Beginner’s Guide to Ice Fishing (Things to Know)

With the onset of winter, comes the freezing of lakes within many northern climates. For many anglers, this signals an end to annual lake bound outings. However, for others, the prime fishing action is only beginning.

Every year, an untold number of anglers from across the world find significant value in the yearly freeze, as they take to the frozen waters in search of a wholesome ice fishing adventure. Ice fishing is unique in many ways and presents a wealth of opportunity for those who wish to catch fish in abundance during the winter months.

However, ice fishing can also present a learning curve for those who have never fished in such a manner, which must be overcome in order to find consistent success. The following information will assist you in circumventing much of this learning curve, thereby allowing you to make the most out of your time on the ice.

What is Ice Fishing?

Ice fishing is defined as the practice of using lines and hooks to catch fish through a hole in the ice of a frozen body of water. The sport of ice fishing is popular in virtually any area where water regularly freezes to an appropriate thickness to allow safe excursion onto the ice. In North America, ice fishing is practiced with regularity in the northern ⅓ of the United States, as well as nearly every portion of Canada.

The History of Ice Fishing

Ice fishing’s history is rooted in necessity, as a way to sustain survival. It is believed that ice fishing’s history dates back more than 2000 years when native people across the world began experimenting with the idea of retrieving fish from beneath the ice, as a means of providing sustenance.

These primitive anglers knew that there were fish to be caught beneath the ice, though they needed to figure out a method of extracting such fish from below. The earliest forms of ice fishing involved cutting holes in the frozen lake bed, and using spears to harpoon fish as they swam below.

With the advent of the fishing line in its earliest form, ice fishing as we know it today grew to prominence. As the years have passed, the methods related to ice fishing have grown ever more advanced. Today, the vast majority of anglers ice fish with the use of application-specific rods and reels, with many basing their efforts from inside the confines of purpose-built ice shelters.

Shelters

While one can certainly fish in an open setting anywhere along a frozen lake’s surface, many anglers choose to utilize a shelter of one type or another. These shelters are typically known as ice shanties. These small portable shelters are commonly constructed of wood or plastic and are portable by nature.

Most anglers transport their ice shanties onto the water by way of vehicle or snowmobile, though such shelters can also be transported by hand when necessitated. These portable enclosures feature average measurements of 6’ X 6’ and are tall enough for an adult angler to stand upright within.

In recent years, many manufacturers have begun offering lightweight, pop-up canvas style ice fishing shelters. These shelters can be set up in a matter of minutes, and provide an unparalleled level of portability. This is ideal for ice fishing during the late season, when warming temperatures can force frequent relocation.

On many larger lakes, it is quite common for bait and tackle shops to rent small shelters to ice fishermen. These shelters can be rented for the day, or for lengthier periods of time, where they are left stationary until removal just before the spring thaw. In some areas, many ice shelters can be found grouped in one location, known as shantytowns.

The use of an ice fishing shelter assists an angler in staying warm, by retaining heat and reducing wind chill. Many anglers also choose to employ the use of a portable heater within their ice shelter, as this additional heat source allows one to fish in relative comfort.

Pro Tip: Prior to heading out on the ice with your portable enclosure, study the trek ahead. It is imperative to sort out every detail associated with the ice fishing shelter set up in advance. Make sure that you have a planned out all details related to transport, have double-checked ice thickness, and have secured ice anchors to secure your shelter if necessary.

Ice Fishing Equipment

To find success when ice fishing, one must first procure all equipment that is necessary to begin their adventure. The following list outlines a number of items that an angler needs to have at their disposal before striking out across the frozen lakebed.

Ice Auger

If you hope to try your hand at ice fishing, you must first have a way to pierce through the ice to reach the water below. This is done with an ice auger. Ice augers come in both manual and motorized forms, with the former being the most cost-effective, and the latter being more practical.

Ice Shelter

While an ice shelter does not technically qualify as an ice fishing necessity, such structures are popular enough to warrant a place on our “essentials” list. An ice shelter can be positioned as desired, allowing an angler to fish in relative comfort, without being exposed to harsh winds and wintry precipitation.

Ice Sled

An ice sled is essential when hauling the rest of your gear from your vehicle to your destination on the water, and back again. An angler’s gear is simply placed on or within an ice sled, where it is pulled along whenever and wherever necessary.

Ice Fishing Rod

Although any type of rod can be used for ice fishing, those made specifically for the sport are of extra value. Ice fishing-specific fishing rods are much shorter than standard rods, seldom exceeding 2-feet in length. This allows an angler’s rod to be positioned much closer to the hole that they are fishing, for additional sensitivity.

