight hard and taste excellent grilled, wrapped in foil with a little garlic butter on the grill or even smoked, just to name a few. Targeting them with hard baits is really exciting when it comes together because you are involved in action the whole time from working the lure, seeing the fish and getting them to strike. The past few years I look forward to catching trout through the ice as much as anything else. Good luck this year and stay safe.