Ice Fishing 101: Ultimate Beginner’s Guide With All You Need to know

The cold weather of winter doesn’t mean you need to stay indoors. There are so many fun activities to do, and one of the most exciting is ice fishing. There are a lot of tips to keep in mind if you want to be successful ice fishing. I’m writing this guide to make you a pro in no time.

Ice Fishing Equipment

To go ice fishing, you’re going to need some gear.

Rods

You’ve probably guessed that you’ll need a fishing rod. Any old fishing rod could theoretically land you a fish, but for best results, you’ll want an ice rod.

These rods are much shorter than other rods, designed to let you easily drop your line in a hole. They are also made to be especially sensitive so that you won’t miss any catches despite the effect the cold temperatures could have on your line.

Check out an article I wrote to see some of the best ice rods available.

With a rod, you will need fishing line to put on it, naturally. Lines vary in the amount of weight they are designed to carry. In this article, I give guidelines on what pound test line you should be using for various fish species, so go read that if you are wondering what kind of line to get.

Also, you will almost certainly want a reel for your rod. Otherwise, you’ll be pulling up your line by hand.

Tip-Ups

In addition to rods, which everyone has heard of, you can also use devices called tip-ups. Tip-ups are like auto-pilot for fishing. They suspend bait underwater, and when fish bite, a flag on the tip-up goes up. When you see the flag, you pull up your line, which, hopefully, has a fish hooked.

You could use a tip-up alone without a rod if you wanted, but the optimal combination is to use them together. You’ll cover more ground that way.

If you are new to tip-ups check out one of my previous articles for a beginner’s guide to tip-up use.

Tip-ups aren’t a requirement, though, so you don’t need to buy one just yet if you don’t want to.

If you are interested in buying a tip-up then check out my favorite among other great picks in this post.

Lures, Jigs, Bait

With any line, you’ll need to dress it with things to attract fish. After all, no fish is going to bite a bare hook for fun (as far as I know).

There are many types of bait you can use. They look appetizing to fish, and if you’re using live bait, they’ll appeal to some fishes’ sense of smell as well.

There are also plenty of types of lures you can use. As the name suggests, a lure should lure the fish towards your line. Some of the most popular and effective lures for ice fishing reflect light across the lake, and that really gets fishes’ attention.

Then there are jigs. Jigs are cool because they move around to fool fish into thinking they’re seeing a living creature. The movement is not automatic; you must move your rod in regular, rhythmic motions to move your jig.

There are plenty of different types of jigs. For example, some swim around in circles.

You can use a combination of lures, jigs and bait if you want. If you’re looking for a specific type of fish, you’ll want to look up information on what works best for it.

Augers

You are going to need to cut a hole in the ice. The easiest way to do that is with an ice auger, whether it’s manual or gas-powered.

An ice auger is a drill made for ice fishers. They come in different sizes depending on how big you need your hole to be.

Manual augers are inexpensive and easy to maintain. Gas-powered augers drill holes with incredible speed and ease, which would make for an easy time if you plan to cut dozens of holes. But, you’ll have to maintain that engine over time, which is a bit of a pain.

Overall, I recommend manual augers. To see my recommended pick among a list of other you can go to this post.

If you’d rather have the machine do the work for you, you can find my list of gas augers in this other post of mine.

It is possible to cut holes in other ways, but they’re not as easy. You could take an ice chisel and smash through the ice, but if the ice is especially thick, this would be unreasonable. I’ve heard of people using saws, also.

Electronics

This is totally optional, but if you want to make locating fish far easier, you can buy devices like fish finders and underwater cameras.

Fish finders use sonar to tell you onscreen what objects are present underwater. And an underwater camera is exactly what the name implies. These devices take a lot of the guesswork out of fishing, so if you’re seriously looking to catch a lot of fish, you should get one.

I wrote an article about the best fish finders you can find, so check it out if you want to buy a good one.

Shelter

This may be considered optional or not depending on just how cold and windy it is where you’re attempting to go ice fishing.

Serious ice fishers will often set up a wooden shelter on a frozen lake and leave it there all winter. They fish from within the shelter.

You don’t need to do that, but you can definitely use a portable tent shelter. It accomplishes the same purpose, albeit it probably doesn’t keep temperatures quite as warm.

Maybe you want to prove your toughness by facing the cold without a ton of gear, but face it, that’s a good way to at best be uncomfortable or worse get seriously ill. A tent shelter is great. You get protection from the wind while still being able to fish to your heart’s content.

