This year we asked our readers to give us ideas for what they would like us to write about for the Making Life. One person asked that we write about ice fishing. We are not ice fishing experts, but Ned is a fisherman and I put in some deep research for this article so you can learn the basics of ice fishing.
I hope you enjoy learning more about ice fishing along with me!
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Make Sure You’re Complying With Rules and Regulations
If you don’t already own a fishing license, you’ll need to purchase one. Turns out, even if it’s ice fishing it’s not legal to do it without a license.
Check your local fishing laws and regulations. Some lakes or reservoirs prohibit ice fishing so it’s good to know if you’re legally allowed to be there in the first place. You never know if there will be a sneaky game warden waiting to bust you for a fishing violation.
Take an Experienced Friend on Your First Ice Fishing Outing
I’ll write about how to go ice-fishing for your first time even if you don’t have an experienced friend, but going with one for your first time out is a good idea if you can. They might have a good idea for a location for fishing, and they should also be accustomed to safety protocol.
What You Need to Go Ice Fishing
Ice fishing can be as elaborate or as simple as you want it to be. There are ice-anglers who set up ice fishing shelters and have electricity, heat, and cook meals while they’re ice fishing. There are also ice fishers who drill a hole in the ice and sit on a bucket while they fish.
If you’re just starting out as an ice-fisher and you don’t have a friend with a ton of gear, I’d recommend starting out with the minimum. That way you’ll know if it’s something you want to invest more money in or not.
The Basic Gear You Need for Ice Fishing
Here’s what you need to get started with ice fishing:
- A fishing license
- An ice fishing sled to carry your things; while this is not a necessity, it can certainly make things easier as you begin to acquire more gear.
- Hand crank or motorized auger; obviously the hand crank or manual drilling method will be the most affordable – but if you have the money or are ready to upgrade, a motorized auger will be far more time-efficient
- Bucket for your tackle/bait/tools that can be used a stool
- Ice fishing rod and reel
- An ice fishing rod and reel are different than a normal fishing rod. An ice fishing rod is much shorter which is more ideal for sitting in one spot and fishing vertically. You’re not going to be casting far into the water, but rather dropping your line down a hole. A regular fishing pole would also keep you further from your hole and be more difficult to pull back when you’ve caught a fish. While a regular fishing rod is around 5-10 feet long, an ice fishing rod is about 2-4 feet long.
- A scoop for scooping out the ice after you’ve drilled a hole with the auger
- Bait and Tackle
- Live bait like maggots, wax worms, spikes, or minnows work well for ice fishing
- Warm winter attire
- Dress in warm layers you can remove if you get too warm
- Snow boots
- Warm coat
- Dry socks and gloves in case they get wet
- Safety Gear
Best Ice Fishing Rods
Some of the most popularly reviewed fishing rods selling on Amazon are:
- 13 FISHING Widow Maker. This is an ultralight carbon fiber ice fishing rod with a cork handle. Some of the Amazon reviews state:
“The ability to buy a well-designed rod and reel combo for ice fishing has me pretty excited about my new venture on to the ice this year.”
“Sensitive enough for a perch bite but big enough to handle Lake Champlain 6 -20 lb lake trout and 10lb walleye.”
“…great action and excellent backbone with this rod. Would recommend if you can afford a moderately expensive rod. Can’t wait to use it for perch and other panfish next season!”
13 FISHING – The Snitch – Ice Fishing Rods. Another rod by the same brand, this is a 20″ quick tip rod that is made for all skill levels. Reviews on Amazon say:
“Tried it out for three days on the ice. Worked great. Detects panfish bites very well.”
“Great ice fishing rod. Perfect for any type of panfish with enough strength and bend to set the hook and land the fish. Lightweight is a plus.”
“Incredible rod for the money, have 2 already and will be buying another one.”
Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2 Ice Fishing Reel & Rod Combo. A good rod and reel combo at an affordable price. Available in medium or medium heavy and made from aluminum. Reviews on Amazon state:
“There is not a better ice pole for the money. These poles are strong but sensitive on the tip so you can see light nibbles when fish are either suspicious or not really hungry. I’ve caught fish over 5 pounds on the medium ugly stick ice pole and prefer it over most all poles I’ve used.”
“I bought this to supplement my ultralight and med-heavy ice fishing poles this year. It is a GREAT middle of the road pole that is light enough to hook crappies and heavy enough to drag up legal lake trout without complaining.”
