When the leaves start falling, and the snow starts laying, many anglers quickly turn in their rods for the season. However, when temperatures drop below freezing and ice covers the lake, an eagerness begins to form. An excitement that only the DNR can fulfill by reporting ice conditions on lakes to be suitable for ice fishing.

This sport isn’t for everyone. It tests your patience, challenges your angling skills, and forces you to withstand weather conditions that most would deem unfavorable. So, if you’re up to the challenge and want to learn how to go ice fishing, please continue reading as we break down what this sport entails.

What Is Ice Fishing?

Simply defined, ice fishing is the act of angling through the ice by drilling a hole to access the water. Ice fishing is a way anglers can enjoy the sport year-round. In the winter, you can still target most fish species, from panfish to northern pike.

Safety Considerations You Should Know Before Ice Fishing

Most importantly, before ice fishing, you need to learn proper ice safety to reduce the risk of you or others falling through. Here is a list of things you need to consider:

  • Ice must be at least 4-inches thick before an individual can walk on it.
  • No ice is “safe” ice. Always take precautions while walking on the ice, as thickness may vary throughout the lake.
  • Use an ice chisel to determine ice thickness.
  • Avoid snow-covered ice and moving and open water areas.
  • Always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) while on the ice, such as life vests.
  • Wear crampons or cleats to give your boots more traction.
  • Carry self-rescue equipment like ice safety picks.
  • Wear polarized sunglasses to protect yourself from snow blindness.
  • Apply sunscreen before and during an outing to shield your skin from UV rays.
  • Clear ice is better than cloudy ice.
  • Keep your auger blades covered until they’re ready to be used.

When and Where To Ice Fish

Like the regular fishing season, the best times to ice fish are in the early mornings and evenings. If you’re familiar with the lake and already have established fishing spots, then you can expect they’ll be just as great during the cold months. However, the beauty of this sport is when the lake becomes covered in ice, you have more access to areas you wouldn’t usually. Ergo, as they say, the lake is your oyster.

3 Main Fishing Methods Used While Ice Fishing

Typically, there are three techniques people will use when ice fishing:

  • Spearing
  • Pole and line
  • Setting Tip-Ups

Each of these methods is an acceptable way to catch fish during this cold season, so choose whichever meets your budget and needs.

What You’ll Need

Here is a list of essential items you’ll need:

  • Ice chisel or spud bar
  • Auger
  • Skimmer
  • PFD
  • Ice picks
  • Stringer
  • Fishing rod, reel, and line
  • Terminal tackle
  • Tip-ups
  • Depth sounder
  • Fishing jigs
  • Live or manufactured bait
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Utility sled

In later sections, we’ll go into further detail on the uses of some of these items.

How To Go Ice Fishing

Step One: Pack Warm Layers

    Carhartt Midweight Hooded Sweatshirt

A man wearing a Carhartt sweatshirt with a white background.
    This Carhartt hoodie will help keep you warm this winter, featuring a comfortable cotton/polyester fabric. Use this sweatshirt as a middle layer for ice fishing to help you retain body heat.

First, to prevent cold-weather injuries, you need to wear multiple layers. In addition, pack extra clothes in a waterproof bag in case you get cold or wet. The key to layering your clothes is:

  1. Wear a moisture-wicking underlayer, like a thermal compression top or leggings.
  2. Then, over your underlayer, you should wear an insulating middle layer. Choose clothing that helps you retain body heat.
  3. Lastly, your final layer of clothing should be a waterproof and windproof shell. For example, a heavy snow jacket and waterproof fishing bibs will help protect you from harsh weather conditions.

If you are interested in learning more about what layers to pack for a winter fishing trip, please check out our checklist.

Step Two: Bring the Right Equipment

    Berkley Cherrywood HD Ice Fishing Spinning Rod

Berkley Cherrywood HD Ice Fishing Spinning Rod against a white background.
    This Berkley spinning rod is affordable and durable, making it an excellent choice for new ice fishing anglers. It's available in an ultra-light and medium-light power for small and medium-sized game fish.

