How to Ice Fish: A Beginner’s Guide to Ice Fishing

Wonder how to get started with ice fishing? This guide will equip you with the essential knowledge to become a successful ice angler.

Ice Fishing tips

How addictive is the sport of fishing? So addictive that it leads some anglers deep into the heart of snow and ice to simply extend the season. Ice fishing, like fishing itself, did not start as a sport, however.

History of Ice Fishing

Eons ago, all types of fishing amounted to sheer survival—especially in the dead of winter when food ran in short supply.

Indigenous peoples in the north country used crude tools to chop through ice on lakes and in the sea to coax fish near the ice hole with carvings shaped like fish or other luring objects. They then speared or gaffed the fish that rose to the hole.

Fortunately, survival and ancient tools no longer remain a part of man’s urge to fish on top of ice in sub-freezing weather. Today’s angler simply desires new challenges and rewards when it comes to ways to fish.

Ice fishing offers plenty in these regards. However, you must first live in a climate that offers frozen lakes, ponds and similar bodies of water year in and year out.

You must also equip yourself to enjoy fishing in the dead of winter on a vast sheet of ice. Otherwise, you risk a miserable day, frozen limbs and even hazards that will certainly turn you cold on any future notion of fishing through ice.

Let’s examine the places, types of fish, ice-breaking equipment, tackle, apparel and other essentials that will make your first ice-fishing venture full of reward, rather than misery and peril.

Where to go Ice Fishing?

You need to live in or near a state with four seasons to enjoy fishing through ice. Of course, ice forms on many high alpine lakes in places or states commonly known for mild winters.

But, access to such high altitudes is not only difficult for anglers but dangerous as well.

Following are a list of states that normally feature ice fishing in the lowlands or high plateaus during winter, but not necessarily every winter in some instances:

Alaska Montana South Dakota
Colorado Nebraska Utah
Idaho New York (upper) Washington (eastern side)
Maine North Dakota Wisconsin
Minnesota Oregon (eastern side) Wyoming

Some of the Plains states and even the Pacific Northwest occasionally experience winters mild enough to keep ice anglers at home munching on snacks and hot beverages while enjoying a football game on TV or their favorite fishing show.

States such as Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, Upper New York, North Dakota, Michigan (especially northern), Idaho, Montana and Wyoming pose the surest bets for ice fishing winter in and winter out.

Types of Fish That Bite Beneath Ice

Trout and Char

Rainbows, cutthroats, browns, brookies, dolly varden, mackinaws (lake trout) and Arctic char all remain active and feed through winter beneath the ice.

Spiny Rays

Perch, walleye, crappie, bluegills, northern , freshwater lingcod (burbot) and muskies can all be caught beneath the ice.

Keep in mind that depth of water and temperature tolerances play a role in which types of fish will most likely seek your offering under the ice.

Some of the spiny rays can prove less active and more dormant than some of the trout and char species. The deeper the water, the more strata of temperatures as a rule.

You need to find the right depth and temp for the fish you seek. Even trout and similar species will usually resort to the warmest levels when seeking food.

How to Break the Ice

Before even thinking about breaking a hole in the ice, examine the thickness from shoreline. If other anglers are dotting the ice scape, you don’t have to spend much time monitoring the depth of the ice.

When in doubt, plunge a heavy tool or rock beneath the shoreline ice. Continue probing as you progress farther onto the ice sheet.

As a rule, a thickness of at least 4-5 inches can be considered solid enough to stand without ending up in the chilly drink. Even then, test the surface with heavy objects and probing devices.

Hypothermia, a deadly condition, can occur within seconds during winter when you body is soaked and especially when a breeze exists.

✔ Try to forge a hole of at least 2-3 feet wide at first. Its edges will begin to freeze soon after punching through the ice and shrink the right-of-way for pulling your catch onto the sky side of ice.

✔ Carry a large sifter or sieve along to skim the edges and deter the rate of freezing on the perimeter of your hole.

If you are fishing from an ice hut (often built by anglers on very popular and large lakes of the Upper Midwest), you can keep the hole from shrinking by keeping your inside environment warm.

Propane heaters and even fires can be used on ice when its thickness reaches a couple feet or greater. If choosing a fire (carry your own kindling, of course), keep it a safe distance from where you are dropping your line as well as any gasoline-powered devices you towed onto the ice.

Ice Fishing Beginners Guide

As with most fishing, you can make ice fishing as spendy as you like. If you shudder at buying an electric or gas-powered auger for a fishing season that may only consist of one, two or three trips, you can break a hole in the ice with an axe or a manual auger.

If you happen to own a chainsaw, it substitutes fairly well for an automatic auger.

