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Ice Fishing: An Illustrated Guide

ice-fishing

When ice fishing, you are not just battling the fish on the end of your line: you’re also battling the weather. Winter conditions bring a whole new set of challenges, making ice fishing a unique activity. It’s important to bring the right gear (and the right knowledge) before you set out on the hardwater. This guide will provide you with everything you need to know to get started.

Recommended Gear


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Ice fishing requires some specialized gear that anglers would typically not need with warm-water fishing.

Jigging Rod or Tip-Ups

There are two ways to ice fish: with a jigging rod or with tip-ups. A jigging rod is closer to the traditional fishing rod, while tip-ups are entirely unique to ice fishing. We will discuss the pros and cons of each method below, but you will need one or the other to do any ice fishing. (Explore types of ice fishing rods.)

Spike

A spike can be used to test the ice in front of you. It is important to avoid walking or fishing on thin ice.

Fishfinder

A fishfinderwill show you the depth of the water below the ice, and whether there is any vegetation under water. This can help you find the best spot to fish. It can also mark fish and show whether they are interested in your bait. You can use the same fishfinder for ice fishing that you use during the warmer months.

Using an ice fishing flasher is also an effective way to locate fish. A flasher displays objects detected in the water column on circular screen. This allows the angler to locate fish and monitor depth with respect to their lure.

Shelter

Ice fishing shelters (often called shanties) are technically optional. However, if you’re going to be fishing in freezing temperatures for hours at a time, investing in a shelter can make the experience much more enjoyable. Even basic, budget-friendly shelters will provide warmth and wind protection.

Ice Fishing Sled

If you've ever attempted to carry your gear across the ice and snow, you know it's hard work. Most serious ice anglers use sleds to make the job easier, but it’s important to find a good sled. A flimsy, low quality sled can be just as big of a headache as carrying your gear yourself. Having a good ice fishing sled will make finding a good fishing spot faster, safer, and a lot less work.

A good ice fishing sled should be rugged, but light, so you can haul your gear safely but quickly. A good sled should glide over the snow and ice with ease. Make sure your sled is big enough, and sturdy enough, to carry all the ice fishing gear you'll need including a portable shelter, electric auger, multiple rods and reels, tip-ups, a heater and bait bucket. The right sled will ensure you can haul more equipment quicker and easier, so you can fish longer.

Auger

You’ll need an auger to drill holes in the ice. But, there are many different types of augers you can buy. If you plan on drilling a lot of holes through very thick ice, consider a gas or electric auger instead of a manual option. When targeting large fish, you will need to drill a wider hole. So, the larger the species of fish you’re targeting, the larger your auger will need to be.

Bait and Lures

We’ll give you the full run-down of ice fishing baits and lures later in this guide. In the meantime, add it to your shopping list – no fishing trip is complete without quality bait!

Ice Fishing Safety


Although ice fishing is not inherently dangerous, it is important to remember that precautions must be taken when standing on ice. You can use your auger or a spike to gauge how thick the ice is. As a general rule, you should observe the following ice thickness precautions:

  • At least 4 inches for people
  • At least 6 inches for sleds and snowmobiles
  • At least 7–12 inches for light cars
  • At least 14–16 inches for trucks

In addition, be careful not to step on rotten ice. Any ice that is discolored, dirty, or has water flowing through it is rotten ice.

There are also a few safety supplies you can bring, including metal cleats, a safety whistle, and a life vest.

Methods


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There are two methods to use when fishing through ice. They are jigging (with a rod and reel), and using tip-ups.

Jigging

Jigging is fishing with rod and reel through a hole in the ice. It most closely resembles the kind of fishing done in the warmer months. Jigging requires less gear than tip ups: you just need your ice jigging rod, your box of lures and clippers, and your auger to create the ice hole. Jigging is therefore a highly portable option, though you will have to stay by your ice hole to wait for fish to bite.

Tip-Ups

Anglers can also use tip ups in order to fish from multiple holes at the same time. Ice fishing tip ups set a line just below the water. When a fish grabs the bait on the line, a flag (or some other type of indicator) pops up to alert the angler of the strike. The angler then brings the line in by hand. Perfecting this technique can take some time. Some anglers find that tip-ups take some of the sport out of ice fishing by automating the process.

Finding an Ice Fishing Spot


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Use your fish finder to determine an ideal spot to set up. Many species of fish bite in the same areas during the winter as they do in the summer months. Avoid fishing in spots with too much vegetation. You can also look at where other anglers’ huts are set up to help figure out where the fish are biting. But, be sure not to set up too close to other anglers’ shelters.

Drilling a Hole


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Before you set out on the ice, you’ll need to decide what kind of auger to use. A hand-cranked auger is the simplest and most economical solution. But, if you’re drilling through large amounts of ice, hand-cranking can become a labor-intensive task.

For that reason, electric or gas powered augers have become very popular with ice fishermen. Power augers are intended only for use with very thick ice, but they allow the user to drill several holes in a short amount of time. Be careful when drilling with a power auger, though -- they create a lot of slush which can be easy to slip on.

Drill as many holes as your fishing method will allow you to effectively monitor. Ensure that all of your holes are close enough together that you can get to each of them quickly enough to reel in a catch.

Before drilling, double check that the ice is suitable for fishing. It should be thick enough and it should not have any discoloration, cracks, or loose water. Once you have checked this, drill directly downward, being careful of the slush that your drilling tool creates.

