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How To Ice Fish: Ultimate Guide To Ice Fishing Basics For Beginners

How many times have you caught monster bass in the middle of the spawning season? How many bluegill have you had jump onto your line as if they couldn’t care less about their own survival? My guess is quite a few if you’ve been fishing for a while.

Do you want something to make fishing a little more challenging again? If so, I have the perfect activity for you. Ice fishing is a completely different ball game when you compare it to fishing under normal conditions.

It’s actually so hard that I spent my first trip cursing. However, that first time I successfully bagged a fish meant at least twenty times more than nearly any fish I’ve caught under normal circumstances. The added challenge just made it more of an accomplishment.

Today, I’m going to go over everything you need to know about fishing on a thick sheet of ice. I’ll go over the safety protocols, necessary gear, and just about everything else a beginner might need to know. Let’s get started.

ice fishing hole and perch lying on the ice

Why You Should Try Ice Fishing

When you think about fishing, you probably think of summer days on the lake with gentle breezes and fast-paced action. Angry bass, persistent bluegill, and hefty catfish can generally be expected to bite fast and hard.

That is the exact opposite of ice fishing. Ice fishing is a slow and methodical form of fishing, and it can be a little more dangerous than your average fishing trip. In essence, it’s the perfect way for you to test your skills.

You might be able to frequently drag in 10-pound bass when they’re active and lively, but can you do it when they’re lethargic and unlikely to be hungry? Can you entice those pesky bluegills to bite when they’re no longer running at your bait like moths to a flame?

Those are questions that I think every avid fisherman yearns to answer for themselves, and that’s why I recommend trying to ice fish at least once in your lifetime.

Ice Fishing Safety

ice fishing safety tips

Before my little motivational speech sends you running off to buy some new ice fishing gear, we need to cover the most important part of ice fishing. You have to accept that there are some inherent risks when ice fishing, and you have to put your safety first.

There are three risk factors that you need to consider the most:

  • Ice thickness
  • Extreme cold
  • Fall hazards

Ice Thickness

It’s common sense that you don’t want to go walking around on thin ice. That ice is the only thing separating you from dozens of feet of ice-cold water, and the water beneath it can kill you within just a couple of minutes.

To avoid any nasty mishaps from happening, you need to ensure that the ice is thick enough to support you while you move around on top of it. If you’re on foot, you can ice fish on four inches of ice. That thickness requirement increases dramatically if you bring a vehicle. For example, you need fifteen inches of ice to take a normal pickup truck onto the ice safely.

You can avoid thin ice pretty easily by simply calling someone ahead of time to check. Good places to call are local bait shops, and local wildlife authorities will have that information, too.

Once you know the average thickness of the ice, you have to watch where you go on the ice. Never try to fish on top of moving water. The ice is a lot weaker there, and it’s likely to break.

Snow is also a bad sign. Contrary to what you might believe, the snow will actually warm the ice up. Ice with snow on top of it is almost certainly thinner and weaker than clear and pristine ice.

Extreme Cold

How do you get ice? You make water extremely cold. When you see ice in nature, you can expect it to be pretty cold outside. Even if you don’t fall in the water, you can be killed by the extremely cold weather conditions necessary for ice fishing.

This isn’t a difficult one to avoid, though. A good jacket with plenty of insulation and some appropriate clothing options will keep you perfectly safe.

Make sure you bring long undergarments, thick pants, and a few layers worth of insulating shirts. You don’t need to look like the Michelin Man, but you do need to be pretty warm.

Whatever you do, make sure you bring a spare set of appropriate clothing. Falling in the water is horrible enough on its own, but falling in it without a dry set of clothing nearby can be even worse.

Fall Hazards

If you’ve ever been ice skating, you know how slippery ice can be. It’s not that difficult to walk on it if you’re cautious, but you should never overestimate your sense of balance. Falling is a very common occurrence on the ice.

A good pair of non-slip boots will help you out quite a bit, and I highly recommend them as part of your ice fishing kit.

A pair of ice spikes are also a necessity. You shouldn’t fall into the ice if you’re cautious, but it’s always a possibility. An ice spike is simply a spike with some rope tied around it.

If you fall in, you’ll be able to use the ice spike to pull yourself out.

Finally, all of the major risks can be avoided or lessened by bringing some pals along. It’s always good to have someone you trust watching your back. However, try not to hang around too closely to one another. Your combined weight can break the ice if you focus it all into a small area.

Basic Ice Fishing Gear

ice fishing gear

Ice fishing gear isn’t that difficult to figure out if you’ve fished before. In fact, it’s pretty simple.

Here’s a few of the basic things you’ll need to get started ice fishing:

  • Ice auger
  • Ice Fishing rod
  • Carrying case
  • Tip-ups
  • Ice fishing suit (Optional for beginners)

Ice Fishing Auger

ice fishing auger

The auger is how you actually make holes in the ice. You can buy them in manual or powered variants. The powered variants are pretty expensive, but you won’t have to exert as much energy drilling holes.

You can buy them in six-inch and eight-inch variants, too. The six-inch ones are for perch, and the bigger ones are for walleye, pike, and other big fish.