The disadvantage of shelters is you have to face the cold if you want to cover more ground, but that’s not so bad. At least they keep you warmer for a large percentage of the time you spend out there.

If you want to see some good tent shelters for ice fishing, take a look at an article I wrote listing some.

Overview

The amount of equipment needed for ice fishing may be slightly more than for regular fishing, but on the bright side, you don’t need a boat to get to the middle of the lake, so just think of how much money you save there!

There’s no need to overspend as a beginner. You don’t need to have all sorts of different baits. Start with a few. You’ll get more over time as you continue to enjoy the hobby.

For a slightly more detailed discussion of what gear you need you can check out any of the links provided under the specific equipment. Or you can check out my post on what you’ll need to go ice fishing for the first time.

Safety Guidelines

Ice fishing is a tame sport, but it becomes dangerous if you make one mistake: doing it on thin ice.

To be on the safe side, you should make sure the ice you’re walking on is four inches thick at least. Technically, four-inch ice can support the weight of an average person, but if you find ice that thin, it’s likely that in some parts of the lake, it might be even thinner, and if that’s the case, you’ll end up in the water. I advise against walking on anything below four inches thick.

For more details on the subject of ice thickness check out this article written on Outdoor Troop by another Ice Fisher.

In an unfamiliar lake, you should check the thickness constantly as you explore.

If you’re worried about breaking ice, wear a life preserver.

If ice breaks and you fall in the water, you need to get dry once you return to land. Being soaking wet in freezing cold weather will lead to hypothermia. That’s why you will need to remove all your wet clothing. If you’re preparing for this situation, leave dry clothing onshore. Maybe leave a sleeping bag there to use to warm up in.

If the ice is over eight inches thick, though, you really have nothing to worry about. And as I said, if it’s just four inches and consistently four inches thick around the lake, you should be fine.

As for other safety issues, there’s always the risk of getting too cold in cold weather. Hypothermia is no joke. Make sure to dress warm and try to make a high percentage of what you wear waterproof.

For a lot of advice on what to wear ice fishing, you can read another article I wrote.

Speaking of warmth, if the weather is extremely cold, consider bringing a shelter. It will provide protection from the wind and insulation from the cold while still allowing you to fish. You’ll be very grateful you brought one once you’re out there.

If you are planning to do some nighttime ice fishing, make sure to wear reflective clothing. Snowmobilers or people in other vehicles might be out riding at high speeds, and you don’t want to get hit.

Overall, it’s not hard to stay safe ice fishing. Just make sure the ice is thick, and then stay warm and dry. Do all that, and you’ll have a great time.

When to Go

What time of year should you go ice fishing? You already know the answer is winter, but to be a bit more specific, the best times are in January and February.

December is a bit riskier due to being so early in winter, but you can do it if you determine the ice to be thick enough. It takes time for lakes to freeze; it doesn’t happen overnight. Luckily, it takes time for them to melt, too, so one warmer day won’t turn the ice to liquid instantly.

March is possible for ice fishing, too, but if the weather has warmed a bit, it could be dangerous. Always check ice thickness.

January and February are the coldest months of the year, so if the ice is going to freeze, it will during those months if it didn’t already in December.

Naturally, I am speaking from a northern hemisphere perspective, but if there is any ice fishing to be done in the southern hemisphere (I haven’t heard of this being done at all), it would still be during whatever the coldest months of the year are.

As for time of day, the vast majority of fish are most active during the early morning and evening hours. So, get out to the lake early, before the sun has even fully risen. During the day, the action might slow, but you can still catch fish. And at dusk, fish will be quite hungry once again.

You can even fish after dark if you want. It won’t be the optimal time, but anglers have caught many fish by doing so.

Timing is always important in fishing, and it’s important for your safety, too, in ice fishing.

Types of Fish to Look For

For the most part, any fish you can catch in the summer will still be in the lake in the winter, despite the cover of ice above it.

There are many species of fish you can find all throughout North America. On the small side, there are panfish like crappie and bluegill. There are larger fish like northern pike, lake trout and perch.

A less common fish is the kokanee, but you will only find it natively in the northwestern region of the United States and north of that, including all of Western Canda. However, it has been introduced to many other freshwater locations throughout America.

You can catch bass, but they aren’t too popular due to not tasting as good as other fish. Catfish are not caught in ice fishing too often because they tend to live in warm waters that don’t end up freezing, but you can’t rule them out completely.

There are plenty of unique species in different areas, so it’s not possible to list everything you might find without becoming a full encyclopedia.

