How To Ice Fish: The All Inclusive Guide
Your favorite fishing spot has frozen over for the winter, but you aren’t ready to call it quits yet.
Lurking just below that sheet of ice are more fish than you could dream of. Big ones, too.
You’ve decided that this year, you’re going ice fishing for the first time.
What draws you to the art of ice fishing?
Maybe you’re in search of that one monstrous fish—the one you can hang on your wall, a memento of your accomplishment—and you know that ice fishing is the best time of year to find one.
Or maybe you’re drawn by stories of excitement. People talk about catching one fish after the next, running from hole to hole to reel them in.
For a lot of people, ice fishing is a lot of fun. Once you get the hang of it, you might find yourself longing for winter during the summer fishing season!
If you’ve never been out on the ice before, you probably have a lot of questions. What gear do you need to ice fish? How do you pick a perfect (and safe) spot to set up? What’s the best time of year to go?
In this comprehensive guide, we’re sharing everything you need to know about how to ice fish. Grab your bait, prepare your fishing rod, and get ready to reel in this all-inclusive guide:
What Is Ice Fishing?
Let’s start with the simplest question: What is ice fishing all about?
It’s when you drill a hole through the surface of a frozen lake. The depth of that hole depends on the thickness of the ice. You can use a hand auger, electric auger, or gas auger to drill a hole.
Then, you use that hole to set up your trap with some fresh bait. You can use tip-ups or an ice fishing jig for this part (we’ll explain what those are later).
And once the fish bites, you pull it in and bask in the glory of a fresh catch.
There’s nothing else quite like it.
Ice Fishing: The Basics
One of the main reasons why some fishers are wary of ice fishing?
They aren’t sure how to tell if the ice is safe to walk on.
We’re here to clear it up:
- 2” or less: Nope, stay off of this ice. It’s far too thin to ice fish on. You can tell if the ice is too thin just by looking at it. Ice that is transparent, dark blue, and free of cracks is usually safe. But if the ice is mostly white or gray, has cracks, and you can see the water moving beneath it, it’s too thin. Here’s a phrase you can remember this by: “Thin and blue, tried and true. White and crispy, way too risky.”
- 4”: This thinner ice is just thick enough for one person and their ice fishing gear—but nothing more! If you want to fish with a group, you need ice that’s more than 4” thick.
- 10-12”: The ice can support a light car or snowmobile. It could also hold a few more ice anglers and their gear.
- 15”: At this depth, you can drive out a pickup truck onto the ice.
If you look up “ice thickness chart” on Google images, you’ll find plenty of ice thickness references to keep handy. Consider printing one out and bringing it along with you.
And on the topic of basics, here’s something you won’t find in just any ice fishing tips article: Bring lots of snacks.
In between fish bites, you’ll need to do some biting of your own—on the tasty snacks you brought. Bring along a portable propane grill so you can make hot food.
If we could make a few suggestions…
- An insulated mug of hot coffee, tea, or cocoa
- Beef jerky
- Fresh pastries or bread
- Sandwich meats and cut-up cheese
- Hot dogs
It’s our humble opinion that these snacks are entirely necessary for any ice fishing trip.
Why You Should Ice Fish
It’s hard to put into words what makes ice fishing so special.
So we want you to try and imagine something for a moment.
It’s dawn. The night before, you packed up all the ice fishing gear you needed for today, so all you need to do is load up the car and drive down to your local fishing spot.
When you arrive, it’s still early morning, and the sky is still mostly dark. You find the perfect spot to set up your ice fishing shelter and equipment. Next, you create your fishing hole; perhaps you drill multiple holes and set up a few traps.
Now, you wait.
Until finally, something bites.
You can tell that this fish is no little guy. It’s a big one. And by the time you pull it out of the ice, you’re out of breath.
Just as soon as you’ve set it down, the next trap starts to move. You’ve got another bite on your hands.
Now you have an idea of what makes the ice fishing season so exciting—it’s action-packed and even better when you share it with close fisher friends.
