Ice Fishing

Ice fishing is great sport for the fisherman willing to brave the cold weather and venture onto the ice. Naturally, ice fishing is most popular in states and provinces with an abundance of water and long, cold winters, including the Great Lakes, with Lake Erie and Lake Michigan attracting the most ice fishermen. However, ice fishing is not limited to the northern states. Any body of water with at least four inches of ice can be fished safely. The most common species caught through the ice are walleye, perch, crappie, sunfish, northern pike and trout. Because fish are caught from cold, mostly clear water, many ice fishermen say fish taken through the ice taste better than any other time of year.

Ice Fishing Tackle

Rods/Reels/Line - The biggest difference in equipment between ice fishing and conventional open-water fishing is the rod itself. While most conventional fishing rods are between 5 and 7 feet in length, ice fishing rods are typically 30 inches long or less. Smaller reels with less line capacity are needed to match these downsized rods. Because water is clearer in the winter, most ice fishermen use a green or clear monofilament line in the 4- to 8-pound test range. For toothy species like northern pike and walleye, heavy leaders can be attached at the end of the main line.

Tip-Ups - A simple ice fishing rod and reel is adequate for fishing depths of 10 to 15 feet. However, when fishing deeper water, consider using a tip-up. A tip-up is a device placed over the hole in the ice, from which a baited line is uncoiled off a spool, lowered to the desired depth, and once a fish strikes the bait, a spring-loaded flag “tips up” to alert the angler of a strike. The angler then reels in the line and fights the fish by hand.

Baits/Lures - Much like rods and reels, baits and lures used for ice fishing are generally smaller than those used in open water. Most lures fall into the “jig” category, with a weighted head and small hook molded into a single unit. Jigs will range in size from 1/64 ounce to more than 1 ounce, depending on how deep and which species the angler pursues. Jigs can either be fished alone, with soft plastic or feathered bodies; tipped with live or natural bait, such as minnows or maggots; or a combination of the two. Jigging spoons and other lures that can be fished vertically are also widely used.

Miscellaneous Equipment - In addition to terminal tackle, the angler should have other gear in tow for a day on the ice. Most importantly, a gas- or hand-powered auger is needed to drill holes in the ice, and a strainer is handy for scooping ice shavings from each hole. Other necessary items include:

  • Foam or insulated bait bucket
  • Bait net
  • Fishing stool (5-gallon buckets work well)
  • Ice picks (for safety)

    Some optional equipment can make for a more enjoyable outing:

  • Portable propane heaters
  • Portable depth-finder or other sonar device
  • Lantern
  • Thermos with hot liquids

    Getting Started

    To begin ice fishing, cut a hole in the ice with an auger or ice-spud. (Check state fishing regulations to see if rules exist on the size or number of holes you can make.) Drop a line with a weight on the end to help determine the depth of the water. In general, the best depth to start ice fishing is close to the bottom. A good rule of thumb is to look for fish in their typical summer locations. Most fish will be found near some type of cover or structure, such as weed line edges, offshore humps, points and drop-offs.  A portable flasher or other sonar device can be a valuable tool in pinpointing where the fish are.

    Staying Warm

    Warmth is a necessity when ice fishing, as actual temperatures on the ice will normally be colder than air temperatures on land. Because ice fishing involves a lot of sitting, fishermen need to dress as warmly as possible to avoid a quick end to an ice fishing trip. Here’s a list of recommended clothing and outerwear for ice fishing comfort:

  • Long underwear
  • Flannel or wool shirt
  • Loose-fitting jeans or pants
  • Wool socks
  • Insulated or fur-lined boots
  • Coveralls or insulated pants
  • Heavy coat with a hood
  • Stocking cap
  • Warm gloves (bring two pair in case one gets wet)

    Make sure to layer your clothing and that it fits loosely, which provides better insulation. Portable shacks and shelters (where legal) can shield the angler from the elements. They can be purchased through dealers or constructed at home. In northern states, many ice fishermen set up semi-permanent shacks or shelters on a body of water for the entire season. Be sure to check ice-fishing regulations as some states regulate the use and placement of ice-fishing shelters.


    Before ever stepping out on the ice, there are many safety issues to keep in mind. Ice is never completely safe. Four inches of solid ice is the minimum for safe fishing.

  • Always wear a life jacket.
  • Have some rope attached to ice picks in the event of a fall.
  • If more than one fisherman is present, each person should walk a short distance from the other. If one falls in, others can get help.
  • If going alone, take a cell phone.
  • Write a trip plan and leave it at home.
  • Vehicles need at least 8 to 12 inches of ice to drive safely. If driving onto the ice have a bailout plan if it becomes necessary to leave the vehicle.

    Further Information

    Ice Team
    P.O. Box 1172
    Grand Rapids, MN 55745
    Phone: 1-800-ICE-FISH

    IGFA (International Game Fish Association)
    300 Gulf Stream Way
    Dania Beach, FL 33004
    Phone: (954) 927-2628