“Great rod. Performed well for northern pike fishing.”
Safety Tips for Ice Fishing
Ice fishing is a relatively safe sport, but there are some safety concerns to be aware of. The main concern of course is the ice breaking and falling into freezing water. If you’re careful, this is unlikely to happen.
- Most ice fishers recommend staying off ice that’s less than 4-5 inches. Ice can range in thickness as you travel, so that’s why experienced ice fishers would suggest checking the thickness every 10 to 20 yards as you head out on the ice. If you find that the ice is less than 4 inches thick, it’s not worth the risk. If you’re planning on driving a snowmobile or car on the ice you will need the ice to be thicker. You can expect the ice to be 7-8 inches to drive a small car, 8-10 inches for a medium truck, and 12+ inches for a heavy truck. You can test the thickness of the ice with:
- an auger
- an ice chisel or an ice spud (be careful not to drop it into the water, which easy to do)
- an ice testing pole
- a chainsaw
- Talk to the person in charge of the body of water you’re fishing on to ask about the safety of fishing. If you’re fishing at a local state park, you can contact the park office to see if they recommend staying off the ice. They will often also be able to provide information about the thickness of the ice that day.
- Ice that’s not covered in snow can be very slippery, so ice grips for the bottom of your shoes can help you from slipping and getting hurt on the ice.
- Safety spikes can help you pull yourself out of the water should you break through the ice. These are usually worn around your neck for easy access should you fall in. Here’s a nice video showing you how to use safety spikes.
- A floatation device that you wear while traveling on the ice can significantly help your chances of getting out of the water should the ice break. You can wear a floatation suit that will keep you warm while ice fishing or in the event of an emergency if the ice broke and you fell in. If you’re just getting started and don’t want to invest that kind of money you can also use a regular life jacket or a waist PFD.
- Follow safety recommendations for the ice auger you use. Avoid getting loose clothing, jewelry, or other personal items caught in the auger.
- Avoid dehydration by bringing plenty to drink. People commonly think of becoming dehydrated on hot summer days, but you actually have a higher chance of being dehydrated because you often don’t feel as thirsty even when your body needs to be hydrated. So keep your Nalgene, Camelbak, or Hydro Flask ready to go.
- Tell people about your ice fishing plans. Before you head out on the ice, let someone know how long you’re planning on fishing and where you’re going.
- Bring a friend along with you. It’s much safer to go ice fishing with at least two people than it is to go alone.
- Have a rope that you can toss into the water if someone has fallen in.
How to Pick an Ice Fishing Spot
You have your gear, now how do you find a good spot for ice fishing?
There are a couple of important factors for ice fishing:
- A place you’re allowed to fish
- A place where you can find fish
- A place that is safe to fish
The criteria for ice fishing is simple enough, but does take a little bit of of pre-planning to find the perfect fishing hole.
Some tips for finding your ice fishing location:
- Ask other ice fishermen. This is probably the easiest way to find a good fishing spot (if they’re willing to give up their favorite place).
- Check with the fishing location — again, if it’s a local park you can talk with the park department and ask what kind of fishing is available and where you might be able to catch some fish. You can also ask where it’s safe to fish.
- Try the local bait and tackle shop and see if they have any ideas of good places to fish.
- A general rule of ice fishing — go to smaller bodies of water early in the ice season and larger bodies of water later in the season. Before the ice freezes, you can stake out a good fishing spot that you want to return to. Earlier in the winter, the fish will be closer to the surface of the water. Later in winter, they will go deep where they can stay warmer, so you want to find deep areas to fish.
- Understand the species of fish you’re fishing for. Different species of fish behave differently, so you will need to learn more about the fish you want to find and their patterns of behavior so you can find the best spot to fish for them.
How to Set Up Your Fishing Spot
You’ve got your gear, and you’ve got your location. Grab your sled full of gear and head out on the ice. Make your way across the ice, checking for ice depth as you go until you stop at your final fishing spot. Once you’re there, this is how you set up.
Step One: Cut a Hole in the Ice
Using a hand auger you can break the ice barrier and drill a nice hole. You can also use a cordless drill to help the process go faster, or you can use an electric or gas auger if you’ve borrowed one from a friend or wanted to invest in one to get the job done faster.