Where To Ice Fish
Like people, fish are creatures of habit.
After the top few inches of water freeze over, fish like to return to their former feeding spots. The ones they frequented in the spring and fall.
So if you like summer fishing at your local lake, make a note of your most lucrative fishing spots—you’ll have an idea of where to go in the winter.
If you’re venturing to a new lake, you’re starting from square 0. That’s okay; we can still help.
Even though the weather is different, fish still like to hang around areas with drop-offs, structure, and vegetation. But you can’t exactly see these features through the ice.
One way to find them is by drilling holes and seeing what you find underneath. Otherwise, you can use a fish finder to navigate the geographical features of the lake. You’ll have a much clearer picture of the best spots to set up at.
And as a rule of thumb, if nothing bites after 30 minutes, try a different spot.
The Best Times To Ice Fish
Looking for a specific type of fish? Then you need to know the best places to find them and at which times the fish bite. Here’s a quick guide on what times to fish for certain species:
Ah, the Walleye; it always has been, and always will be, one of the most popular species to go after. Some consider walleye to be the holy grail of fishing. They’re not easy to catch, but they sure are rewarding to reel in.
They say that the early bird gets the worm—but the opposite is true of fishing Walleye. These fish prefer to bite in the evening. That’s due to their superb night vision. If you’re on the hunt for Walleye, wait until after the sun sets.
The Northern Pike is another popular one among anglers. They tend to prefer cold temperatures when they feed, which means they’re most active during the early hours of the morning.
In addition, Northern Pike prefer shallow water with lots of vegetation, so choose your ice fishing hole accordingly.
Unlike Walleye, Trout don’t have the best night vision. They prefer to feed in the morning, after the sun rises.
Lake Trout are sensitive to noise, so if you like a quiet day of fishing, expect to catch a lot of Trout.
Like the Northern Pike, Lake Trout hang around shallower areas, so don’t venture out too far if you want to catch one.
Most ice anglers catch plenty of Yellow Perch. Why? They’re not picky compared to most fish species, which means you can use an assortment of live bait to catch them—minnows, leeches, and small crayfish all work.
You can catch them during the day, but sunset and sunrise work, too. Perch hang around the bottom of the lake, so avoid thinner ice if you’re hoping to catch one.
How To Make an Ice Fishing Hole
It’s an essential skill that you need to catch fish in the winter: Drilling the hole.
Whether you’re working on thin or thick ice, you need a tool that can cut a hole big enough that you can pull a fish through it. That’s what an auger is for.
As we mentioned earlier, there are a few different types of augers you can use. The right one for you will depend on your budget and how much physical exertion you’re willing to put into it.
Without further ado, here are the main differences between each type of auger:
Don’t want to spend any extra time or physical effort to cut a hole in the ice? Then you’ll be looking at a gas auger. These machines make it super easy to drill multiple holes. Set up several traps in no time at all.
The cons of using this model? It’s more expensive than the other options we’ve listed below. One will set you back a few hundred bucks. It can also be a bit finicky in colder temperatures; you may have a hard time getting it to start.
Gas-powered augers are also pretty heavy, which means they’re a hassle to haul around to different ice fishing spots.
Looking for a lighter option that’s still automatic? An electric-powered auger will be more your style. They’re much easier to move around and make it much easier to cut into the ice.
The downside of this model is that it’s battery-powered. If you run out of battery, you’ll have to pack up your gear for the day. This can be a problem at colder temperatures, when batteries deplete quickly.
One thing you can do to offset that con is to bring backup batteries. Always keep at least one handy if you have a full day of ice fishing planned.
To use a hand auger, you place the tool on the desired location of your ice fishing hole. Then, you crank it in manually. If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is.
Expect to get in quite the workout when you use a hand auger. It takes a lot of upper body strength when the ice is thick. It’s also more time-consuming than the other methods.
If you’re going ice fishing for the first time, start with a hand auger; it will cost you under a hundred bucks. This allows you to dip your toes in the water—or ice—before spending hundreds on a more expensive auger.