Ice Fishing Reel

Most ice fishing reels are of a spinning variety and are of an ultralight in design. This is a perfect match for the miniaturized rods that are also employed when ice fishing. These reels provide excellent control for jigging and highly efficient drag systems for diverse fighting potential. Ice fishing reels can be purchased at nearly any price point, from $15-$150.

Miscellaneous Items

There are also numerous additional items that ice anglers should always have at their disposal. The first and foremost of these items is a fishing license. It is also a good idea to keep a compass at the ready should the sunset, and difficulty occur when attempting to leave the ice. A chair and additional layers of clothing should also bear consideration, as should the type of bait that is to be used.

Pro Tip: Though not essential in any way, a vast number of serious ice fishermen use primitive fish finding units, known as flashers. These early sonar units allow an angler to take stock of fish within the area of their hole in the ice, and will actually give away a fish’s position as they approach an angler’s bait.

Basics of Ice Fishing

Even with an understanding of what ice fishing entails, and a stock of essential gear at the ready, an angler must be capable of locating fish and drawing strikes, if success is to be expected.

The following will outline how to do just that, allowing you to capitalize on this winter’s freeze, and join the growing ranks of ice fishermen worldwide.

Finding Fish

In order to find ice fishing success, you must first know where to base your efforts. Deciding where to place your hole in the ice and drop your line is as simple as understanding how fish relate to the body of water in which they are found.

During the winter months, fish typically hold to greater depths, where water temperatures tend to be the warmest on any given body of water. However, these same fish will also patrol slightly shallower water while on the hunt for baitfish of other sources of food.

For this reason, the majority of anglers target steep shorelines, which drop off to deeper depths. These transition zones afford fish everything they need during the winter months. By fishing in these areas where fish tend to congregate in numbers, an angler is provided with the best possible chance at success.

With the perfect spot selected, you will need to prepare an appropriately sized hole in the ice. In the majority of instances a hole 10”-12” is ideal, though some government agencies restrict the sizing of such man-made holes to a set maximum size. With your hole drilled, a skimmer can be used to remove any remaining ice that lies within.

What To Fish For?

In most areas, panfish are the most commonly pursued species of fish when ice fishing, with perch being especially favored. While most panfish are small in size, they are also plentiful, providing an abundance of opportunity for those hoping to experience a memorable day on the water. Additionally, panfish make excellent table fare and are often sought out for their wonderful flavor.

Some anglers also focus their efforts on catching larger species of fish, such as walleye, pike, and musky. While less plentiful than panfish, these larger species of fish provide a fight that few will soon forget. Many anglers also refer to walleye as a delicacy of sorts and specifically target these feisty fish for the table.

Pro Tip: When ice fishing for larger species of fish, it is imperative to remain mindful of your reel’s drag setting. Fish of substantial size can quickly push an ultralight reel to its max and can break the light line with little difficulty. Therefore one must be ready to make all necessary drag adjustments at a moment’s notice.

How To Catch Fish?

Jigging is considered to be the most effective presentation when ice fishing. In actuality, it is one of the only viable methods of presentation when one considers the small window through which an angler is able to drop their line.

Jigging is the act of slightly raising and lowering one’s rod tip every few seconds, which presents a lure with a struggling appearance, to which game fish typically respond in a predatory manner. Before jigging, an angler will drop their bait to a predetermined depth, at which they expect fish to be found. Jigging will then commence and continue until a strike occurs.

Both live bait and artificial lures can be used when ice fishing, to great success. Minnows, shiners, grubs, and worms all make excellent live bait options when ice fishing, as do jigging spoons of a natural baitfish color, when selecting an artificial lure.

Pro Tip: When legal to do so, chumming the water through your hole in the ice, can be an effective way of drawing fish, and enticing bites. Chumming disperses scent throughout the water, which attracts fish looking for an easy meal. Cat food, sardines, and barley mixtures are all cited as being particularly potent in this regard.

Dangers of Ice Fishing

Due to its nature, ice fishing carries inherent dangers. Anytime that a frozen expanse of water is to be traversed, extreme caution is imperative. As a rule, ice fishing should never be conducted on ice thinner than 4”. Ice of a lesser thickness is prone to breakage, leading to a perilous situation. If an angler were to fall into frigid, wintery water, shock can set in almost immediately, lessening one’s chance of survival.

If a gas heater of any type is to be used in an ice fishing shelter, adequate ventilation should be provided. If exhaust fumes from a heater of this nature are not given a way to escape, carbon monoxide poisoning can occur with little warning, ultimately leading to death.

It is also of significant importance to dress accordingly when venturing out for an ice fishing excursion. Layering is not only recommended, but highly advised, as this leads to greater body heat retention, and prevents the sudden onset of a chill. The use of a thermal base-layer of clothing is also a wise choice.