If you’re looking for a fun, challenging winter activity, ice fishing may be just what you’re looking for! This guide is designed to provide beginners with everything they need to know about ice fishing – from tips and tricks, to the best gear to use. We’ll also cover safety concerns and how to have a safe and enjoyable ice fishing experience. We have even included videos, and links to further resources.
Ice Fishing Basic Information
When ice fishing, the ice should be at least four inches (10.16 cm) thick in order to be safe to walk on. If the ice is only one or two inches thick, it’s not stable enough for ice fishing – and you could risk falling through! Checking ice thickness before venturing out onto the ice is crucial. You may here differing information slightly from other pros, but as a beginner, simply do not venture out on the ice if it is under 4 inches thick.
Ice Thickness For People: >4 inches (10.16 cm)
Ice Thickness For Snowmobiles and ATVs: >10 inches (25.4 cm)
Ice Thickness For Cars & Small Trucks: >12 inches (30.48 cm)
Ice Thickness For Medium Pickup Trucks: > 14 inches (35.56 cm)
Ice Thickness Chart:
Additional Ice Safety Information
In addition to ice thickness, you also want to look for ice color. Clear ice is the best, as it indicates that the ice is thick and strong. Dark ice or snow ice indicates that there is water below, which makes the ice weaker. Ice can often have snow deposits on top, and even melting snow on top that can sometimes make it difficult to judge the depth and color. When drilling a hole (explained below) the ice thickness needs to be measured by the true ice, not snow on top.
Ice On North Vs South Side Of Lake
Another thing to consider is ice on the north vs south side of a lake. The ice on the north side will most likely be thicker, as it receives less sun exposure (in the northern hemisphere). This is the opposite in the southern hemisphere.
Ice Thickness Varies
Don’t check the ice in one area, and think that applies to all areas of the body of the water. Ice thickness varies, so always be sure to drill test holes along your way to check the ice conditions. This is particularly the case for bodies of water that have:
- Large open areas between land masses
- Shallow and deep parts of lakes freeze at different rates
- Any moving water, or water inlets like streams and rivers may never freeze or have very little ice covering them
Understanding How Ice Fishing Works
There are two main methods/systems for catching fish through the ice, tip ups, and jigging:
What Are Tip Ups?
Tip ups are a type of rigging where a bait is attached to a spool that rests on the ice. When a fish takes the bait, the line pulls up on the spool, triggering the flag to pop up and let you know you have a bite.
When this occurs, the angler walks over to the tip up, pulls up the line and reels in the fish. Then resets the tip up.
What is Jigging?
Jigging ice fishing involves using a jig rod, which allows you to use ice specific lures, called ice jigs. When ice fishing with jigs, your goal will be to keep your lure moving below the surface by jigging the rod up and down.
How to Use Tip Ups
Tip ups are a type of ice fishing rigging. They involve setting up the tip up, by attaching it to your ice line and baiting the hook with live bait or artificial ice fishing lures. Once you have set them out in different locations on the ice, all you need to do is sit back and wait for a bite. While most tip up systems operate pretty much the same, the do vary a bit. We have included a video below to help you visualize this process:
Jigging for Fish
When ice fishing with jigs, your goal will be to keep your lure moving below the surface by jigging the rod up and down. This technique is especially effective for walleye, crappie, perch, northern pike, lake trout and bass, but is effective for dozens of other species of fish. You can also use a combination of live bait and artificial lures when ice fishing with jigs. Jigging doesn’t necessarily need a rod. Anglers can jig with there hands, or use jigging sticks, or make shift a stick out of wood or other material for ease of jigging.
We’ve included a video on jigging methods:
In addition to these two methods, there are other methods of ice fishing that are less common. For instance, many anglers will put out lines overnight depending upon the regulations of the body of water to catch certain species of fish. A cusk line is a great example of this.
Ice Fishing Gear
Once you have your ice hole, it’s time to get set up with the rest of your ice fishing gear. The key items that you need include:
- Ice fishing rod and reel
- Live bait (or artificial lures)
- Ice scoop bucket for removing ice from
- Auger or chisel
- Extra line and hooks
- Warm clothing
- Tip Ups (optional)
- Sled to carry, tow, or drag your gear
- Ice fishing ice house (bob house, or wind shelter or ice fishing tent)
- Cooking supplies, food, or snacks
- Microspikes / foot traction if the ice is not covered in snow, or is slippery
- Fish finder
Ice Fishing Tips For Beginners
Now that you have the basics down, it’s time to start ice fishing! Here are some beginner tips to get you started:
- Make sure you have a fishing license for the state or area you are fishing in.