Lures


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Virtually all types of ice fishing lures are meant to be jigged. But, jigs can come in various shapes, sizes, and colors.

Simple Jigs

Simple jigs consist of a hook attached to a small metal jig head. They are made of either tungsten or lead. Tungsten lures will sink faster and give the user a responsive feel at the end of the line. We suggest experimenting with different simple jigs, because they only cost a few dollars each.

Ice Spoons

Ice spoons are similar to simple jigs, but they are a bit larger and have an elongated shape. Some of these may have a chainlike piece that hangs from the spoon, making noise and vibration to attract fish as you jig it in the water. Ice spoons are typically rigged with bait to imitate a wounded fish.

Tube Jigs

Tube jigs are used year-round, but are very effective when ice fishing as well. Tube jigs are built with two basic parts -- a small, weighted jig head and a plastic tube. These are an inexpensive and effective way to target popular gamefish like panfish and bass.

Swim Jigs

Swim jigs are the most complex type of ice fishing lure, but they are very effective. They are typically built with multiple treble hooks, resembling a standard crankbait. Swim jigs can target smaller panfish or larger species like walleye and pike, depending on the size of the lure that you choose. Tubes, spoons, and simple jigs allow the angler to choose what kind of movement the lure creates, but swim jigs are designed to be jigged in specific ways, creating specific types of movement.

Although swim jigs are often rigged with bait, it’s important to use a smaller piece of worm or fish to avoid changing the lure’s movement as it is jigged.

Bait

Using the proper bait is critical for your success ice fishing. Below are some of the most popular bait options for ice fishing.

Worms

Worms are a versatile bait great for ice fishing. A small piece of worm is a great tip for ice jigs, spoons, and tubes. Larger species like trout and walleye love worms.

Mealworms

Mealworms are one of the most popular options for ice fishers. They stay on hooks very well, and are especially useful for tipping ice jigs and spoons. When targeting trout and panfish, mealworms are very popular.

Minnows

Many ice fisherman say that minnows are by far the most effective bait option. They are extremely effective on a variety of species, including walleye, pike, crappie, and perch. Even dead minnows are very effective if live bait is not an option.

Cut Bait

Cut bait is a popular option for ice fishing. Cut bait stays on the hook easily and gives your jigs a realistic scent and flavor. Save small, leftover pieces of your catches to later be used as cut bait. Shad, whitefish, and perch are all popular options for using as cut bait.

Bait Fish

If you’re targeting large species like pike and muskie, using large bait fish like shad is a great option. Be sure to check if using live fish as bait is legal in your area, though. If not, cut bait is your next best option.

Ice Fishing Etiquette


ice-fishing-etiquette

As ice fishing grows in popularity, it’s important to follow some basic etiquette rules while you are on the lake.

Be Mindful of Others

Do not encroach on other anglers’ areas. People often drill several holes and go back and forth between them -- keep this in mind as you look for a place to settle on the ice.

Getting too close to others crowds up the fishing space, and it can be potentially dangerous if the ice is not thick enough. Many states also have laws dictating the minimum distance required between fishermen on the ice. Be sure to research your local guidelines before going out.

Don’t Drill Too Many Holes

On crowded days, limit yourself to just a few holes. This will make the fishing experience more enjoyable for everyone. The lake is meant for everyone to share, and everyone should have similar amounts of space to enjoy. There is no hard limit to how many holes you can drill, but exercise your best judgement. If the lake is crowded, and most anglers only have one or two holes, limit yourself accordingly.

Keep Quiet

As with any other type of fishing, noises can spook the fish (even through the ice). Many anglers also enjoy the peace and quiet offered by a day on the lake. Respect others around you by keeping noise to a minimum while you fish.

Leave Nothing Behind

Before you leave, make sure you pack up all of your trash and waste and take it with you. Many anglers enjoy ice fishing for the beautiful scenery as much as the sport of fishing itself. Be sure to respect your fishing area by cleaning up after yourself.

Bonus Tips


Tips for success

Learning how to ice fish is a long process of trial and error. Below are a few tips that you can use to maximize your ice fishing success from day one.

Chum the Water

Take a few extra pieces of bait and dump them down the hole. This will quickly attract fish to the area and it will get the fish in a feeding frenzy.

Keep Your Jig Moving

Fish can respond very well to vibrations in the water. When jigging, keep your lure moving so the fish don’t get ‘bored’ of your line. Continuously move your jig to keep your target fish’s attention.

Cover the Hole with Ice Shavings

Sometimes, fish can respond negatively to the light that comes in through the hole. Try covering the hole with ice shavings to make the area around your lure seem more natural to the fish

Pack Light

When ice fishing, it’s important to be able to move from hole to hole on short notice. Make sure not to wear or pack too many heavy items that could weigh you down. This will also come in handy if you find the fish aren’t biting at your first spot. By packing light, you can easily move around the fishing area throughout your day

Watch the Hole

Simply looking down into the hole can give you some good perspective on how the fish are responding to your lure. If fish continue to swim around your bait without biting, consider making changes to your tackle setup.

Bounce the Bottom

During the winter, some species of fish go down to the bottom of the lake. These fish may only feed a few inches off the bottom, so it can be useful to bounce your lure off the ground beneath the water. This movement and vibration can help attract bottom-dwelling fish.

Gear, Knowledge, and Practice


Great results when ice fishing may not come on your first trip. But, by equipping yourself with the right gear and know-how, you are setting yourself up for success. After that, all that’s left is to practice and hone your own strategies on the ice.