There’s nothing better than being out on a barren white expanse of frozen water that could easily kill you in a second to get those introspective thoughts flowing. It’s also an excuse to get together with your buddies, leave your spouses and significant others on the shore, and hang out in a small ice hut with hot toddies in hand and shoot the shit while waiting for a bite. And the good thing is, most every fish you catch in the summer, spring, or fall can also be caught in winter (and some are even easier to catch due to their cold-slowed locomotion), including bluegill, sunfish, perch, crappie, trout, pike, walleye, and sturgeon.
It’s fun as hell, but also dangerous and (obviously) cold. For the novice ice fisherman, there’s a pretty steep learning curve, especially when it comes to fishing methods and gear.
To help you get out on the lake and get a crappie in the hand, we’ve rounded-up all the information you need stay safe and warm, along with all the gear you need to stalk, snag, and haul in your catch once you’ve make the big decision to say good bye to winter’s snowed-in sadness and hello to ice fishing.
Ice Fishing Safety
The most important piece of safety advice we can provide is also the simplest: never ice fish alone. To ice fish alone is to throw caution, and possibly your life, to the wind. Always fish with a partner, whether that be your brother, best friend, or son —an extra pair of hands can be a literal life saver if an accident should occur. Hypothermia can set in within minutes of falling into 32 degree water and can very quickly kill. Avoid death by ice and be sure to bring a friend.
Additionally, you should always tell someone where you’re going, what you’re doing, and when you expect to return. That way, if the ice you’re fishing on breaks apart and floats away with you on it, someone will be expecting your return. If you fail to do so, they can alert the authorities. And don’t forget to bring along appropriate emergency items such as a life jacket and a cell phone, and ice rescue picks/claws.
A Few Words about Ice
The recommended minimum thickness for a human to walk on ice is four inches. Some anglers take their lives into their own hands and will make their way on only two inches. Do not do this. You’re more likely to end up in the drink than with a catch, so please, again, just don’t. If you’re planning on taking a snowmobile or ATV out onto the ice, at least six inches of ice are required, and, if you live the life of luxury and own your own ice shanty, you’ll need a whopping 7-12 inches. For full-sized trucks, don’t even think about driving on ice unless it’s well over a foot in thickness. Anything less and your F150 will be sleeping with the fishes rather than hauling them. And be aware that ice thickness and strength can vary within the same body of water. One area may be safe, while only a foot away danger lurks below.
And always be on the look out for “rotten ice.” Rotten ice can most easily be identified by discoloration, but cracks, breaks, holes, water flows, and pressure ridges are other good indications of poor ice quality and danger. Remember this old adage when ice fishing: “Thick and blue, tried and true. Thin and crispy, way too risky.”
Another caution about ice: it flows. Ice (especially on large lakes like Michigan or Superior) can easily be moved and broken apart by wind. In some instances, the right conditions occur where a large portion of ice will break away from the shore and flow out into open water, leaving fisherman, their gear, and even vehicles drifting miles off shore, resulting in full-scale rescue operations that can include helicopters, boats, and hovercraft. So, don’t be the dude that requires rescuing.
How to Ice Fish
First, check with your state’s Department of Natural Resources for more information on ice fishing, rules, regulations, and licensing requirements. Never go fishing without a license — they exist for a reason, namely, preventing overfishing and the loss of lake stock. Then…
Make a Hole
Again, before making a hole to fish out of, make certain the ice is safe to be on and you have all the proper safety equipment.
To make a hole in the ice, you’ll need an ice saw, an ice chisel, or an auger (either hand or gasoline powered). Use any of these tools to dig down through the ice until you reach open water. The hole should be no larger than 10 inches (so people don’t accidentally fall in) and no smaller than eight inches (it has to be big enough to actually pull a fish through). Then, using an ice skimmer, remove any remaining chunks of ice in the hole — you want the whole free from ice when fishing so that it doesn’t accidentally set off your tip up or fool you into thinking you have a bite. If the temperature is below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it is almost impossible to keep the hole open, so be sure to choose a day when the temperature is at or below freezing, but above zero. And remember, when abandoning your hole, make sure to mark it with a tree branch, ice pile, or some other clearly visible object to alert others to its presence. Safety, safety, safety!