Here’s a video showing you how to use a hand crank auger:
Step Two: Remove the Loose Ice
When you’ve cut down through the ice, pull your auger out and use an ice scoop to get the loose ice out of your hole. Be careful not to let go of your ice scoop! Any loose slush on top should be moved to the side so it doesn’t form a mound on top.
Step Three: Get Your Seat and Setup Ready
Your bucket can serve as a seat for fishing, but you may also have brought out a more elaborate setup. You may want to set up an ice fishing shelter, pull out snacks, and make your space on the ice a little more comfortable. You can call this improving your foxhole if you will.
When you’ve followed these steps, you’re ready to start fishing.
How to Catch Fish When Ice Fishing
So you’re a person sitting on a bucket with a short fishing pole in a hole in the ice waiting to catch a fish. You’re not getting any bites. What tips can you use to attract some fish? Whether it’s the type of bait you are using or the spot you picked, here are a few tips and tricks that you can try to increase your odds of success.
- Find the fish. Choose a spot where the fish are! This might seem obvious, but there are actually a number of ways you can increase your odds when attempting to choose the right spot to drill your first hole and drop your first line.
- First, you should know what type of fish you are targeting. Now, this article isn’t going to dive into each type of fish you might target and their potential habitats, but we’ll throw out a handful of general best practices when choosing a fishing spot.
- Most fish like the following types of habitat; vegetation, structures (sunken trees, debris, etc…), rocky areas, depth changes, feature transitions (edges of weed bed and silt/sandy bottom). Choosing one of these spots will definitely increase your chances of landing a lunker.
- Get the right grub. Now I can honestly say that I have caught a fish on a bare hook before, but I guarantee your opportunities to catch a fish will increase exponentially if you know what kind of bait to throw on there before you sink a line through the ice.
- You’re going to have two basic options to get started. First will be using live bait. You’ll be most commonly successful using baits like mealworms, grubs, minnows, and even a classic nightcrawler or one of my favorites, red worms. You take the laid-back approach and drop your line to the bottom of the lake or watercourse and then bring it up just off the bottom to hang there. Or, you could jig the bait up and down a bit to add a little extra enticement to a hungry fish.
- On the other hand, if you want to take a more traditional or challenging approach, you can use artificial bait or lures. Again, using various types of jig style lures or rubber baits and jigging them up and down will be excellent options. You can use rattletrap lures under the ice as a successful option for a lure as well. Bottom line, there are tons of lures and artificial bait options. And honestly, jumping over to YouTube would be a great resource to see what other anglers use to contribute to their success.
- Chum it up. That’s a lame joke. But anyway, you can try “chumming” which means spreading bait to draw a school of fish in with the scent. Check first for local fishing regulations to see if it’s allowed and to ask what is the best type of chum to use.
Best Ice Fishing Species for Eating
The type of fish that you’re going to find yourself landing is going to be different depending on your location and what exactly is in your area or specific body of water. However, there are a number of fish species that are fairly common across the board. And if we’re being honest, some taste far better than others. Let’s get into it.
These fish are all freshwater fish that you might catch while ice fishing and can be eaten.
- Salmon. One of the most popular types of fish for eating, salmon is a popular type of fish to catch when ice fishing. These pink beauties can be found in landlocked lakes in Maine, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
- Walleye. Walleye is called “the chicken meat of the sea” for its delicious sweet flavor. Our kids really enjoyed eating this when they caught some on Lake Erie a couple of years ago. It’s mild and doesn’t taste too fishy. Perfect for breading and frying up.
- Catfish. I don’t know how to put this any other way, but catfish look strange. Ned tells me that they taste pretty good and they can be caught while ice fishing if you’re patient enough to wait for them.
- Perch. Perch can be found in most freshwater lakes in America and they’re another good option for consumption. They’re pretty healthy for you with meat that’s white and flaky. It’s mild, sweet, and tasty.
- Bluegill. Ned says you can eat bluegill and they’re good. I’ve never eaten them before, but they’re abundant, easy to catch, and your kids will be so happy if they’re able to add to your food supply when you’re ice fishing.
- Crappie. These fish are another mild-flavored fish that makes a nice filet.
- Trout. I’ve tried trout before and it’s quite delicious. Battered and fried. Yum.
Get Out on That Ice
OK, now you know everything you need to know about ice fishing for beginners!
What did we miss? What ice fishing tips would you love to share with everyone? We’d love to hear from you!
We also look forward to writing the next addition to our “you requested” series for our blog.