Alternatively…see if you can borrow an electric auger from a fellow fisher.
Ice Fishing Techniques
We’re covering the best ice fishing techniques to ensure your ice fishing debut is a successful one.
Ice fishing is very different from regular fishing, especially when it comes to the equipment you use. Specifically, what you use to catch the fish.
Since you’re drilling a small hole, you don’t need to cast a line in the open water. What do you use instead?
These are the two most common techniques:
You should absolutely invest in a few tip-ups before you hit the ice. Set up several of these traps at various fishing holes to maximize your catch rates.
Here’s how a tip-up works:
Made of wood or plastic, the top half of the trap sits above the ice. On top of the trap is a small flag.
The lower half features a fishing line with bait. When the fish bites the bait, the trigger mechanism causes the flag on top of the trap to shoot up. That’s when you know you’ve got a fish on your hands.
To retrieve the fish, you need to pull the line out of the water using your hands. This is something you need to experience for yourself—there’s something so primitive and satisfying about it. It’s part of the lure of ice fishing.
Traps don’t need to be elaborate to be effective. Tip-ups are proof of that.
Found yourself a honey hole? (That’s fisher slang for a hole with a high catch rate.) Then you should try jigging!
Using a jig rod (approximately 28” long), drop your line into the hole, and let it sink to the very bottom. Then, tighten the line, and move it around. Try not to move too much, or you could scare off the fish.
The more experience you get, the more types of jigging techniques you can try, from waving it slowly to lifting and dropping it.
Ice Fishing Baits & Lures
Now that you’ve stocked up on tip-ups and a jigging rod, you’re ready to choose your baits and lures.
The type of bait you need depends on the type of fish you’re trying to catch. The most popular picks are wax worms, nightcrawlers, and minnows, which you’ll find widely available at any fishing store. Shiners are another top pick; this is any small fish, usually silver-colored.
As with most types of fishing, live bait is preferred for ice fishing. But that’s not always an option. In those cases, try to use some fresh meat from a fish. Some anglers save the eyeballs of fish they catch and use those.
Fresh out of bait? Depending on where you’ve set up, there may be a local tackle shop nearby with a fresh supply of bait.
Pick up a few of each type of bait—that way, you can cater the bait to a wider range of fish.
What about lures? Like we said earlier, jigs are a popular pick because they’re easy to maneuver. But for fishing in cold weather, you can also try spoons, soft plastics, and jerk baits.
Ice Fishing Tackles
You can’t catch a fish without your tackle box. So let’s talk about the other equipment you use for ice fishing!
Before you head out on the frozen lake, fill your tackle box with the following:
- Fishing rod
You can tailor the exact kind of tackle you pack based on the depth of the ice, the type of fish you’re after, and your experience with fishing.
Other Ice Fishing Essentials
Next up on our list of ice fishing tips: The gear you need for any day spent on a frozen lake.
Since this is a beginner guide, we’re just covering the basics here. A more experienced angler may want a wider variety of gear.
Ice Fishing Rod
When it comes to your fishing rod, you want one that’s lightweight. This helps you detect the slight and sensitive movements of a biting fish. The ideal length is over 20”. Choose one with a sturdy handle so you can prepare your tip-ups and pull in hearty fish.
These specifications will help you find a general ice fishing rod. As you get more into the hobby, you can pick one that’s tailored to catch certain fish—but this is a good place to start.
Ice Fishing Reel
This is the mechanism that you crank to reel in the fish. It can make the difference between a fish that’s pulled in quickly and one that gets away due to a faulty reel.
That’s why you shouldn’t be scared to shell out some dough for a good reel. Think about it: If you come across the catch of a lifetime, the last thing you want is for your reel to snap at the last moment and let it get away.
Sure, there are plenty of fish in the sea—but you need your fishing reel to have your back at that critical moment.
Since you aren’t casting your rod (you simply drop it in the hole you drill), choose a lightweight reel. Stainless steel will hold up in cold temperatures.
