Ice Fishing: The Complete Illustrated Guide
Nov 23, 2020 | 8 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 8 minutes

Enjoyable and inexpensive, ice fishing is the perfect choice for anglers getting into the line and reel. It also happens to be one of the most addictive ways to catch fish, making it a favorite among seasoned fishers, too.

Ice Fishing Catch

If you’re planning on catching a lunker this winter, you’re in the right spot because today, we’re going to cover all the ice fishing essentials you should know about.

How to stay safe on the ice? Where do I find a good spot, and what are the best ice fishing techniques? In this guide, we’ll cover all these questions and more. Read on!

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.

Before we do, let’s cover a few safety precautions. Ice fishing does involve standing on frozen water, after all.

A dedicated ice fisherman drilling a hole at sunrise

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:

  • a minimum of 4 inches for people
  • at least 6 inches for sleds (snow machines, snowmobiles)
  • a minimum of 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.

Ice Fishing Safety Equipment

Fishing on thick ice is important, but it’s not the only thing that will keep you out of harm’s way. A few safety items will go a long way in making sure that your outing is stress-free. These are:

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

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).

Ice Fishing Shanty

If you’re on a bigger lake, you can rent a shanty from a sportfishing outlet or a bait and tackle store. Some people even make their own.

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.

man fishing on ice

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. As a result, fish are more geared towards conserving energy, and this makes 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.

A little girl standing on a frozen lake with an ice fishing rod

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.

As far as fishing lines go, most ice anglers will agree that fluoro lines work well. These lines are almost invisible in icy water, and they rarely get tangles. Nowadays, you can even find, specialized ice fishing fluoro lines.

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.

Ice fishing

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?

Ice Fishing Gear

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:

  • Small jigging rod
  • Spring Bobber
  • Leader
  • Hooks
  • Lures
  • Jigs
  • Tip-up (typically replaces the jigging rod, but can be used in conjunction)
Ice Fishing Setup

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

an infographic showing essential ice fishing items

Ice Fishing Locations in the US:

Believe it or not, some fishing hotspots in the US earn more than 30% of their yearly catch during the winter. Let’s take a look at some of the best ice fishing locations you can visit in the US.

  1. Lake of the Woods, MN – With species ranging from Lake Trout and Walleye to 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.
Sunset on the frozen Lake Winnebago, one the top ice fishing spots in Wisconsin
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. Unlike to rest of Vermont’s lakes, the ice fishing season for Trout and Salmon is open year-round on Lake Champlain.
ice fishing tip ups spread near a shanty on frozen Lake Champlain
Tip-ups are a regular sight on Lake Champlain
  • 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.

International Ice Fishing Locations:

Ice fishing isn’t a thing only in the US, you know. If you’re willing to make the long journey, these international locations will definitely make it worth your while.

a view of Tasiilaq and its nearby frozen lake, Greenland
Tasiilaq, Greenland is a picture-perfect ice fishing destination
  • 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.
  • Tasiilaq, Greenland – Probably the most secluded location on this list. In addition to top-notch ice fishing, this place boasts some incredible sea angling, too. Expect to wrestle monster Halibut topping 120 pounds! Oh, there’s also a chance of meeting the Greenland Shark, one of the oldest living creatures in existence.
  • 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.
a view of frozen Kathleen Lake in Yukon Territory, Canada
Kathleen Lake is a thing to behold
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 this fishing technique? Let us know in the comments below.

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Comments (14)
  • [email protected] Line

    Mar 17, 2019

    I love ice fishing madly. Inspirational article. Can’t wait for my next vacation to go for ice fishing & camping. Amazing feelings. Thanks for your wonderful article.

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      Sean

      Mar 18, 2019

      Thank you, Robert,

      I’m very glad to hear that you liked it.

      I couldn’t agree more, ice fishing is a completely unique experience.

      Hope you’ll have a great time!

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  • Mike

    Mar 30, 2019

    Great article! Started 5 years back and love it. Maybe add safety spikes to your list of gear. My set are on long cord that runs from inside of one coat sleeve around the back of my neck to the other hand. If you push the button a nail like spike pops out. Helps you claw your way back out if you fall in. They also make them in a plastic tube around your neck. Also maybe add bluegills to your list. We catch a lot of those. Thanks

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      Sean

      Apr 8, 2019

      Hello Mike,

      Thanks for reaching out!

      Absolutely, safety spikes can be a life-saver. And you’re right about Bluegills, we’ve seen people get hooked on ice fishing just because of these little guys.

      Tight lines!

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  • Dean Phillips

    Apr 16, 2019

    I had no idea that cold temperatures slow down fish metabolism, so they are slower to react to outside stimuli. My father has been wanting me and my brothers to go ice fishing with him as we used to when we were younger. To ensure that we stay warm and comfortable, we may want to rent an ice house before we travel to our fishing spot. https://www.glaciallakesdock.com/all-inventory/current-inventory

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      Sean

      Apr 18, 2019

      Hi Dean,

      Thanks for reading.

      Yes, fish actually can’t keep constant body temperature, so slowing down their metabolism is the only way they can adapt.

      I agree, an ice house can make a world of difference, and really allow you to enjoy your fishing to the fullest.

      Tight lines!

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  • Al

    May 8, 2019

    What’s your opinion on Lake George in NY State , 1/2 hour South of Lake Champlain ?

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      Sean

      May 12, 2019

      Hello Al,

      Thanks for reading.

      Lake George is a great choice for ice fishing. It has good numbers of Lake Trout, as well as Landlocked Salmon and Perch.

      Your best access point in winter would be Million Dollar Beach.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Tight lines!

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  • Dan

    Feb 5, 2020

    Hey, awesome article. I love it that Lake Winnebago (WI) made your list in the number 2 spot! I did notice that your infographic shows the locations of your top ice fishing spots on the map. #2 is not in the right spot, it should be in Wisconsin. Maybe the artist will correct it for you if you ask. Great post none the less!

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      Sean

      Feb 6, 2020

      Hi Dan,

      Thanks for pointing that out, you’re absolutely right!

      We’ve corrected the infographic now. I’m glad to hear that you liked the article.

      All the best!

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  • Marian Lewis

    Jul 30, 2020

    Great! Jigging with a Spring Bobber technique is the one i used years ago. And I’d no idea that chilly temperatures slow down fish metabolism.

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      Sean

      Jul 31, 2020

      Hi Marian,

      Thanks for reading.

      Jigging with a spring bobber is arguably the best ice fishing technique for most people.

      And yes, almost all fish slow down when the waters get colder. One of the rare exceptions is Bluefin Tuna, which can autoregulate their own body temperature to survive.

      Thanks again for reading, and have a great day!

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  • James Brown

    Nov 2, 2020

    I ice fish Lake Champlain quite a lot. Such a big lake and parts almost never freeze over. One thing you can ice fish Champlain as soon as the ice is formed. There is no official date that I know of. Some shallow bays I have fished in Dec.

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      Sean

      Nov 2, 2020

      Hi James,

      Thanks for letting us know.

      Lake Champlain is one vast fishery, so I guess that it makes sense if there’s no official date.

      According to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, there’s no closed season for Trout and Salmon fishing on Lake Champlain.

      As far as other Vermont lakes go, ice fishing season for Trout and Salmon starts on the third Saturday in January and continues through March 15.

      Thanks again for sharing.

      Hope you have a great ice fishing season this winter!

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