If you want to know what species you will find in a particular lake, the Internet offers great databases to help with that. For example, the state of Wisconsin, which is one of the best places for ice fishing, has an online database with information about all their lakes including what species are found there and how common each one is.

It’s really useful to know what kinds of fish you can find because then you can tune all your strategies towards catching one or two particular species. And that will result in more catches and more fun.

If you are aiming to catch one type of fish then I have articles to help. Check out this article on using the right pound test line and it’ll break and link to other articles to help catch specific species of fish.

How to Find Good Spots at The Lake

Once you’re at the lake, you’ll find that locating fish can be one of the most challenging aspects of ice fishing. In a big lake, they could be in all sorts of places, so where should you look?

If all you have is your eyesight in this game, you’ll find that, to an extent, you won’t be able to do much more than guess at where fish are. That’s not a hopeless strategy, of course.

With eyesight alone, there are still some things you can know. Some fish prefer shallow waters, so you know where to go to find them. Some fish are bottom-feeders, so you know to put your line at the bottom of the lake.

If you want to find really productive spots outside of simple experimentation, though, you need to know what’s going on underwater. How can you know the shape of land you can’t see?

Well, there are electronics. Fish finders with transducers can be a gigantic aid in ice fishing. They’ll give you a very detailed picture of what’s going on underwater.

Learning to read a contour map can save you even more time. In fact, it’s more effective than simply digging a hole randomly, checking your electronics to see how much activity is happening nearby and repeating the process if it’s not a good spot.

Plus, you don’t even need a fancy electronic device to find good fishing spots if you make good use of a map. Such devices still greatly help, of course, and some of them have maps for thousands of lakes included. Still, if you don’t want to buy one, you should be able to find a contour map online for just about any lake.

So, how does a map help you find fish? There are certain structures underwater that tend to result in large numbers of fish congregating together. If you can spot those on a map, you’ll be able to head there and increase your chances of success.

Big changes in underwater elevation often become the preferred hunting grounds of many fish. They like to corner prey against cliffs and confuse them.

Such dramatic structures can cause highly congested areas, too. Fish don’t like swimming above the obstacles that appear in front of them. Instead, they swim around. When two points (a point is an underwater area higher in elevation than the surrounding area) are near each other, a large fish traffic jam can occur, which is great for hungry big fish, and even better for you.

These are things you can learn to spot quickly on a map. Using a GPS in conjunction with a contour map will make getting where you want to be a cinch.

As I said earlier, there are some fish finders that basically do everything: they have sonar, of course, but also maps and GPS. You can even mark locations on the maps. That way, you can easily return to a favorite location the next time you head out to the lake.

How to Cut a Hole

You probably realized this long ago, but ice fishing is not the process of pickaxing ice and finding fish frozen solid there. Fish are smart enough to not get frozen. They’re having a good time swimming below the thick ice layer you see on top.

The way to get to these fish, of course, is to drill a hole.

This isn’t hard at all if you have the right tools. For a quick how-to guide check out my post focusing on cutting a hole in the ice for ice fishing.

As I stated earlier, the best tool is an ice auger. There are manual augers and power augers.

Using a manual auger is simple: put the drill on the ice, hold one hand on top, and use your other hand to turn the handle, which will rotate the drill. With a bit of pressure, you will begin drilling through the ice. You’ll know when to stop. It will be when water appears.

A power auger removes the “manual labor” aspect of this. The only difficult part becomes dealing with the engine. If you have experience with small engines such as what lawnmowers have, using a gas-powered auger will probably immediately make sense to you.

Engines vary. Generally, there is a choke you must put in place and a cord you pull to start the engine. Some engines make it easier. Whatever you’re using, read the instructions to know the proper methods.

Once the engine is started, to drill a hole, you place the drill on the ice, press on the throttle and gently push downward. Some of these augers are very strong, so you won’t have to put much effort into it at all, and your hole will be cut in seconds.

So, yes, using a power auger is easy. But is it worth the extra cost plus all the maintenance you’ll need to do to keep the engine in good condition? Is it worth having to carry around such a weighty device? That’s your decision.

Consider how many holes you will drill. Some anglers like to drill a dozen or more and really stay mobile. This is a useful tactic for pursuing certain fish who swim in schools in open water. Those people will benefit from a power auger.

You’d really get a workout drilling that many holes manually. You might end up too tired to move around much after all.

If it is your plan to drill a large number of holes in a single day, then certainly you should get a power auger.