You’ll find reels that start around $20 and reach up to $80. You want one that can hold up to the cold, can be operated using gloves, and has stainless steel ball bearings (this helps it operate more smoothly).
Ice Fishing Clothing
Alright, so you’re getting dressed for your big day of ice fishing. What should you wear?
To answer that, here’s a list of all the gear you’ll need to stay warm on a long ice-fishing trip:
- Layers of shirts and pants; this allows you to remove articles if you get warm and add more if temperatures drop
- Warm underwear—the kind that goes all the way to your ankles.
- 2 pairs of socks. Double up!
- Gloves to keep your hands warm. Choose gloves you feel comfortable fishing with.
- Waterproof pants
- Waterproof jacket
- Rubber boots with insulation for your feet
- Ice cleats for better traction on the ice
Ice Fishing Fish Finder
You knew this one was coming. At Fish Finder Tech, of course we’re going to suggest you take an ice fishing fish finder with you on your trek. And if you have any questions about which model to bring, take a look at the reviews on our webite.
Still have questions about ice fishing? Find the answers you’re looking for down below!
How thick should the ice be for ice fishing?
The minimum thickness you should use for ice fishing is 4”. Anything thinner leaves you at risk of falling through the ice!
It’s important to consider that not all parts of the lake freeze at the same rate. For example, sunlight shines more on the north side of a lake, so the south side will freeze faster. Shady areas will also freeze faster.
What are the best months for ice fishing?
This question depends entirely on where you live. But assuming you reside in the U.S., here’s a general guide:
If you live in California, the ice fishing season starts in January and ends in March. But if you’re closer to Colorado, it spans from December to late February. It all depends on the climate of the state you live in.
And in some places like Alabama…there’s no ice fishing season at all! You’ll need to travel to a colder place.
Check out this list of ice fishing seasons in all 50 states.
Should I put fish straight on ice?
You’ve just caught a huge fish! You can’t stop beaming. Where should you put your prized catch?
Great question—and one you want to answer before you’ve got a fish in your hands. So let’s settle it here.
Preserving your fish properly is the key to maintaining its flavor (and ensuring it’s safe to eat later). Place it in a cooler full of ice. And in case the ice melts, leave the drain plug open; otherwise, the fish will sit in water, and this will affect its flavor.
Planning to eat it right away? Store it in the fridge once you get home. Make sure to clean the fish before you prepare it. Give it a thorough wash with cold water, then pat it dry. Wrap it in foil or plastic wrap until you’re ready to cook it—don’t leave it in the fridge for longer than a few days.
Not planning to enjoy your catch right away? Freeze it! Ideally, you should vacuum seal it in a storage bag. It will keep in the freezer for up to one year.
Do I need a fishing license for ice fishing?
Yes. In most states, you’ll need a fishing license before you can legally go ice fishing. The good news is that you can use the same license you use for spring fishing to go ice fishing!
Keep in mind that your license will expire each year; you’ll need to renew your expired fishing license before you head out on the ice. The exact timing and price vary from state to state, so be sure to check the regulations in your area.
You can buy a new license online or by visiting an authorized dealer.
If you’re caught fishing without a license, you could be issued a ticket, and your day will be cut short. Don’t risk it!
What are the best fishing lines for ice fishing?
When you’re filling up your tackle box, which type of fishing line should you pack? This is what you rely on to secure biting fish.
Fluorocarbon lines are a great pick for ice fishing; they blend into the water, so they’ll go undetected by most fish—even those with great eyesight. Choose fluorocarbon lines that are specially designed for ice fishing.
Make Note of Our Ice Fishing Tips!
If you’ve never been ice fishing before, you may have wondered what all the fuss is about. Who wants to be outside when it’s so cold?
But it only takes one ice fishing trip to change your mind. The peace and quiet you enjoy on the frozen lake, the sense of camaraderie you build with your fellow fishers, and the massive fish you can catch this time of year—it all makes for one unforgettable day.
Experience it for yourself this ice fishing season. With the above tips, you’ll have all the knowledge you need to get out on that ice and start catching fish!