Ice fishing has grown by leaps and bounds, as literally millions of anglers across the Ice Belt have embraced modern fishing methods and equipment that make it possible to catch more fish and have more fun on every trip.
Today's ice fishing scene is light years ahead of the sport's Dark Ages, when tortured souls shivered in the cold, wielding crude tackle while waiting and hoping for some hapless fish to strike.
Ice anglers successfully target a variety of species, including various types of trout and panfish, plus walleyes, northern pike, catfish, and more. Each species has its own behavioral quirks, food preferences, and habitat needs that require special consideration to dial in the top locations and presentations for the conditions at hand.
Having the right gear is also key to maximizing your catches. Thankfully, manufacturers large and small have produced a bumper crop of everything you need to find and catch any species of gamefish in comfort, no matter the wind chill.
All About Ice Fishing: Gearing Up
First things first: You'll need a way to make a hole in the ice big enough to fit a fish through. Augers and chisels open our portals into the underwater world, and modern ice anglers have plenty of options from which to choose.
Chisels excel for punching through relatively thin ice early in the season, and again for poking out old holes later in the winter. But thicker ice demands an auger.
Hand augers, as the name implies, rely on human muscle to shave ice. They're light, quiet, and commonly available in 4- through 8-inch hole diameters.
Power augers are heavier to lug around, but make it infinitely easier to bore through thick ice. For this reason, they're the way to go if you're planning to drill numbers of holes through 12 inches or more of ice.
Fuel choices include gasoline, propane, and electricity. In general, gas augers are the most common and very reliable choices, available with two- or four-stroke powerplants.
Propane augers eliminate priming, flooding, mixing fuel, and getting gasoline on your hands or gear. Propane cylinders are easy to transport but may lose their firepower in extreme cold, unless you wrap them in a sleeve-style tank warmer — which can boost the amount of holes drilled per bottle by up to 35 percent.
Electric models, on the other hand, are amazingly quiet and produce no exhaust fumes — making them great choices for drilling (and re-drilling) holes inside permanent ice fishing houses. Some have batteries, which do need re-charging, while other options come with cables for connecting to an external automotive or ATV battery.
Sonar and underwater video cameras are a big help when scouting around for fish-holding cover and structure, as well as locating fish and determining how they react to various presentations.
Sonar in particular is arguably the single-most important tool at your disposal for finding and catching fish. As the sonar unit's transducer pings the under-ice realm from just beneath the surface, returns are displayed on either a flasher- or LCD-style display.
Some sonar units also incorporate GPS chartplotters into the program. Such devices display lake maps, reveal your position, and allow you to mark fish-producing areas for easy return on future trips.
Underwater cameras take all the guesswork out of fish identification, reveal subtle nuances of fish behavior, and are just plain fun to watch.
It's worth noting that many sonar units and cameras come with a built-in display. But others wirelessly transmit sonar returns and underwater video footage to nearby mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.
While it's fun to fish outside in fair weather, portable and permanent ice fishing shanties provide shelter from brutal conditions, not to mention a handy base of operations.
Lightweight portable shelters are available in flip-over and hub-based designs that can accommodate from one to five or more people. Both styles engender easy setup and teardown, thus making it easier to move around on the hunt for active fish.
Permanent houses are larger, more stable, and hold more anglers. They are better suited to overnight ice fishing adventures than portables, and offer the added benefit of homestead status — once in place, they stake your claim to a particular hotspot. Unfortunately, they're heavier and far more work to move.
Wheelhouses or "hard houses" are an increasingly popular form of more permanent ice shacks that offer a fair compromise. Featuring wheels that rotate up and off the ice when not in motion, they are typically much easier to set up and relocate than traditional permanent houses.
Tip-ups are tantalizing traps set for a variety of gamefish, predominantly larger predators such as pike and walleyes.
Typically featuring a base, line spool, and flag-waving signal apparatus, tip-ups present your minnow or other offering where predators can find it, and alert you when a fish takes the bait.