At times, you will find pre-punched holes where anglers moved on to another spot or left for home.

Also note that some states allow anglers to fish from multiple holes simultaneously, whether you punch them yourself or used abandoned holes. Be sure to check your state’s fishing regs before setting up multiple fishing holes.

Ice Fishing Tackle

Rods & Reel

Outdoor retailers carry specialized rods and other gear for ice fishing, but if you own a standard spinning or baitcasting rod and reel that you use in fair weather, you can use them for ice fishing. Either hold the rod by hand or set it on a prop that won’t slide on the ice.

Otherwise, many retailers carry small rods of a couple feet in length that tip on a pivoting device when a fish strikes.

These tip-ups are commonly equipped with a single-action reel, similar to a trolling or fly reel. More sophisticated tip-ups include a spinning or baitcasting reel. Most sprout a little flag of a fluorescent color when a fish takes the bait.

Ice fishing basics
photo by Vince Alongi, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Shorter rods allow for a less cumbersome time on the ice. They don’t collide with other gear strewn around the angler and allow a more direct, responsive struggle with the fish, which usually aren’t as frisky as they are in warmer water.

Hoisting the fish out of and above the hole with a short tip-up frees you of the pendulum effect characteristic to longer, conventional rods. You therefore reduce the risk of losing the fish with a short rod or tip-up.

If you think a fallen fish is hard to keep from slipping back into the drink on dry land, imagine trying to harness a free flopper on ice.

Lines for Ice Fishing

Usually, line test similar to summer months works fine for hooking fish beneath ice. Extremely thick ice can prove abrasive to line when a heavy fish leverages the line against a sharp edge of the ice hole. If your prey runs to two pounds or greater, adjust the line test accordingly.

For trout, 6-8 pound test works best as a rule. Some panfish and trout anglers go even lighter, however, because the clear nature of iced-over water (free of riffles) and the length of time the line sits motionless discourages thick line that can be seen by the fish.

Ice Fishing Bait and Lures

Keeping visibility in mind, black swivels often find favor for ice anglers.

The counter to such a preference: A brass swivel can attract the attention of fish distanced from your hole and spur enough curiosity to draw them within your bait or lure zone.

Unless undercurrent exists (as with reservoirs or large, slow-moving rivers and sloughs), you can use lighter sinkers and lures than during the open-water months.

If regulations allow live bait, you can often allow the weight of the minnow, amphibian or other to sink the line well below the ice layer. Weightless line also allows the bait to appear more natural. Same goes for light lures, just heavy enough to sink.

Eggs, worms, corn, minnows, crickets and grubs can prove productive under ice. The specific bait depends on the type of fish you seek. Trout and panfish, for instance, best respond to eggs, worms, corn and bugs.

Some larger fish respond well to minnows, jigs and shiny lures that can be jigged—sometimes tipped with bait. If using minnows, be sure to check your state’s regulations about live bait during winter months.

Keep hooks on the small side when bait fishing for trout or panfish; a hardly visible hook improves the stealth factor in the clear calm that lies below the protective ice.

What to Wear for Ice Fishing

Think waterproof, chill-proof and mobility when fishing on ice.

  • Your clothing must be insulated, water resistant and roomy enough to not only allow your limbs to conduct all the tasks inherent to creating an ice hole but also to circulate—ample blood flow will keep you warm from head to toe.
  • Speaking of head, a stocking cap or anything else on top that restricts loss of heat from the noggin ranks as one of the most important apparel items. Most of the body’s heat escapes through the head.
  • Many ice anglers choose to wear a roomy snow suit, much like a skier or snowboarder wears. Others simply layer up, which allows you to easily remove items on those clear winter days when the sun reaches its apex.
  • Tight, waterproof gloves with easy grip prove vital on ice. You will be exposing to your fingers, to cold, icy lures, baits and fish, hopefully—not to mention the ambient air and wind chill.
  • A heat source (as mentioned earlier) can also save a lot of finger misery. Neoprene with open finger ends work well, as do the finger-textured, tight-fitting gloves made of waterproof material composites.
  • Smart wool or pure wool socks also rank high on the clothing essential list. Your feet won’t be very busy standing around a hole waiting for a bite. They therefore will not be circulating blood as much as wading a stream or walking a shoreline.
  • If you hunt in duck blinds, you already know what footwear to use. Waterproof boots with insulation work fine on ice. On dry days, mukluks (modeled after the seal-skin footwear worn by Arctic native peoples) prove comfy and warm on the tootsies as well.

Transporting Your Cargo

Don’t make ice fishing harder on the body than it needs to be.

