You may be ready for bed but the bite is not over just because the sun sets. This is true for open water season and especially true, for ice fishing.
Some of the best action of the day happens within a few hours after sunset and almost every angler goes home before it starts. Sip on some coffee or hammer down a Red Bull. Whatever your fuel of choice, hang out on the ice after dark for some exciting action that won’t disappoint.
To make the most of night bites through the ice, here are our 21 essential tips to help you catch more fish.
1. Scout out the spots before dark
Finding a good spot to start drilling holes is challenging enough during the day, let alone in the dark. Spend a little bit of time learning about the lake and head out to scout before sunset.
Use a GPS to mark spots worth trying. This way, you can find your way around at night. If you use a fish finder, the built in mapping comes in handy for marking waypoints.
You can also fish the same honey holes you used during the day for certain types of fish. Crappie often stay put and bigger fish move in late to feed.
2. Set up before the sun sets
Don’t miss the golden hour of fishing. That’s the half hour on each side of sunset when fish tend to ratchet up their feeding as aquatic life transitions from day to night cycles.
Get on the ice and setup so you don’t miss that bite window. You will also avoid scaring fish that are making their way to nighttime hunting grounds. Walleye move out of deeper areas onto flats to find food. Drilling through the ice during this time is a good way to scare them off.
Setting up early means you’ll spend more time fishing and less time stumbling in the dark.
3. Safety first
There is always a chance for dangerous conditions while ice fishing. Use the same safety precautions at night as you would during the day. Let someone know where you plan on going and when you will be back.
Always have safe paths to walk where you know the ice is safe and only move around with a light to avoid unseen dangers.
It is also a good idea to keep some sort of signal light on to ward off fast moving snowmobiles heading for home.
4. Know what type of fish like the dark
Night fishing is not for everyone, nor is it for all fish. While it varies from lake to lake, and even from day to day, some fish species are harder to catch at night.
Trout, bass, bluegill, pike and perch are pretty hit-and-miss at night through the ice in my experience. Some anglers do have success on nights with bright moonlight. Most of these fish are sight-dependent when feeding and darkness keeps them hunkered down.
The most popular types of fish to target for a night bite are crappie and walleye.
Crappie have better night vision and highly attuned lateral lines to help them pickup on vibrations and movements of prey.
Walleye are also highly adept night hunters. Their oversized eyes soak up small amounts of light which gives them the advantage over their prey.
Regardless of the type of fish available on your lake, try night fishing. The type of fish that bite at night is not always the same from lake to lake. I have had some amazing night bites for trout on one lake only to have no luck on another.
5. Know where fish feed at night
Daylight hours drive nocturnal feeders to deeper water but once the sun goes down, you can capitalize by knowing their habits.
Crappie like to feed over basins, adjacent to underwater humps and reefs. They typically suspend off the bottom while they feed on the invertebrates and worms that rise from the soft silt at night. Weed beds near shallows that support small minnows also draw in crappie.
Walleye use the cover of darkness to move from the depths and feed along shallow weed lines or flats. Look for shallows near deep water breaks that have nearby green, healthy weeds. These will be the most fertile feeding grounds for big walleye.
6. Come prepared
Moving around in the dark is a challenge. Make it easier by having everything you need for a night on the ice. Make a list before leaving home.
Bring extra batteries for lights, heaters and food. You never know how good the ice fishing might be at night. It is better to be prepared rather than packing up early because you forgot something.
7. Electronics are key
While you don’t need electronics to be successful, it sure makes ice fishing at night easier.
Fish behavior is very different at night and a flasher or fish finder helps you key in on how fish respond to lures. Are they chasing the baits or are they turning away with too much jigging action? Electronics give the answer.
Fish are constantly on-the-go at night and a fish finder is worth its weight in gold when you are moving from hole to hole trying to detect the fish as they move locations.
8. Bring a headlamp
This tip should probably be higher on the list. A good head lamp makes all the difference.
Hands-free use is nice while you’re tying up a new lure or putting a wax worm on a tungsten ice jig. It is handy for recharging your glow lures as well.
Most headlamps come with a red or green light setting which is awesome for preserving your night vision. Also, remember to bring extra batteries. The cold can really sap energy from batteries. Keep spares in your warmest pocket.
9. Draw in fish with glow lights
Here is a tip for crappie fanatics. Try using green underwater glow lights to attract slab crappie. The light draws in microscopic plankton and minnows that crappie love to eat. It is particularly well suited for shallow water applications.
Hydro Glow makes the most popular LED glow lights. They are durable and waterproof. They hook up to a 12v power supply and run for hours.
A successful tactic is to place the light in a center ice hole and drill several fishing holes in a circular pattern around the light about 20 feet away. That way you are setup to intercept the crappie as they migrate toward the lights.
10. Use two rods
If you live in a place that allows two fishing rods simultaneously, then use them to your advantage. Two rods means twice as many opportunities to catch fish. It’s also a great way to experiment with different tactics.
