Ice Fishing Basics: How To Find And Fool Big Fish On The Ice

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Ice Fishing Basics: How To Find And Fool Big Fish On The Ice

Tackle Village is reader supported. If you buy a product through links on the site we may make a small commission

Updated on:
Depositphotos 137582032 xl 2015 1 scaled

So, you’re thinking about diving into the world of ice fishing. Well, you came to the right place. In this post, our ice fishing guru Shawn Chapin will explain the ice fishing basics you will need to know, from gear, locations, and even some information on targeting certain species.

Ice Fishing Tips: The Basics Explained

This post is going to be directed towards ice fishing beginners in particular and will consist of five different sections. These sections include  ice fishing locations, ice fishing safety, basic techniques, gear, and commonly targeted species.

How to Choose an Ice Fishing Spot: Finding the Fish

Rivers

Before we discuss fishing on a river during the winter, we have to take a look at some safety considerations. Rivers can be very dangerous due to ice thickness. Ice thickness can vary throughout a river due to current, and while it may be sufficiently thick in one area,  it can change and be very thin only a short distance away.

It is of the utmost importance that you know what areas are safe and those that are not. Typically, oxbow areas, impoundments above dams, and eddies with low amounts of current are going to be safe, while main stretches and outside corners with increased current may be very thin.

When checking ice conditions on a river, bring a spud bar and chip hard at the ice every few steps to ensure the ice thickness is sufficient.

When fishing rivers, you may find it difficult to deal with the current. The current will take your jigs or lures and drag them downstream, and they may simply sit directly under the ice and not come close to reaching the bottom.

Fishing areas with less current, like oxbows, eddies, or the ponds formed by dams, are much easier to fish due to having a very little current, and typically, this is where you will find the fish anyway.

Many anglers who fish areas with current are targeting fish like walleye (see our thoughts on the best walleye lures for ice fishing), and they typically fish using the same lure they would during the open water seasons like heavy jigs and live bait.

See also:

Lakes

Lakes are fished far more than rivers are during the ice fishing season, and the lack of current means you will have an easy time working all parts of the water column.

For most species, you will want to search for some sort of structure or cover or a combination of both. And the later into the winter it gets, the easier it will be to haul your gear, as you can simply drive a truck on the ice if it is 12 inches or more in thickness.

Local Knowledge

Local knowledge of the waters you intend to fish is important, and if you haven’t grown up fishing in an area your entire life, it will take time to gain this knowledge.

If you have friends that regularly go ice fishing and know the local bodies of water you intend to fish, this can be a huge advantage. Ask your friends or family who ice fish to take you with them, and ask if they will show you areas that are productive or unsafe.

I am pretty tight-lipped about my “money” spots, or spots that not many anglers know about that are very good fishing spots. So if you have friends who are the same, ask them to show you community spots or lakes that are well known. The more you fish with someone, the more you will gain their trust, and eventually, they might show you some of their secret fishing spots.

How to Ice Fish Safely

Ice fishing with a friend is a good idea because in the event something goes wrong, you can help your friend out, or vice versa.

Ice fishing can be very dangerous, and falling through the ice into the ice-cold water can be deadly. When I was younger, I took risks on the ice and have experienced going through the ice; it is a terrifying experience, but I was lucky. Many people aren’t and ice safety should always be front of mind during a fishing adventure.

Areas like those described in the river section should be avoided, and other areas on lakes like springs, creek and river inlets and outlets, or open water spots should be approached with caution.

One inch of ice can hold about 120 pounds of weight, so when ice is 3 inches, you can safely walk on it, as long as that ice is of uniform thickness in the areas you are fishing. The easiest way to ensure you are on ice that is thick enough to hold you and your gear is to bring a spud along in the early or late ice fishing periods.

One stiff thrust into the ice with a sharp ice spud can chip away over an inch of ice, so if you hit the ice with a spud as you walk farther from shore, you can test the thickness. If you hammer the ice with your spud and water comes gushing out, you’d better stop and turn around.

Safety picks are something anglers keep with them when ice fishing on thin ice. These can be kept around your neck, so they are always in reach, and in the event that you break through the ice, you can use these ice picks to help pull yourself out of the water.

Fishing with a friend is also a good idea. In the event something goes wrong, you can help your friend out, or vice versa. Just don’t go to the spot where the incident occurred, instead bring a rope for safety purposes and throw it to the person needing help, and if you must get close to the break-through area, crawl on your stomach to spread your weight across a wider area.

Last but not least, if you’re fishing in an area you are not familiar with, be sure you tell family or friends where you are going and how long you plan to be gone, you can even agree to have someone call you, or you can call someone at an established time and have a safety check-in.

Ice Thickness

There is a reliable set of guidelines to determine ice thickness and safety. This guideline ranges from solo fishing with minimal gear to ATVs and Full-sized trucks.