Thanks to their infinite patience, tip-ups are effective allies that never quit fishing. They also make fine compliments to active jigging presentations. For example, where multiple lines are legal, you can set a series of tip-ups in place, then jig a spoon or other lure in nearby holes to attract fish to the area.
Old-school ice rods were nothing more than broomsticks with pegs for wrapping line. Today's rods — many of which are designed for specific applications, weights of line or lure, and species of fish — are available in a variety of materials, lengths, and actions.
When choosing an ice rod, key considerations include the material from which the blank is made; its length and stiffness; number and size of line guides; and type of handle.
While rod selection is ultimately a matter of personal preference, a number of factors can guide your decision — however, you often end up tailoring your choice to the task and hand, and the conditions in which you'll be fishing.
For example, long rods are ideal for powerful hooksets and fighting big fish in deep water. But if you're going to be fishing inside a small portable shelter, a long rod may go right through the ceiling. In a similar vein, stiff rods are extremely sensitive. But a rod that's too stiff lacks "forgiveness" under pressure, which can lead to broken lines and straightened hooks, especially with light tackle.
When choosing a reel, first match it to the rod with which it will be paired. Then match that combination to a line type and weight that's appropriate for the species of fish you're after.
Reel choices include spinning, spincasting, baitcasting, and large-arbor. Spinning reels are great all-around picks, while spincasting models are inexpensive and easy to operate. Baitcasters are workhorses, while large-arbor reels do a great job of limiting line memory.
No matter the model, key features include a drag that reliably pays out line at a given amount of pressure — which is important to avoid breaking the line or your rodtip on the hookset, or when a big fish makes a sudden lunge for freedom. The ability to backreel is also a plus, because it gives you ultimate control over the line.
Your line is a critical connection to the fish, but also plays a major role in how baits are presented. For example, a heavy line loaded with memory may hang in loose coils, making it all but impossible to detect bites, or even get light lures down to fish holding in deep water.
Manufacturers have spun a number of lines specifically for cold-weather applications. Common varieties include durable braided Dacron, which shines for tip-up fishing; nylon monofilament, which is forgiving and easy to use; fluorocarbon, which is abrasion resistant, sensitive, and nearly invisible underwater; and thin, powerful, low-stretch superlines, particularly those engineered not to soak up water, which creates a number of problems when exposed to freezing air temperatures.
To select the best ice fishing line for your favorite presentations, consider the seven core performance properties of fishing line, which can be broken into two groups: strength and control. Knot strength, tensile strength, abrasion resistance, and shock strength fall into the strength category, while limpness, visibility, and stretch are considered elements of control.
Jigging lures are great for attracting fish from a distance, then triggering them to bite. They can be divided into three basic categories: (1) flash lures like the Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, Swedish Pimple, and Lindy Rattl'n Flyer Spoon; (2) swimming lures like the Jigging Rapala, Northland Air-Plane Jig and Puppet Minnow, Lindy Darter, and Salmo Chubby Darter; and (3) standard leadhead jigs.
Flash Lures — To fish a flash lure, use your wrist and lower arm to raise the lure with a sharp 1- to 2-foot lift of the rod tip. Quickly return the rod tip to its original position, allowing the spoon to flutter and flash its way back down to its starting point.
Keep in mind that there are different styles of flash lures. Some, like the Acme Kastmaster, are slim, straight, shiny slices of metal that flutter slowly on the fall. Others are bent pieces of lead, which are heavier for their dimensions and fall much faster.
Shape is likewise important to a spoon's flutters and fall rate. Short, wide-bodied spoons fall more slowly and yield a different action, flash, and vibration than slender designs. Rattles enhance the spoon's audio output and can help bring in fish from afar, but such sonic add-ons are often reserved for heavy, fast-falling lures.
Each of the different styles offers advantages, provided you match its performance characteristics to the mood of the fish you're after.
Swimming Lures — Swimming lures are fished with jigging motions much like flash lures, but the resulting action is different, as the lure darts upward, then swims outward — often in a circular pattern — before gliding to rest in its original position. Most often, swimming lures are fished without any kind of bait attached.