Ice Fishing rod

Your ice fishing rod is going to be a lot like your favorite bass rod, but it’s designed to let you drop your line straight into the holes you cut. Try to buy a decent one that won’t become brittle in the cold. Like other forms of fishing, you’ll want an ultra-light rod for small fish, and you’ll want a medium for bigger fish. It’s not necessary to whip out broomstick-sized rods while ice fishing.

Carrying Case

A travel case for your rod is also a necessity. An ice fishing case is designed to hold your rod, lures, and terminal tackle. It’s a lot easier to move around with than if you were to bring along a tackle box or two, your rod, and all your of other gear separately.

It doesn’t really matter what case you buy. Just make sure it’s comfortable in your hand, and it can carry everything you plan on taking.

Ice Fishing Tip-Ups

Tip-ups are kind of like automatic fishing poles. You set them up over your hole, and they trigger when a fish bites. You typically only need these for larger fish.

Ice Fishing Suit

Finally, if you want to get fancy with it, you can buy an ice fishing suit. An ice fishing suit is specifically designed to handle the cold weather conditions and water hazards involved in ice fishing, and it’s easier to move around in than your usual winter outfit.

However, an ice suit can be pretty expensive. If you’re just going out to test yourself, or if you’re on a tight budget, you can get away with something similar to what I described in the safety section.

Basic Ice Fishing Gear Setup For Beginners

I’ll separate this into two categories. One is for fishing for perch and bluegill, and the other is for targeting fish like walleye, sturgeon, bass, and other large fish.

Both kits require the same safety gear and clothing options. So, I won’t talk about those anymore. Just know that you’ll need ice spikes, good clothes, and any other safety gear regardless of what you’re doing.

The Little Guys: Perch And Bluegill

ice fishing for perch

If you’re targeting the smaller fish like perch or bluegill while ice fishing, your kit will be a little easier to get used to.

Here are the basics:

  • Ultra-light ice fishing rod
  • Carrying case
  • 6-inch ice auger
  • Small ice fishing jigs

Ultra-Light Ice Fishing Rod

Any ultra-light ice fishing rod will do. However, it’s easier if you get the most sensitive rod available. Perch and bluegill have pretty light bites under the best conditions, and their bites can be nearly impossible to detect in the cold with a stiff rod.

Match your rod with some high-quality line that’s rated at eight-pound test or less. You don’t need a really strong line to pull these guys out, and you’ll be able to reach deeper depths if you use smaller lines. You can fit more on your reel.

Carrying Case

A carrying case that fits your rod is a must-have item. Make sure yours has enough room for a decent selection of jigs, too.

6 Inch Ice Auger

A six-inch auger is best for perch. It’ll create a big enough hole for you to pull your catch out, but it minimizes the amount of ice you’re removing from the lake. You can use an eight-inch auger if you have one, but the extra space it creates isn’t necessary.

Small Ice Fishing Jigs

Bring along some small jigs. I personally prefer to use glowing jigs because of how dark the water tends to be, but chartreuse crappie tubes and small jigging spoons will also work.

I don’t recommend using live bait for bluegill and other small fish when you’re ice fishing. The bait won’t move around as much, and you won’t be able to force the fish to bite.

How To Catch Perch And Bluegill Ice Fishing

It’s pretty simple when you’re dealing with little fish. Drill your hole, drop a small jig in, and maneuver it the same way you would if you were jigging for crappie on a warm day. Vary your movements a bit if you don’t get a bite after a while.

When you feel the slight vibrations of a fish biting, lift your rod straight up. There’s no need to flail around sideways like you do in the summer. Then, just reel it straight up through the hole.

The Big Boys: Walleye, Lake Trout, Sturgeon, Bass

ice fishing pike

Targeting bigger fish will require a little more effort.

Here’s the gear you’ll need:

  • Medium ice fishing rod
  • Carrying case
  • 8-inch ice auger
  • Tip-ups
  • Bait or large jigs and spoons

Medium Ice Fishing Rod

You want to increase the thickness of your rod’s taper when you target bigger fish. Even though it’s cold out, the fish can still fight pretty hard, and you have to remember that you’ll be lifting their entire body weight straight out of the water sometimes.

You can afford to lose a little line capacity by using a stronger line in this scenario. I recommend using something that can hold at least 12 pounds. Even if you’re catching little six-pound fish, you don’t get the advantage of working them into the shallows to grab their lip when you’re ice fishing. All of their weight is going to be on your line the second you lift them out.

Carrying Case

The case for this setup is no different than the last one. Get one that holds your rod and a few nice lures.

8 Inch Ice Auger

You need an eight-inch auger for this type of fishing. When you’re targeting bigger fish, it’s fairly likely that you’ll hook into something that won’t slide out of a six-inch hole.

Ice Fishing Tip-Ups

Tip-ups are fairly practical for bigger fish, too. The fish might bite more softly, but they’ll still trigger a tip-up. If you bring a couple along, you can fish in multiple holes at once.

Bait or Larger Jigs and Spoons

Finally, you have more options for bait when you work with larger fish. Live bait like minnows and perch will move around in the water, and that’ll attract the bigger guys.