Ice Thickness Guideline

  • 4 inches – Ice fishing with minimal gear
  • 5 to 7 inches – Safe to ice fish with ATVs and snowmobiles for transportation
  • 8 to 12 inches – Safe for small cars, small trucks, and semi-permanent ice shacks
  • 12 to 15 inches – Sufficient for larger pickup trucks

Many ice scoops used to clean the ice and slush out of recently drilled holes have a ruler built into the handle, and this is included to help anglers determine the thickness of the ice. If you don’t have an ice scooper with a ruler built-in, you can always measure that handle and make an accurate guess at ice thickness.

You could always bring a yardstick or even a tape measure if you want to be really certain.

Communications

Communication is important while on the ice. Luckily for us, most people have a cellphone with them at all times.

Walkie-talkies can be useful if you have friends on the ice with you, in particular, if they are fishing in a different area of the lake.

Be sure you have a waterproof container or phone case for your phone. Extremely cold temperatures can also drain batteries faster, and having a phone in a case can help mitigate this, especially if it’s in an inside pocket.

Appropriate Gear and Shelter

I’m sure this is a shocker to literally nobody, but it can get pretty chilly standing on a giant sheet of ice, and for this reason, it is important to have the appropriate clothing and gear, especially if you are fishing far from civilization.

Many anglers will also choose to use an ice shack, with many anglers who fish the same lake throughout the winter building a structure on wheels, complete with battery-powered lighting, tv, and woodstove for all-day fishing. 

For the traveling ice angler, portable, pop-up style ice shelters are popular and can be dragged or towed to fishing spots. This is a serious advantage to fishing in bitter cold temperatures.

See also:

Ice Fishing Basics: Techniques

Tip-Ups

Tip-ups are a crucial piece of gear for ice fishing, and they allow you to fish over wider areas, with the tip-up being hands-off with little maintenance.

Tip-ups are used for live bait fishing for several different species like pike, walleye, bass, and in some cases, even certain panfish like crappies or perch.

Once a tip-up is set, you can let it be as you jig or sit in a shelter, and depending on state or provincial regulations, you could have three or more tip-ups spread across an area.

Once a fish grabs the bait and swims off, the tip-up spool will spin and release a flag into the air showing you that a fish has the bait.

The only real on-ice maintenance required with tip-ups is checking your bait to ensure it hasn’t been stolen by a fish without triggering the flag, ensuring that minnow hasn’t wrapped your line in weeds and making sure that the tip-up doesn’t get frozen into the ice, or that the ice hole hasn’t frozen over. The good news is that some modern tip-ups cover the entire hole to insulate it and keep it from freezing over.

Jig Fishing Setups

Jig fishing is when you use an ice fishing rod and reel to actively jig either live bait or artificial lures to catch fish.

It’s fairly simple and only requires you to find a suitable depth and lure presentation to catch fish.

Jigging can be done for any species, including panfish, walleyes, bass, and pike, among others.

Jigging can also be done with lures like spoons and other artificial lure types like the Rapala jigging rap. It isn’t limited to just jigs.

Ice Fishing Techniques for Lures

There is a wide variety of techniques for jigging, and while jigging in its basic form is straightforward and simple (raising and lowering or popping your presentation), there are techniques you can use to take jigging a step further.

Cadence fishing is something that many anglers master to catch finicky fish like panfish, and it entails jigging in a pattern ( 1-2-3 pause 1-2 pause 1-2-3) or some other combination of jigging to create a cadence.

Depending on the target species or situation tactics, like large rips of the bait (fast and long vertical movement) coupled with a cadence or pounding the silt or sand on the bottom are other methods that can be used to trigger fish.

Ice Fishing Techniques for Bait Fishing

Live bait fishing is a little less complicated, and while you can jig a minnow, most ice anglers “deadstick” live bait like minnows and instead let the natural swimming of the minnow do the work. When a minnow dies, many anglers swap them out with another live minnow and continue deadsticking.

There is a right way and a wrong way to put a minnow on a hook, and for small minnows like those used for crappies, many anglers choose to hook it through the mouth, which allows for more free movement as the minnow swims, but you don’t want to hook it through the minnows head and kill it.

For large minnows like shiners used to catch bass and pike, many anglers will hook the minnow in the back, but you should only hook the skin, and hooking the minnow too low will result in paralyzing the minnow and defeating the purpose of using live bait.

For other live bait like wax worms, wigglers, or maggots, anglers go back to the jigging methods we just discussed above.

Ice Fishing Gear

Ice fishing fish finder sonar
The right ice fishing gear can also keep you safe & comfortable above the ice, where hypothermia and frostbite remain risks. 

Ice Fishing Rods

Ice fishing rods come in a few different forms. Decades ago, many ice fishing rods were nothing more than a fiberglass blank with a wooden handle and a large 1:1 ratio plastic spool placed on top of the handle. These jigging rods were meant to jig, and when a fish bit, the angler would hand line the fish to the surface.