- Make sure you check the rules and regulations. Many bodies of water have special regulations specific to that body of water, and therefore, every angler is responsible to look up the local regulations.
- Always fish with a partner. This will help ensure your safety on the ice.
- Start by drilling test holes as you venture out on the ice to check the thickness of the ice.
- Check the weather forecast before going out on the ice to ensure you have the proper gear, and won’t get caught in any incoming weather.
- Consult with local ice fishing groups online, or on social media sites like Facebook for ice conditions, tips, or someone to join you.
- Hire an ice fishing guide for your first time on the water. You’ll learn a ton, and likely won’t have to invest in a lot of gear to try it out. A friend that has all the gear and can help teach you is also a fantastic option.
- Use a portable ice fishing shelter, or bobhouse for protection against the wind, and to keep heat in.
- Use a fish finder to know the depths below, and identify fish passing by, and at what depth they are at.
- Bring a heater for your shelter. Ice fishing can be extremely cold. Making your shelter warm changes the experience substantially, and can make for a relaxing, and exciting day at the same time. If you or someone in your group doesn’t love the cold, having a shelter makes for an entirely different experience.
- Bring cooking supplies. Having a meal out on the ice is an incredible experience. It adds another activity on the day, and is a great way to pass the time while jigging, or watching tip ups.
- Bring ice fishing rods. Ice fishing rods are very different from the traditional spin casting, or fly fishing rod. These ice rods are shorter, making it far easier to jig close to the hole. Additionally, some ice fishing rods have a spring bobber, which allows you to set your hook up so that when a fish bites it goes down and sets the hook for you. This is a great option for passively fishing a rod instead of a tip up.
- Bringing a fish finder can help you know the exact depth of the water under you as well as spot fish. The best fish finders will give anglers an idea of where baitfish are, where the fish you are targeting are, any obstructions on the bottom, and will help anglers catch more fish.
How to Make an Ice Fishing Hole
Once you have ice approximately four inches thick, you can safely make an ice fishing hole. Ice may be thinner or thicker than it first appears.
The easiest way to make an ice fishing hole is with a power ice auger. In addition to ice augers, ice chisels, ice fishing spuds (basically a fancy chisel), hand powered augers, and ice saws can be used to make ice fishing holes.
Once you have your drill ready, pick a spot on the ice that is approximately five feet away from any other anglers’ holes or shelters. Also avoid areas with rocks or weeds below the surface of the ice as this could get your auger caught, or damage your gear.
If your ice is over 12 inches thick, it’s best to use an electric, or gas powered ice auger. Even 6 to 8 inches becomes relatively difficult for a chisel or handheld auger.
Here we have listed videos out for each method of drilling:
- Electric / Gas powered auger: Watch Here
- Ice Chisel: Watch Here
- Handheld Auger: Watch Here
- Ice Saw: See Here
Ice Fishing Safety Tips
Most of these tips we have said up above, but are worth repeating. Ice fishing is perfectly safe with the right precautions, but can be deadly when not taken seriously.
Here are some tips:
– Dress for the Weather – It can be easy to get cold out on the ice. Be sure you’re dressed warmly and properly for the temperature outside, as well as what the temperature is like on the ice.
– Bring a Friend – Fishing with friends is always more fun, and can provide some extra safety when out on the ice. Make sure to tell someone where you’re going, and when you plan on being back.
– Use the Right Gear – Be sure to use ice cleats or spikes to prevent slips and falls on the ice.
– Use Caution – Never fish above open water or near pressure cracks. These areas are always at risk for breaking ice, which could lead to a dangerous situation. It’s also important to avoid areas where rivers or streams may be flowing. Any running water can create thin areas of ice.
– Make sure to pack food, drinks, a first aid kit, and a cell phone (in case of an emergency).
Ice fishing can be a fun and rewarding experience for anglers of all levels of experience. Whether you’re a beginner or veteran ice fisherman, if you follow all of these tips, you will hopefully in for a more rewarding and safe experience.
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about