Finally, select your fishing method. There are three conventional ways to ice fish and one old-school aggro method involving a club.
Light Rod Fishing
You can use your standard summer rod or purchase a specially designed ice fishing rod. Either one works well, with the ice fishing rod usually being set apart by an in-line reel and a spring bobber attached to the end of the pole. A spring bobber is the best way to signal even the slightest of bites or nibbles since the fishing line is literally run through a spring that will very clearly move when in contact with a fish. A water bobber often starts to form an ice rhime around it when left in a fishing hole, making it more difficult to perceive any up-and-down motion that would indicate a bite.
Light rod fishing requires the use of a jigging lure and bait, either live or artificial. The best live bait to use are wax worms or maggots. If using live bait, be sure to keep the bait warm and, you know, live, until you’re ready to put them on the hook. For the actual fishing, start with a long line cast to the bottom and wait. If nothing is biting, move further up the water column and try again. While waiting, gently move the line and up and down, slowly, yet steadily. If all else fails, go high-tech and use a fish finder (like the one below) or even an underwater camera.
Tip Up Fishing
A tip up is a rather ingenious device that allows you to fish multiple holes without being forced to babysit each one. Tip ups are rigs that straddle the hole and are used to suspend a baited hook or jig at a certain depth within the body of water below. Usually a fish finder is employed to figure out at what depth most of the fish are and using that information, you can set the tip up for that specific depth and then walk away. You do want to keep an eye on the rig though, since a tug on the line or a bite will deploy a flag that “tips up,” letting you know you’ve hooked something.
This is pretty self-explanatory and also the least popular of the three conventional ice fishing methods. This method involves using a multi-pronged spear to stab fish in an ice fishing hole. This generally requires extreme patience and concentration, or a bucket full of chum. Blended up minnows or other bait fish can be added into the hole to entice any passing fish to pop their heads up, thus exposing themselves to the spear. It’s best to have a string or line attached to your spear so that a missed throw won’t result in the loss of a perfectly good spear. Many states have restrictions what types of fish can be speared, so check with your DNR for more information.
Clubbing is an old method seldom used today. The process is fairly simple: An angler walks on clear ice in shallow water and when he sees a large fish under the ice he’ll take a large club and slam it directly onto the ice above the fish. This temporarily stuns the fish, allowing the fisherman to quickly cut a hole and remove it. This is the most primitive form of ice fishing and also, probably the most hardcore. The one benefit to clubbing over the other methods is that it involves very little gear and doesn’t require you to head any farther out on the pond than the shallows near shore, providing a small safety blanket not found with the other fishing styles.
Fish don’t expend as much energy during the winter months–meaning they are both slow to move and slow to react. If you move your bait or jig too fast, a fish might release the bait/hook in order to save energy–the best method is slow and steady. Eventually you’ll win the race.
Dressing for ice fishing takes a little common sense and outwear you’ve probably already got in your closet. Start with a a moisture-wicking baselayer along with long underwear. On top of that, put on a flannel or sweatshirt, over that a bib overall or snowsuit, followed up with a winter waterproof jacket, thick wool socks, and waterproof pac boots with good traction, a hat, or ski mask, and gloves.
Get the Gear
LL Bean Maine Pac Boot – $169
Patagonia R3 Fleece Hoodie – $200
Frabill Waterproof Bib – $94-$190
Fish’s Ice Saw – $140
Jiffy Deluxe Mille Lacs Ice Chisel – $102
Strike Master Ice Auger – $69-$170
Frabill Ice Skimming Spoon with Chipper – $13
HT ICM-200 Iceman Tip-Up – $17
Frabill Sit-N-Fish Bucket – $23
Garmin Fish Finder – $104
Eskimo Fatfish Insulated Ice Shelter – $289