If you use lures, you’ll do the same thing you should do with perch. You just have to increase the lure size. Large jigs that glow or reflect light are helpful, and larger spoons have proven to be pretty effective.

How To Catch Walleye and Other Large Fish Ice Fishing

If you’re using tip-ups, you really just have to set them up and wait. There isn’t a complex strategy I can offer you for them.

Jigging is done the same way on the ice as it is in summer. Just vary your bounces, and hope that a fish finds it attractive. You can cycle through different lures, too.

The only real difference is that you want to avoid lifting the fish as much as possible. The bigger fish can weigh quite a bit more, and that’s a lot of stress on your rod and line if you lift them.

Try to get the head of the fish to poke through the hole, and then you can grab it with your hand to pull it out. You can do that for perch too, but it’s not really necessary.

What Kind of Fish Can You Catch Ice Fishing?

When it comes to ice fishing, you can fish for most of the same species that you’d target under normal conditions. It’s can be just a little more difficult to hook them is all. However, some species tend to be a bit easier than others.

I’d stay away from bass due to how lethargic they get, but pike, sturgeon, walleye, bluegill, green sunfish, and trout are pretty easy to catch when the lake is covered in ice.

Overall, you can try for just about anything. The fish don’t die or go to sleep during the winter, and they do still have to eat. Some species just eat a lot less during the winter, and that is what leads so many people to believe that only specific fish can be caught in the ice.

Ice Fishing Tips

ice fishing tips

So far, I’ve tried to keep everything very basic. However, if you’re reading this, you have likely fished quite a bit in the past, and I guarantee you’ll move beyond the basics within an hour or so of practice.

So, I’ve included the following tips to help round out your experience when you take your first ice fishing trip. These aren’t things you should immediately focus on, but they’ll help you have a more enjoyable time.

Be Patient

You know how you tend to get a bit tired and weak when you’re cold? Do you typically end up focusing on how cold you are instead of everything else? Fish experience that, too.

So, don’t be surprised if you don’t get bites at the same pace as you do at your favorite summertime fishing hole. In fact, it took me most of the day to catch my first bluegill while ice fishing.

Patience is a virtue, and it’ll get you a lot further in your ice fishing adventures.

Your Rod Is Not A Crane

It may be tempting to get lazy with how you pull the fish out of the water, but I suggest that you refrain from treating your rod like it’s a crane.

Even light fish are stressful on a rod when you use it to dead-lift them. When you throw in the fact that the fish is stressed and flopping around, it’s possible that it’ll break your rod.

To make it worse, ice rods aren’t found at places like Walmart in most places. You’re not going to have the luxury of learning on a $15 combo. If you get lazy and break it, you’re looking at a minimum of $40 being tossed down the drain, and that’s only if you buy a cheap option.

Bend down, grab the fish in the way that is appropriate for its species, and pull it out with your hand once it pokes through the hole.

Use Whatever Alarm You Can

Fish bite very lightly when the lake is frozen over. A simple bell alarm or one of the screechy alarms you tie your line to will help you notice those light bites, and you’ll catch a lot more fish.

As an added bonus, you don’t have to worry about casting an expensive fish alarm into the lake like you would when normally fishing. You don’t cast when ice fishing. So, feel free to use your good stuff with reckless abandon.

Invest In A Proper Ice Fishing Suit

If you’re traveling halfway across the country to go ice fishing a single time, you probably don’t want to invest in a proper ice fishing suit. It’s kind of like buying a full outfit for fly fishing. Why would you spend tons of money on high-end clothes that you’ll only use once, and normal clothes will suffice?

However, if you plan on getting into it seriously, a proper outfit is worth the investment. You’ll stay warmer, and you’ll be safer if you do fall in the water. Ice fishing suits have a lot in common with diving suits when it comes to water resistance and heat insulation.

Buy A Good Ice Fishing Rod

This tip is a lot like the last one. If you’re just trying it out for a change of pace, you don’t need to buy the best ice rod available. However, there are a lot of drawbacks to using a cheap ice rod.

Your rod can get brittle due to the cold, a fish might be able snap a cheaper rod blank when you lift it, and I can guarantee that a cheap rod won’t be nearly as sensitive as a proper ice fishing rod.

If you want to seriously get into ice fishing, you should buy a proper rod. I would personally suggest something in the $80-$120 price range for your first proper ice rod. That’ll give you access to all of the bells and whistles that will make your ice fishing experience a good one, and it’s reasonable enough to keep your wife from killing you for buying a fancy rod as a beginner. As you get better, you can upgrade to more expensive models.

Final Thoughts

Ice fishing isn’t something that the average fisherman gets to do on a regular basis, but it is something that I highly recommend trying. It’s the perfect way to add a bit of a challenge to fishing, and a successful ice fishing trip will leave you with a sense of accomplishment you can’t quite get from fishing local farm ponds in the summertime.

ice fishing hole with perch

Written by Don

When I'm not bass fishing or looking for steelhead in my home state of Oregon I can be found working on house projects dreaming of my next fishing adventure.

I started this website to share just some of the things I've learned along my fishing journey, and the many things I'm still learning. Enjoy!


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