A zero fish day is a frustration we don’t wish on any of our fellow ice anglers. It’s a painful failure that leaves you wondering what went wrong. Trust me, we’ve been there.
Yet, consistently catching limits of fish through the ice takes more than luck. It takes good planning, the right gear and most importantly, a conscious effort to avoid the biggest ice fishing mistakes.
It’s always tough to admit but at some point, every angler (including us) subverts their ice fishing success with unwitting mistakes that could easily be avoided.
So, what shouldn’t you do while ice fishing?
Well, here are the 11 biggest, and most common, ice fishing mistakes that are costing you fish. Fix these mistakes and we can all but guarantee you’ll catch more fish every time you get on the ice.
1. Not using all your lines
Most of us ice fish in regions that allow more than one line per angler. For us, 2 lines are allowed but in some states even more than 2 lines are legal. Not taking advantage of those extra lines is a colossal mistake out on the ice.
You might only be able to handle jigging one rod at a time but that doesn’t mean you can’t have your second, third or fourth line soaking at the same time. Whether it’s a tip-up, deadstick or a rod on an automatic hook setter, use every line you are lawfully allowed.
Those extra lines help you cover more area, test different baits and offer fish a stationary presentation which they may prefer over an active bait. You can also take advantage of multi-species opportunities when rigging up extra lines to target different species simultaneously.
2. Missing the primetime bite
If you’ve watched enough fishing videos, you have certainly heard that the primetime bite is key. Yet, we are probably all guilty of missing those golden hours around sunrise and sunset. Sleeping in is easy to do and dinner is waiting for us at home in the evening.
However, missing that primetime bite is most definitely a mistake that costs ice anglers fish. You already put in all that work to gear up and get out on the ice. Why not go that extra mile and get up 30 minutes earlier or stick around on the ice a few minutes after sunset? You never know. That primetime window may be the hottest bite of the day.
3. Leaving fish to find fish
You know the saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Well, the same cautionary thought applies to ice fishing. Leaving a spot where you are already catching fish to search for more fish is a mistake that sneaks up on the best of us.
It’s so easy to assume that if you are only catching a few fish in one spot that another spot has to have more. But sometimes that just isn’t how it works for certain species of fish. Fish like trout, pike and walleye generally roam around so when you are catching fish, it’s unlikely moving will yield a higher concentration of action.
In our experience, the first hole we drill is often the best hole. Especially, when you utilize lake mapping and understand fish behavior. If you picked a good spot, the fish will come. The only exception to this rule is schooling panfish. Sometimes you do need to move to chase down the school.
4. Not packing good food
With as much focus as we put into buying quality tackle, electric ice augers, pop-ups, and the latest ice fishing sonar, we tend to neglect our stomachs. Not packing good food on the ice is a surprisingly common mistake.
Staying comfortable on the ice should be a priority and that means staying well fed and hydrated. Good food provides fuel so you can keep fishing and avoid that “hangry” feeling. When you are hungry or dehydrated, you’ll loose focus and fish less effectively.
But don’t just pack any snack out on the ice either. Make it something warm and filling. A granola bar and a cold PB&J is not the most appetizing food when it’s freezing out. Instead, bring hot soup in a thermos or a can of chili to heat up on your heater. In either case, put more thought into your food and successful ice fishing will follow.
5. Using the wrong line
There is a reason why fishing stores dedicate an entire wall to fishing line. After all, it is the only link between you, the lure and the fish you’re trying to catch. Choose the wrong line for the job and you’ll soon realize you made a terrible mistake.
So, how do you know when you are using the wrong line? More often than not, most novice ice anglers use line that is too heavy. Heavy line is highly visible to fish, has more memory and a lot less sensitivity for detecting bites and controlling lure action.
2-4 pound test mono or fluoro line is adequate for panfish and 4-6 pound test mono or fluoro line works well for stocked trout. Most other species like lakers, pike and walleye are well suited for braided main lines with fluoro or mono leaders sized appropriately.
6. Staying put too long
Sometimes it’s a mistake to move around too much and leave fish to find more fish. But it can also be a mistake to stay put too long. Camping on one spot makes sense for some situations. Say for instance, you setup a few tip-ups in the hopes of hooking a roaming trophy lake trout or pike. Staying put in productive water will work to your advantage in those situations.
However, staying put while fishing for other species like stocked trout, crappie, perch and even walleye is occasionally a hinderance to success. You’ll know camping on a spot is a mistake when you go long stretches without catching fish.