Ice anglers targeting walleye often use one rod to actively jig an attractor lure and in another hole nearby, a second pole with a finesse bait. A UV Jigging Rap or spoon brings in the fish but when they won’t commit, you can give them the one-two punch using a minnow on a plain hook or tungsten jig. You might be surprised at how often this works.
11. Use glow in the dark lures
Yep, they really do work. Especially for night bites under the ice. Glow in the dark lures and jigs give fish something to focus on in the dark depths. Nocturnal predators, like walleye and crappie, have excellent vision and will see a glow lure from a long ways off.
For maximum brightness, recharge glow lures every 15 to 20 minutes. A minute or two under your headlamp does the trick.
12. Active live minnows draw in big fish
For those of you chasing big walleye, nothing beats a fat and spunky live minnow. Rig it up under a tip-up or use a deadstick rod using just a plain octopus or treble hook under the dorsal fin.
Use a split shot or two to keep it positioned in the right spot of the water column. For really active minnows that swim towards the surface, you can even clip the tail fin a bit. This should keep them in the strike zone without hindering their movement. Some of the biggest walleye are caught this way.
13. Vibration is your friend
Fish that hunt at night rely on their sensitive lateral lines that run along their body to detect appetizing vibrations from prey. When you are tracking fish that won’t stay put, keep them interested with high action lures.
Acme Hyper-Rattles, Flutter spoons and Rapala’s Rippin Raps send out tasty vibrations and really amp up the strikes after sunset.
14. Bait your hooks
Regardless of the type of lure, don’t be afraid to tip the hooks with bait. When fish seem shy, the scent of bait is usually enough to entice them to bite.
Small bits of worm, waxies or minnow heads are some of my favorite dressings for any lure I use at night. Not all bait is created equal though. Check out our article where we discuss the best live baits for ice fishing and how to use them.
15. Use tip-up lights
Covering water is the best reason to use tip-ups. It is hard to know where fish will be as they start their nightly feeding. You can expedite the search by strategically spreading out tip-ups.
The only problem is the flags are hard to see in the dark. Solve that problem with tip-up lights. These battery powered LED lights are hard to miss when attached to the flag and they are fairly cheap. For an even more budget option, buy a bulk pack of slender glow sticks from the dollar store and tape them to the flag. For about 10 cents a piece, you get 12 hours of light.
16. Fish higher in the water column
When night sets in, a whole new feeding cycle begins. Larvae and worms rise from the soft bottom which draws smaller fish towards the surface to feed on them. This in turns draws larger predatory fish up the water column.
The smaller fish sulk on the bottom and the big fish reign supreme a few feet higher. Experiment with different depths when you are only catching small fish towards the bottom. This is sometimes the case with walleye.
Fishing higher in the water column is particularly effective for crappie. These fish tend to chase prey upwards. Keep your bait a couple feet above them to appeal to their feeding style.
17. Be persistent when the bite is off
Ice fishing at night is not always like a light switch. Sometimes the bite is hot for an hour or two at dusk and then shuts off. Then, it might pick up again after midnight. You just never know.
The first few times you try ice fishing at night, persistence will pay off. You may find that your lake is best fished right before sunrise or only before midnight. Either way, find the time that works for your fishing spot.
18. Eat a snack when you get sleepy
Wake up your body and brain with some fuel. Jerky, protein bars, candy bars or cookies provide instant fuel to your brain and keep you alert as the night wears on. When you feel the head nods coming on, reach for a snack to stay focused. If you’re really tired, throw in a few jumping jacks to get the blood pumping.
19. Take a nap with a rattle reel
Sometimes you loose the fight and can’t resist a quick nap. For those of you fishing in ice shelters, bait up a rattle reel.
These simple devices are just a spool with tip-up line secured to your shelter. Lower it into the hole and when a fish strikes it pulls the line. The unwinding of the spool causes a loud rattle to sound in the reel. Grab some shut eye and wait for the fish to wake you up.
20. Don’t be afraid to move
One of the biggest mistakes ice anglers make is staying put in an unproductive spot. Don’t be afraid to move if the fishing is slow.
It may just mean you are not where the fish are. Have several good spots marked on a GPS and move every 30 minutes when the bite slows down. The best way to find more fish is to cover lots of water. There is always a hot bite somewhere.
21. Don’t give up
Ultimately, your success at night will depend on how much effort you put into it. Sometimes you luck out and stumble onto a fantastic night bite. Other times, you may need to work at.
The important thing is to keep trying new tactics and experiment on different lakes. Ice fishing at night is not for everyone but I promise, the effort is worth it.
Night fishing isn’t for everyone. If you want to learn what time of day is best for ice fishing, our top article will help explain everything you need to know.
Want to get the most out of your ice fishing season? Check out our Washington State Ice Fishing Secrets ebook. Our book highlights the 10 best lakes for ice fishing in Washington State with actual coordinates to some of our most productive holes. Plus, we thoroughly cover everything from gear selection, tactics and travel planning. To top it off, you also get information on 41 other lakes with superb ice fishing! Check it out before ice fishing season passes you by!