The Complete Illustrated Guide to Ice Fishing

Winter is approaching, and with it, opportunities for fun new activities arise. One of the most under-appreciated of these activities is ice fishing. Enjoyable and inexpensive, ice fishing is the perfect choice for a newbie just getting into the hook and reel. It’s also one of the favorite types of fishing for avid anglers worldwide. Bundle up and get ready to learn all the essentials of ice fishing. This is going to be fun.

Ice Fishing Catch

Safety First

First, let’s get the basics out of the way. For all you rookies out there, ice fishing is the practice of catching fish through an opening in the ice on a frozen body of water. You can catch fish in a variety of ways, all of which we’ll cover in a little bit. Most commonly practiced on frozen lakes, ice fishing does require a few safety precautions.

You might feel a little intimidated by standing on top of an icy platform covering a world of freezing cold water. As you should – hypothermia is not something you’d want to mess with. This is why it’s essential to check if the ice you’re standing on is thick enough. You can do this by piercing the ice with a spud bar or an auger. A good rule of thumb to follow is:

  • at least 4 inches for people
  • at least 6 inches for sleds (snow machines, snowmobiles)
  • at least 7–12 inches  for light cars
  • at least 14–16 inches for full-sized trucks

Always be on the lookout for rotten ice. You can spot rotten ice by its discoloration, as well as the cracks, holes, and water flows it has. As the old saying goes “Thick and blue, tried and true. Thin and crispy, way too risky.” A few useful things to have are:

  • metal cleats for traction on the ice
  • a whistle in case you get into trouble
  • an ice spud to check the ice ahead (a solid knock is what you’re after)
  • a life vest

There are a host of other things you could bring, but you should consider these essential. If you’re planning a longer ice fishing trip, think about using an ice shanty (a small shelter to keep you out of the wind and snow). If you’re on one of the bigger lakes, you can rent a shanty from a sportfishing outlet or a bait and tackle store. Some people even make their own.

Ice Fishing Shanty

Finding a Good Ice Fishing Spot

As with regular fishing, the first thing you need to do is find the fish. During early ice, fish like to feed exactly where they left off just before the water froze. Experienced anglers know this, so they mark the spots on their fishfinders before the lake freezes and just go back to them once the ice forms.

During mid-winter, fish like to move into deeper waters where it’s not as cold.

If you’re on a lake for the first time, try fishing the basin or the steepest shoreline you can access. Bigger fish like to move along the steep shorelines looking for food, especially during early morning and near sundown. For newbies, targeting schools of fish near the bottom is your safest bet. You can also check if the local bait and tackle shop has some useful pointers.

Ok, so you’ve found the perfect spot, great! Now, let’s get drillin’. You’ll need a manual or gas powered auger to drill your fishing hole. Aim for an 8-10” width (wide enough for fish, but too narrow for people). Once you’ve drilled your hole, use an ice skimmer to remove any remaining chunks of ice. If you’re moving on to another spot to drill a hole, be sure to mark the previous one to avoid any potential accidents.

Ice Fishing Catch

How to Ice Fish

Cold temperatures slow down fish metabolism. Fish will try to conserve energy during winter time, and this will make them slower to react. You can take advantage of this in a few different ways. Let’s dive in and see what each ice fishing technique has to offer.

1. Jigging with a Spring Bobber

Jigging is the most common, and probably the most fun way to do ice fishing. Your rod will be a short light stick (around 28 inches), nothing as fancy as the casting rods used for saltwater fishing. You can use small minnows, maggots, or wax worms for live bait. Alternatively, you can use artificial lures and do just fine.

You’ll find your spring bobber to be very helpful when jigging. It’s a lot more sensitive than a regular bobber, so you’ll be able to notice even the slightest pull. Not only that, but the spring bobber also dampens your jig movement and mimics bait movement more naturally.

2. Tip-ups

Ice fishing tip-ups are devices used to suspend bait at a set depth and to detect a fish bite without the need to touch the contraption. When a fish takes the bait, it triggers a small flag, indicating a strike. This is when you jump in to grab the line and start pulling hand over hand. The good thing about ice fishing with tip-ups is that you’ll be able to cover more ground without needing to babysit your offering at all times. The downside is that it kind of does most of the work for you.