You can also fish a swimming lure by jigging it in place with short up-and-down rod tip movements. When fishing in such a manner, it's often productive to nose- or skull-hook a whole minnow on one of the treble tines for added attraction.
Leadhead Jigs — Basic leadheads are often tipped with supple soft plastics or natural baits such as cut-up minnow portions, a live minnow, dead minnow, or selection of waxworms.
Jigs tipped with plastic or cut minnow parts can be jigged aggressively with 1- to 2-foot rod lifts. However, if you tip with a whole minnow hooked through the lips or the back near the dorsal fin, remember to lift the jig instead of jigging it aggressively. Gently raise it a foot or two, and then let it flash and flutter back to its original position.
Advances in lures, shelters, sonar, and apparel have gotten plenty of attention on the ice fishing scene in recent years, but one of the oldest tools of the trade remains a deadly part of successful hardwater strategies — the humble float.
Floats — or bobbers — serve many purposes on the ice, and most importantly, can often help you catch more fish.
For example, when finicky fish flare away at the slightest movement of your bait, a float can hold the rig still enough to trigger strikes. This is especially true in windy conditions, when arctic gusts buffet your line or spring bobber, making it impossible to keep the jig from fidgeting.
Bobbers are also a boon when you need to get your bait back to a specific depth, particularly if you're fishing without sonar. They excel when fish are close to the bottom of the ice, too, such as in extremely shallow water, or when the fish are cruising just beneath the icepack. You can also use a slow-sinking, over-weighted float to vertically troll the water column on the hunt for suspended fish.
Stocking up on a variety of float sizes and shapes can help you adjust to whatever the fish or conditions throw your way. For example, slim styles like Thill's Mini-Shy Bite are easier for fish to move off with than round designs, making them a great choice when fish spit the bait at the slightest resistance.
Conversely, rounder floats like Thill's Mini-Stealth and Ice 'N Fly Special can be just the ticket when you're fishing minnows and don't want your bait to swim away with the rig. Of course, these floats also work wonders during tough bites when properly balanced to match the mood of the fish, making them stellar utility players that are always good to have on hand.
Additional gear that can enhance life on the ice includes:
Jeepers, Creepers — When snow cover is scarce, walking across the slippery icepack can be downright dangerous, and operating an ice auger absolutely treacherous, unless you slip a pair of traction-boosting ice creepers onto your boots.
Lights — Fishing the night shift or simply packing up your gear after the sunset bite subsides requires some type of accessory lighting. Propane- or gas-powered lanterns are time-honored choices, but electric options have expanded in recent years. You can choose from slick rope systems and overhead lights that run off a 12-volt source or get juiced by internal batteries. Headlamps shine for a variety of chores as well, and not just on the fishing front.
Safety Picks — Ice picks that can help you haul yourself onto the ice in the event of an accidental dunking can be life savers. They're great precautions at first and last ice, and anytime you're on unfamiliar waters where current or other factors may create dangerous conditions.
Scooper — Unless your hands are impervious to icewater, you'll need a scooper to strain slush from freshly drilled holes, and keep the ice-free while fishing. Choose from basic metal and plastic designs to more sophisticated systems that siphon slush in one fell swoop.
How To Catch Fish
Different species of gamefish demand different approaches.
Panfish — Tasty panfish including yellow perch, crappies, and bluegills are often caught by fishing small jigs tipped with bits of natural baits or tantalizing soft plastics, either on a tight line to the rod tip or suspended beneath a float.
Yellow perch often school along transitions from hard to soft bottom, such as where sand or gravel meets a mud flat. Here they find a variety of forage, ranging from small minnows that frequent hard bottom to insects that live in the goo.
Perch are suckers for flash lures like jigging spoons tipped with a trio of waxworms or a minnow head. You can also rig bait on a small jig or plain hook tied to a short dropper line below a larger spoon, which serves as an attractor.
