Growing up, I was constantly battling to get anyone to go ice fishing with me. When I would ask they would look at me like I was nuts. These are avid anglers who fish all year long, but as soon as the water starts to freeze, they shut down for the year and crawl into a hole.
It’s cold, wet, and almost always windy, but it is some of the best fishing you will ever experience if you bridge the learning curve and do not treat it as warm water fishing.
Technology has also made ice fishing much easier because we can drill holes through the much thicker ice and we can stay warmer which allows us to spend more time out on the ice.
If you are thinking about giving ice fishing a try for the first time, we have everything you need to know from lures to lodging.
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of ice fishing is sitting out on a frozen lake on a bucket freezing your butt off, and while that may be true for some, it doesn’t have to be for you. Make sure you have the right winter gear like a heavy jacket, hats, gloves, heavy socks, and knee pads for crawling around on the ice.
If you plan on going all out and making ice fishing a regular thing you could pick up a Thermal Ice Shelter. These are small tents that range from a one-person capacity up to a four-person, and they keep most of the wind and cold away from you so you can focus on the fishing. This is the way to go if you plan on taking ice fishing seriously.
The next necessity is an ice fishing auger. There are a few ways to go about this; you can go with a standard hand auger which is a corkscrew with a handle that you have to turn by hand until you break through the ice. This is quite a bit of work but if you are looking for an authentic experience, by all means, go for it.
There are also augers that you can insert into your power drill which is much more comfortable, but they don’t typically drill holes much larger than 4-6 inches.
If you want to go all in you can splurge on a propane-powered automatic auger that does all the work for you, and you have to keep it steady. We recommend only using this on ice that is at least five inches thick, this is the optimal thickness for ice fishing, and you do not want to be out on ice less than four inches thick. These create a lot of vibration and drill much larger holes, so you do not want to take this out on thin ice.
This tool is not necessary, and you can easily hit the ice and catch fish without it, but it helps when you cannot readily identify the best areas to fish. When you are on the ice, you can’t pay attention to stumpy or weedy areas, and you may not know how deep the water is in a particular area so having a fish finder like the Vexilar Pro Pack II helps you locate fish underneath the ice surface.
You got all your gear together, and you are ready to fish. If you fished a lake during the warm season chances are you will catch a lot of the same fish you did then now, it just requires a bit of a different strategy. There are some fish that are more prone to biting during the cold season though.
Fishing early and late in the season is the best time to catch Perch. They spend most of their time rooting around the bottom of lakes, so its best to try and locate shallow areas and fish the bottom using soft rubber worms.
These guys operate similar to perch, and they spend a lot of their time on the bottom during the cold weather, so your best to let the line hit bottom and continue that process to try and catch Bluegill. Try to find shallow areas of the lake around 15-20 feet and catch the fish as your pull your line back up.
Catching Rock Bass is a lot like catching most panfish in that you use a light test and small wax worms to try and aggravate the fish. Rock Bass are more ornery than other panfish so they bite more aggressively so if you can locate them you can almost guarantee a catch every time during the winter. They are not that good for eating though if that’s what you are looking for.
The best time to catch Walleye is early into the freeze because they are still spending most of their time towards the surface of the water. Walleye are deep water fish but what most don’t realize is that they spend their time in open water no deeper than 20 feet below the surface so if you can locate them, you can catch them.
As the ice freezes, they go deeper and deeper typically occupying the bottom along steep drops in the floor, and it becomes more difficult to catch them as time wears on. It’s best to catch them at the beginning of the season or the very end.
The Rod and Reel
If you are starting any rod will work just fine for ice fishing, and it’s less about the rod and more about the strategy.
If your goal is smaller panfish like bluegill and perch, use a lightweight rod and reel combo with a 2-4 pound line. You want a spinning reel and if you’re going to go out and get a specific ice fishing rod always go with something small and lightweight like a three-foot-long ice fishing rod and reel combo.
For more experienced or daring ice anglers you could also add a tip-up to your arsenal. This is essentially a spool of line attached to a platform that sits on the hole in the ice. The line sits down in the water as an additional means of catching the fish without you having to do anything. When the fish bites you set the hook by pulling the line hand over the hand the “old fashioned” way. This is a bit complicated and not necessary, but it’s exciting when it happens.
Everything bites live bait, and that is my number one strategy for ice fishing. It depends on what you are trying to catch. If you are after panfish, you could get away with a small tube jig fishing 10-15 feet beneath the surface and catch bluegill all day. If walleye and pike are what you are after, then you want to go with a small minnow live bait and fish a bit deeper using a stronger 6-8 pound line as well.
If live bait is not your thing, but you still want to catch the big fish, we recommend going with a fake minnow or something that is very closely related to the live bait.
Always Be Safe
When it comes to ice fishing, there is a clear risk that you do not have on the water when it is warm. There are necessary precautions to take so you do not put yourself or anyone else in danger, and we want to make sure we make this clear.
When you are out on the water having a good time it’s easy to forget that the surface beneath you can collapse at any second, so you always need to be prepared for the ice to give out and have your safety mechanisms in place.
Safety Anchors: Depending on where you are fishing and how far out on the water you are will determine where you anchor yourself. Most of the time you want to anchor yourself at least five feet away from where you are drilling to give yourself some space, so the anchor does not fall in the water too. What you are doing is screwing a hook into the ice and tying yourself to it so you can pull yourself out if the ice caves in. It also makes it easier for someone with you to help you if you fall in.
Spud Bar: You could use anything, but this is the proper tool to test the ice up to five feet ahead of you. It’s a simple rod, but you always want to test the ice before you step anywhere.
Safety Throw Bag: If someone else falls in the water and you are still on the ice you can throw this bag to them, and it contains a float and a rope to help them get out of the water and back onto the ice.
Emergency Flotation Device: You want some form of flotation device in case a lot of the ice breaks, and you are now stuck in the water and cannot pull yourself back up on the ice. A flotation device will float when it falls in and can be easily inflated, usually by pulling a tab.
First Aid Kit: You may think there is little that can happen when there are ice and snow all around, but it’s always best to have safety in mind, so your fun trip does not become a tragedy. When you are ice fishing, you are often a long walk from your vehicle and may not have quick access to medical assistance if needed.
Just because it’s getting cold does not mean that you have to hang up the rods for the season.
I spent a lot of my life begging people to go ice fishing with me, and once they went they immediately fell in love with it, and I know that will happen for you too.
Get your gear and get out on the ice, when it is at least five inches of course!