3. Spearfishing

This one is not for everyone. Spearfishing on frozen lakes requires a lot of skill and concentration. You’ll obviously be fishing a lot closer to the surface with this technique, so you’re going to need a lot of chum to lure the fish to come up. You’ll be using a multi-pronged spear to maximize your chances of a hit. One thing you should be aware of is that many states have restrictions on what exactly you can spearfish for, so keep an eye out.

4. Clubbing

Ok, this one is a little hardcore. Clubbing is a method you  rarely see nowadays. You stand on clear ice in shallow water, peering down for fish. Once you notice a fish you’d like to catch, you slam your club with full force, stunning the fish in its place. As soon as you do this, you should get to drilling a hole in the ice. Captain Caveman, anyone?

By now you’ve seen that ice fishing is a lot different than your regular casting. This is why some of the equipment you’ll need will differ as well. Here are your ice fishing gear essentials:

  • Jigging rod
  • Spring Bobber
  • Leader
  • Hooks
  • Lures
  • Jigs
  • Tip-up

Ice Fishing Setup

Believe it or not, winter fishing yields more than 30% of the annual catch in some locations. Let’s take a look at which destinations offer the best ice fishing action on the planet.

Best Ice Fishing Locations in the US:

  1. Lake of the Woods, MN – With species ranging from Lake Trout, Walleye, Perch, Crappie, and Bass, it’s no wonder that Lake of the Woods becomes a huge shanty town each winter. This place offers a social experience as well as a fishing adventure.
  2. Lake Winnebago, WI – The largest inland lake in Wisconsin, Lake Winnebago offers a wealthy Walleye population. It also offers great Perch, White Bass, and Sturgeon fishing.
  3. Devil’s Lake, ND – If you’re looking for Perch, there’s no better place than Devil’s Lake. Keep in mind that North Dakota can get seriously cold, so make sure to bring layers upon layers of warm clothes.
  4. Lake Champlain, VT – Ice fishing is just as good as summer fishing on Lake Champlain. The lake has a number of bait and tackle shops where you can learn what the best spots are. There are plenty of shanty rental options as well. The ice fishing season is open from January 15 to March 15.
  5. Fort Peck Lake, MT – This is the fifth largest man-made lake in the US. With that kind of size, a variety of fish is pretty much guaranteed. You can target Lake Trout, Northern Pike, Walleye, or Sauger all from the very same hole. Not bad at all.
  6. Eleven Mile Reservoir, CO – One of the top Lake Trout fishing locations in the nation, Eleven Mile Reservoir offers great ice fishing from December through March. The average Trout is around 17 inches, but 20” keepers are not uncommon.

Best International Ice Fishing Locations:

  1. Lake Simcoe, Ontario, Canada Lake Simcoe is one of the most popular ice fishing locations in North America. It is also home to the Canadian Ice Fishing Championship. No brainer.
  2. Tasiilaq, Greenland – Probably the most secluded location on this list. If you’re feeling adventurous, hop on a dogsled to wrestle monster Halibut topping 120 pounds! Oh, there’s also the Greenland Shark, one of the oldest living creatures in existence.
  3. Kathleen Lake, Yukon Territory, Canada – Located in the beautiful Kluane National Park, Kathleen Lake is teeming with Lake Trout. You’re probably going to need a snowmobile for this one, but it’s well worth the effort.
  4. Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia – When people say Lake Baikal, they probably don’t realize that it’s more like a sea than a lake. Spreading a whopping 12,000 square miles (for reference, New York City is 783.8 square miles ), the lake offers a wide variety of fish species you could go after. Twenty seven of the lake’s 52 species are found here and nowhere else in the world.
  5. The Tampere region, Finland – Calling Finland the land of a thousand lakes is a huge understatement. The Tampere region alone has over 2,500 lakes! Take your kids to see Santa himself and fish a different lake every day.

We’ve summed all of this up for you in a picture so you can easily prepare for your next ice fishing trip.

Ice Fishing Guide

So, what do you think, is ice fishing something you’d like to try? Do you know of any other locations that are great for ice fishing? Let us know in the comments below.

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