Crappies and sunfish also hit jigging spoons, though many anglers overlook such lures for these panfish — particularly bluegills and pumpkinseed sunfish.
Crappies and sunfish also hit small lures such as vertical hanging teardrops and horizontal hanging jigs. Often, the fish show a preference for one style over another, so it pays to experiment.
Walleyes — Marble-eyed walleyes wander a variety of cover and structure, including green weedbeds in shallow bays, shoreline points and breaklines, and main-lake reefs, breaklines, bars, and flats.
Forage, and the ease of catching it, tends to dictate walleye location. Often, walleyes hold in deep water during the day, then move up onto shallower feeding flats as sunset approaches.
One reason for such behavior is walleyes have incredible low-light vision, and during periods or rapidly decreasing light levels hold an advantage over forage species such as yellow perch.
Walleyes hit a variety of lures. It's often standard practice to fish an aggressive presentation such as a swimming lure or flash lure to attract the most active walleyes in the area, then tone down your tactics as needed.
You can also fish an active presentation in one hole, and suspend live bait such as a shiner or sucker minnow beneath a bobber or tip-up nearby. Often, curious fish that move in to check out the jig end up hitting the live bait.
Northern Pike — These toothy predators often cruise lush weedbeds early and late in the winter, then move onto deeper structure nearby in midwinter. As with walleyes, food abundance is a key factor in fish location.
Suspending a large shiner or sucker minnow on a quick-strike rig (which allows you to set the hook immediately) beneath a tip-up is one of the deadliest ways to fish for pike in the winter. A party of anglers can effectively cover a chunk of prime structure by deploying tip-ups at different depths along breaklines, channel edges, weedlines, and other key areas.
Active jigging with a flash lure or swimming lure is also effective, and when used in conjunction with tip-ups can help draw hungry pike into the area.
While trophy pike measuring more than 40 inches are prized catches, such giants are too precious a resource to catch only once. Practicing selective harvest by keeping a few smaller fish to eat and releasing large fish can help sustain the fishery for years to come.
Because of their willingness to bite and vulnerability to over-harvest, finding a lake flush with gator-sized pike can be challenging. However, a recent increase in special harvest regulations has improved pike fisheries in many areas.
Trout — Trout are cold-water eating machines, and where oxygen levels allow, they remain active under the ice and hit a variety of lures.
Rainbow and brown trout reliably cruise shoreline shallows throughout the winter. Armed with an auger and a few basic jigging lures, you can catch them a short walk from the bank.
Look for areas rich in rocks. A boulder the size of a Buick sticking out of the ice is a good sign. Bows and browns gravitate toward such rocks because they offer protection from larger predators like lake trout that cruise farther offshore. One productive strategy for plying shallow rocks is drilling a pair of holes 30 inches apart, then fishing aggressively in one while taking a more subtle tack in the other.
A dainty jig like Clam's 1/32-ounce Duckbill Drop or Dingle Drop works for both methods, and you can take turns fishing one rod aggressively while letting the other jig hang motionless.
For the active approach, try a subtle lift-drop that causes the jig to swim in a circle roughly 12 inches in diameter. Tipped with a small soft-plastic trailer like a Clam Maki, the tiny jig yields tantalizing action. Trout often come in to look at the moving jig and then hit the motionless one.
Lake trout are often found chasing schools of baitfish in deep, main-lake haunts. They're fond of swimming lures such as Air-Plane Jigs and Jigging Rapalas, but you can also catch them throughout the water column on large leadheads tipped with soft-plastic trailers.
No matter what species you seek, gearing up with the right equipment and learning the fundamentals of location and presentation improves your chances for success on the ice. As your ice fishing career advances, In-Fisherman remains an important source of information to help you learn more about the finer points of fish behavior and lure presentation.
Turn to in-fisherman.com, as well as in In-Fisherman magazine, Ice Guide, and In-Fisherman Television for a wealth of information on cutting edge tactics, trends, must-fish destinations, advanced topics, and more, to help you catch more and bigger fish on every trip, all winter long.