There are alternate strategies to cut a hole in the ice if you can’t buy one. Do you have an ice chisel? You know, a big metal rod with a sharp bottom? You could smash your way through the ice with one of those. It’s not easy or efficient, though, especially with rather thick ice.

Or, you could use a chainsaw, though I certainly never have done this. This is probably the best way if you’re going to create a huge hole that isn’t even circular (in fact the only real reason for a circular hole is because that’s how drills are shaped and drills are easy to use). You could set up a dark shelter, make a giant hole and then spearfish!

But that’s not exactly the type of thing you’d do as a beginner. Regardless, be careful if you do this.

With all that said, I still recommend the reliable old manual auger. It’s the easiest method.

How to Get Fish to Bite

Finding fish in ice fishing is a big challenge, but even if you’ve found them, they won’t bite if you don’t give them a reason to. Presentation is another big challenge in catching fish.

What makes it tricky is that different fish have different tastes. You could just throw some random bait on your line and see who bites, but if you want to be more effective, you should design your presentation to target a specific fish.

We have tips for a lot of fish species right here on our blog. Just follow these links:

These articles will give you advice on both finding and luring in each species of fish.

Now to speak generally, how do you get fish to bite?

First, you want to lure them in close enough so that they can see your jig and/or bait. It’s ideal to drop your line right where the fish are, but you won’t always manage to do this. So, having a few lures onhand is really useful.

There are lures that attract fish by being super shiny. There are other lures that use sound to get their attention. It’s a good idea to experiment and see which ones get results.

Once you get fish to come close to your line, an even greater test begins. Will your presentation entice fish to bite? Or will they pass it up?

Jigging, the technique of maneuvering a little object with your rod called a jig to paint the illusion of a living creature that fish will want to bite, is a highly effective strategy in most cases.

One key to jigging well is to be rhythmic. Sometimes, people jig erratically. This can really throw off fish. You don’t want to make them work too hard to catch your jig, so make your movements predictable.

Also, it’s generally not wise to be incredibly intense in your jigging. You might scare a lot of fish away because they’ll think your jig is something very aggressive. It’s good to be somewhat subtle. However, some aggressive jigging might be a good luring tactic if no fish are nearby. You may get the attention of faraway fish. But be calmer after that.

There are many varieties of jigs available. There’s no one answer to which one is the very best. The size is important, of course. Jigs also move in different patterns. They may look like fish or insects. There are many to choose from.

Ultimately, you’ll want to decide on a specific fish species to target and then choose a jig based on what that fish likes.

If you’re going to use bait, there’s live bait and artificial, and both can be effective. Live bait is restricted in many places, so make sure you research your local fishing laws before going.

The big advantage of live bait is the strong smell it gives off, but plenty of fish don’t rely all that much on smell anyway.

When choosing bait, make sure it fits with the size of fish you are targeting. Small fish don’t usually like eating small fish. Bigger fish absolutely do.

Bring a few different options for bait with you because if the fish aren’t biting, sometimes changing up your bait will make a difference.

One other aspect of presentation is your fishing line. You want it to be as thin as possible. Not every species of fish will care if they notice a weird line in front of them, but many will. You want your line to be invisible for those fish.

The line still needs to be strong enough to support their weight, at the same time. Knowing which pound test line to get as a beginner can be daunting. But refer to the link back in the “Equipment” and “Rods” sections for help with this.

Additionally, I recommend using a leader, which is just an extra bit of line you attach to your main line. Leaders are harder to see than regular line, and they also prevent your line from breaking when sharp-toothed fish bite.

You certainly won’t be bringing up any fish if your line breaks. And many won’t bite if they see a line. So leaders are very important.

Sometimes it’s hard to know why fish aren’t biting. Changing different aspects of your presentation is wise, in those cases, to find the source of the problem.

It’s also extremely helpful to see what the fish are thinking via an underwater camera. Maybe the fish don’t like your jigging, for example. Or maybe the fish aren’t even coming close to your line and you need to move to a different spot. Technology really comes in handy for solving problems.

Conclusion

This guide should have everything you need to know to get started ice fishing. Of course, there are tons of other articles on our site with more information to help you get better and catch more fish.

Always be open to learning and improving, and once you’re an experienced fisher, be willing to help others, too. Before you reach that point, though, hopefully, you’ll first see just how fun ice fishing can be.

Samuel Davis

I grew up in Colorful Colorado and spent a lot of time outdoors there. I love camping and hiking. I also love to read and write.

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