Over the years, ice rods have changed to become miniature versions of rods we use during the open water season. There is plenty of choice for those looking for a good ice fishing rod.

New ice rods even imitate fly rods and feature small fly reels. These have become very popular among panfish anglers. Others are small spinning rods, and in a smaller niche, there are even baitcasting-style rods used for predatory fish like pike and lake trout.

Ice Fishing Reels

Ice fishing reels are the same as reels used in open water fishing but in a miniature form (see our top picks for the best ice fishing reels). Spinning reels can be used in any form of jigging, and even fly reels are used with certain setups to catch fish like panfish. See here for some hints on the best ice fishing lines to spool your reel with.

Ice Fishing Flashers and Fish Finders

Sonar units like flashers and the present-day complex fish finder units help anglers by allowing them to determine if the water below their feet has any fish-holding structure or fish in a very short period of time, without having to fish and waste time determining if the area is good, like in years passed.

Ice fishing cameras (see our thoughts on which ones are best) are another innovation that make ice fishing more fun and more productive.

Ice Augers

An ice auger (see our review of the best models) is an essential piece of equipment needed to ice fish, especially when the ice is more than a few inches thick, and makes using a spud bar to create a hole in the ice a much more difficult process.

Ice augers today come in many forms, and in recent years electric augers have become very popular, with some even being constructed to be used on electric drills.

Other auger types are more traditional with gas engines and are typically 2-stroke engines, while there are even others that run using propane. Propane-fueled augers run on the same canisters used for propane lanterns and heaters.

Clothing

There are multiple companies that create clothing for the specific task of ice fishing. Some of the bib and jacket sets even have floatation safety features in the even you were to break through the ice.

Proper clothing and clothing layering are important, and there are complete sets available to give you the best in insulation along with windproofing and waterproofing features.

For more information on clothing like ice fishing bibs, check out our other post on the topic here.

Ice Fishing Target Species

Pike

One of the best ways to attract and catch big pike is by using tip-ups—sometimes called a trapline—over prime structure.

Pike are the most commonly caught species alongside panfish and bass. Most pike fishing is done using tip-ups, but some anglers jig specifically for pike as well.

Pike are caught mostly by using live bait and can be found in a wide variety of locations, but the most common places to catch them are around weed beds and weed lines where they hunt for panfish and other prey.

Walleye

Close up pic of a walleye in the sun sitting on the ice ice fishing rod in the background
Ice fishing for walleye can be done through out the day, but many anglers target walleye after dark and fish throughout the night.

Walleye are a very popular species to target through the ice, and they can be caught both jigging and on tip-ups.

Many anglers target walleye after dark and fish throughout the night, but due to the lower light conditions under thick ice, you might find that they bite just fine in the daytime.

During the early ice season when walleye can be found in shallow water areas like weed edges, and as the winter progresses, many will move to deep water areas where they remain suspended or around deepwater structures until spring.

Crappie

Crappie fishing is a blast, and the action at times can be fast and furious. In the early season, they can be found in very shallow water, similar to walleye, and as winter progresses, they can be found both scattered throughout weed beds or suspended in schools in the deep water of a lake.

Trout

Ice fishing for trout is popular in certain regions of the U.S., but not everyone has access to trout waters in the winter. Many mountain lakes in the western United States have good numbers of trout, and in the great lakes region, many anglers fish for them far from shore on Lake Superior, in the harbors of Lake Michigan, and in the small tributary rivers that have frozen over.

How to Stay Warm and Comfortable when Ice Fishing

Gloves

While it’s pretty difficult to use gloves when actively fishing with a jigging rod, you still need them. Your hands get wet handling fish, and they get cold fast, especially if it’s windy, so gloves are a must when on the ice.

Boots

Throughout my life, cold feet were the reason I would pack it up and leave the ice early over any other reason.

Your feet are the closest body part to the ice, and if you have spent any amount of time in cold weather, you will know how easy it is for them to feel like they are frozen solid and how hard it is to warm them up after that happens.

We have an entire blog post dedicated to what boots work the best for ice fishing and just how important it is to have a quality pair of boots. You can find that post here: Best Ice Fishing Boots [Buyers’ Guide]

Bibs

Fishing bibs have breathable construction to keep you dry and they’re designed with insulation that traps body heat to keep you warm.

While overlooked by many ice anglers, ice fishing dedicated bibs make a huge difference when compared to standard cold weather bibs or just jeans with layers beneath them (my typical ice fishing attire in my teens.)

They are waterproof, windproof, and have a high level of insulation.

For more specifics on the benefits of using bibs that are specifically tailored to ice anglers, read our in-depth post on the topic: Best Ice Fishing Bibs: 10 Top Picks Reviewed

Other suggestions

Other types of clothing that you should use are wool or thermal socks and base layers that do a great job of wicking away moisture while keeping you dry.

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AUTHOR
Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water.