It’s equally bad to setup your pop-up and get all settled at a location before you even know fish are around. Instead, get in the habit of drilling a hole at your first spot and fishing for 20-30 minutes. If you don’t catch anything in that time, move on and then settle in when you start catching fish.
7. Not changing lures or bait
We all have our favorite go-to baits and lures. Also known as a “confidence bait.” While you might have great success ice fishing with a specific lure one day, it is a costly mistake to stubbornly insist that it is the best bait for the next day.
Fish behavior even varies from one hour to the next. They may be all fired up and slam a fast twitched rattle bait in the morning, only to turn their nose up at it by evening. It’s all too easy to insist on sticking with that lure but if you are marking fish on your flasher that won’t engage, consider changing baits more often.
On a recent ice fishing trip, we changed soft plastics on a tungsten jig 5 times in 20 minutes until we finally went from zero interested fish to every fish chasing down our bait. It was a “matching the hatch” situation. Always try to have a line-up of several baits or lures to change out and force yourself to swap them when fish don’t show interest.
8. Not exploring the water column
Bad habits are just as quick to develop as good habits. And one bad habit that we find ourselves easing into is assuming fish are always going to be where we expect them. Ice anglers target perch and walleye on the bottom, stocked trout in the shallows and cruising lakers in the deepest waters.
Yet, it is an unfortunate mistake to not explore the entire water column with your bait. There are times when perch school halfway off the bottom or stocked trout push out over deep, mid-lake basins. Sometimes lake trout venture into less than 30 feet of water and occasionally walleye are swimming closer to the surface than you think.
Certainly, work your baits at the most likely depths for your target species. Just remember to work it up and down in the water column every once in awhile when nothing seems to be around. You just may attract that high flying group of perch that would otherwise ignore a bottom thumping jig.
9. Using oversized lures
Big baits do catch big fish…sometimes. The lures you love using on open water are not likely what fish want once a lake locks up with ice. With slower winter metabolisms, fish don’t always seek out a big meal. Unfortunately, many ice anglers make the mistake of using too big a bait or lure.
Sure, when the bite is on fire you can zero in on bigger fish by sizing up your bait. Most often though, winter time fishing requires a more subtle approach. If you find that your large jigging spoons, minnow mimics or soft plastics aren’t enticing enough strikes, then size way down.
Consider using small tungsten jigs tipped with bait or small insect-like soft plastics. We catch 20 plus inch rainbows on a 3-4mm tungsten jig with a tiny Maki plastic all the time. And a jig with a 1 or 2 inch minnow is rarely turned down by even the biggest walleye.
10. Tying the wrong knots
Loosing a fish during a fight is always a tough blow. But when you lose it because your knot failed, it is even more agonizing. Every angler has their preferred knot, yet tying the wrong knot is an insidious mistake that will torture you with what-ifs.
A bad knot isn’t just the cause of hooks breaking off. It’s also a common cause of poor lure presentation. When you are vertically fishing through the ice, the way your bait sits in the water is more important than when casting in open water. Your bait should hang horizontal. When it doesn’t, a weak knot is to blame.
Avoid knots that only wrap around the eye of the hook once like the improved clinch knot. It’s a good knot for other applications but for breaking strength and holding a jig horizontal, it fails miserably. Instead, tie a double wrapped knot like the Palomar. With two wraps around the eye of the hook, it is seldom the point of failure when fighting fish and it also locks your jig in a horizontal position.
11. Unwilling to ask for advice
Of all the mistakes we make as ice anglers, the hardest to fix is our pride. Even with years of ice fishing experience, it is still sometimes tough to admit when we need advice. Never asking for a few tips from anglers catching more fish than you is the most costly mistake you are likely to make.
Plus, it hurts your pride more to watch others around you catch fish while not pulling up a single fish yourself. Tamp down that ego and venture over to your neighbors on the ice to ask for a few tips. If you are friendly and polite, most of us are more than willing to share a few tips that can drastically improve your catch rate.
The most successful ice anglers are the ones that never assume they have all the answers. Asking for advice is how we learn best. Try it out sometime.
Never make mistakes again
Yeah, we wish. No matter how much time you spend on the ice, mistakes are just part of the game. Maybe you played that monster trout wrong and he threw your hook right at the hole. Maybe your leader is spooking fish in clear water. Or maybe you flub a hook set on the only fish of the day. Either way, we all make little mistakes that cost us a fish or two.
Don’t sweat it. The little mistakes are how we learn and become better anglers. It’s the big mistakes you want to avoid. Thankfully, the biggest mistakes can be fixed and reading this article is a good step in the right direction. Improve your ice fishing skills, and more fish are sure to follow.