Stock some gear in a small daypack on your back while towing a child’s sled or pig (like alpine climbers use) to transport the heavy gear.

Your cooler(s), for snacks and keeping your catch, can be stored on the wagon or pig, as can portable seats, tarps, tent, propane heater, pop-up ice hut or shelter and kindling should you be planning on a fire.

Some anglers even use cross-country skis on snow-covered ice to speed up their approach to the honey hole. Large lakes and reservoirs particularly lend themselves to such expeditious transportation.

After all, the more water you can cover on short winter days, the more likely you will find the schools of fish. Fish tend to school tight in cold water.

If you are tackling really big water and big ice, snow machines (aka snowmobiles) are your Cadillac. They can tow a sled while providing compartments on deck for other gear. Needless to say, they can even beat the skiers to the best holes.

Again, check your state regulations on use of snowmobiles on ice in particular regions, such as refuges, preserves or wilderness areas.

More Ice Fishing Tips

Fish tend to school more than roam during such cold-water periods as winter. They move from one zone to another more deliberately and less willingly than during the warm months.

Primarily, they move to the most relatively comfy temperature zones of an ice-covered body of water. For this reason, a decent fish finder/sonar device can provide the ice angler a noticeable edge in his or her success ratio.

Some devices hardly exceed the size of a smartphone, neatly cradled inside your gloved hand. Some fish finders and flashers more greatly resemble the size you commonly mount on a boat during fair-weather outings.

Ice Fishing Sonar Device
photo by JCHaywire, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Remember that the fish finder or flasher serves mostly as a verifier when ice fishing, rather than a roaming “eureka!” It will tell you whether the perimeter you choose to cut in the ice lies within strike zone of nearby fish.

You might ask, “What’s the difference between a flasher and fish finder?”

For ice fishing, the difference might be more crucial than in other instances. For one, a flasher can often be less expensive than a full-blown, graphic-enhanced fish finder.

A flasher simply flutters an LED beam in one of three colors, most commonly. Red indicates fish of a larger size while yellow-orange means medium-size fish nearby and green signifies smaller fish.

If you choose to fish a jig, a flasher usually picks up its location and depth more acutely than a common fish finder. That said, you can find fish finders that compete with flashers in this regard, but you will have to pay the price at the checkout stand.

Many flasher and fish-finder brands include an insulated pouch or mini-parka with zipper for the device on ice.

Other Comfort Accessories

We briefly alluded to some items fit for hauling onto ice with a sled, pig, wagon, snow machine or similar cargo carrier.

  • Portable chairs or stools, especially with a gear pouch attached to sides or seat bottom, can keep an ice-fishing outing from seeming like a marathon. You can stand up to circulate the blood off and on while relaxing with that warm coffee or cocoa at your side during your vigil on rod tip.
  • Speaking of warm beverages, don’t forget to bring a well-insulated thermos. Note, also, that just because you are surrounded by nothing but cold and ice, you still need to hydrate the lo’ body. Bring ample water. In winter apparel, you will invariably work up a decent sweat if you are haunting ice-fishing gear across a large ice sheet without the luxury of a snowmobile.
  • If your chair or stool lacks fishing-gear pouches, fishing vests prove as expedient on ice as they do on open water, except that cold, unprotected fingers and clumsy gloves can make reaches into small pockets challenging.
  • If you need power, a lighter-weight generator can be towed to your ice hole for powering an ice-cutting tool, a portable stove, heater or even recharging electronic gadgets, including tablets, should you receive a transmitting signal.
  • Ice coolers can prove moot since you are already lingering on a solid sheet of ice. They prove more organizational when it comes to putting the fish away for the haul back to the rig or keeping particular foods and beverages separated from the milieu of other gear or supplies.
  • If you choose a super-adventurous, ice-fishing venture, you can carry along a down or synthetic-fill sleeping bag with appropriate temperature rating for an overnight in a four-season tent or portable ice hut.

It’s All About Adventure and Safety

In all, ice fishing presents a very different environment for the common angler. Capture each momentous occasion on ice in photos, bring binoculars to scout out winter wildlife or the wild escapades of some around you who are not yet indoctrinated to ice fishing.

Most of all, however, play it safe. Daylight shortens noticeably during winter and threat of hypothermia, even drowning by traversing unsafe levels of ice, looms ever-present.

Just in case you become delayed in returning to shore off the ice, always tuck a headlamp into one of your pouches or pockets, just as you would while hiking. Indeed, a compass or GPS unit can prevent getting lost on exceptionally big bodies of water.

More Resources on Ice Fishing: 10 Ice Fishing Tips and Techniques | Ice Fishing Basics

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