Although you can use any jigging pole for ice fishing, we recommend using a rod specialized for the sport. Ice fishing rods are shorter than your traditional pole and are usually around two to three feet in length. Plus, since you won’t be casting far distances, their more diminutive stature makes them easier to manage while out on the ice. Also, when selecting a rod for ice fishing, ensure to choose a power capable of landing your intended species.

Lastly, along with the list, we outlined earlier, another product we suggest is an ice shelter. Although a pop-up tent isn’t a pre-requisite item for ice fishing, it provides you with additional protection from harsh weather.

Step Three: Always Bring a Fishing Buddy

We cannot stress this enough, never go ice fishing alone! So much can happen while you’re out on the ice. Therefore, you should always bring a friend or family member with you. In addition, you should also alert someone that you’ll be going out.

It never hurts to have an extra pair of hands to help you drill holes and bait lines. Also, another person can help enforce you to make safe decisions, and they can help you out of the ice if you were to fall.

Step Four: Know What Ice Thickness is Safe

The best rule of thumb is: ice is safe for an individual to walk on if at least 4-inches thick. However, it needs to be thicker if you plan on fishing in groups or traveling on the ice via snowmobile, car, or truck. Here is a guide on what ice depth is safe for certain activities:

  • 1-3″ of ice: Unsafe; stay off the ice!
  • 4″ of ice: Safe for an individual to walk on.
  • 6″ of ice: Safe for snowmobiles and ATVs.
  • 8-12″ of ice: Safe for cars, SUVs, and mid-size pickup trucks.
  • 12-15″ of ice: safe for ½ to ¾ ton pickup trucks.

Step Five: Learn How To Drill a Hole in the Ice Properly

One crucial piece of equipment you’ll need is a good hand or power auger to drill holes in the ice. Always read your auger’s specific safe handling instructions and guidelines before operating it. To drill a hole in the ice, follow these steps:

  1. Clear the area you plan on drilling of snow. This step can be accomplished by simply sweeping the snow with the side of your boot.
  2. Uncover your auger.
  3. Place your auger where you want to drill.
  4. Get into a wide stance, and with a firm grip, power your auger.
  5. After you make your hole, put your auger in reverse until you can safely pull it out.
  6. Cover your auger, and put it away.
  7. Lastly, skim your fishing hole of all snow and ice debris with a scoop.

Step Six: Learn How To Rig and Set a Tip-Up

Rigging and setting up a tip-up is an easy and effective way to ice fish. I like to think of them as the ice fishing version of jugging. Tip-ups are a fishing device you place over an ice hole that’s rigged with a spool to hold your fishing line. What’s incredible about tip-ups is when a fish bites your line, the tripping mechanism causes the flag to shoot up vertically, indicating you have a strike. These flags are usually designed with highly-visible colors, so you can easily see them across the ice if you’re working multiple lines.

Like a fly reel, you should spool your tip-up with a strong dacron braid as a backing line. Then, tie a barrel swivel to attach whatever pound test line you’re using as your leader. Leader line materials and weights will vary, depending on the fish you’re targeting.

Step Seven: Bring the Right Bait and Lures

The most common live and artificial baits used for ice fishing are:

  • Minnows
  • Salmon eggs
  • Fly larvae
  • Spawn bags
  • Jigging spoons
  • Rattle spoons
  • Swimming jigs
  • Lipless crankbaits

Flag Up Means Fish On!

Although ice fishing can be slow at times, it can also be exhilarating. Once the fish start biting and the flags of tip-ups raise, it can be tempting to race your buddy to land your fish. However, when you’re out on the ice, you should never become complacent. Always use caution while moving across the ice, and keep your PFD and ice picks on you at all times. These emergency aids can save you or someone else’s life if needed.

Anyways, if you found this article beneficial to you, please consider supporting us by sharing it on social media. Stay safe out there this winter, everyone!