It is pretty difficult to go ice fishing without first making a hole in the ice. As obvious as that may seem, there is still much to consider before cutting your way through the ice for the first time.
One of the most common questions asked by beginners and experienced ice fishermen alike is, how big should an ice fishing hole be?
Ice fishing holes range in size from 6 to 12 inches in diameter. The ideal hole size is 8 inches. An 8 inch hole is big enough to pull most fish through while also being easy enough to drill with a hand powered ice auger.
Again, there are several situations in which one size hole is better than another. In the rest of this article, I will hopefully help you decide how big your ice fishing hole should be based on your own particular needs and situation.
How thick is the ice
Whether you fish exclusively on one lake each winter or several, you probably noticed that ice thickness varies greatly. Even a spot 10 feet from your first hole could have ice that is a different thickness.
What does the amount of ice have to do with how big the hole should be? Well, for one thing, deeper ice is harder to drill. Regardless of the type of auger, it is hard work cutting through ice.
If all you have is a hand auger and your fishing spot has 2 feet of ice, a 6 inch auger will be much easier to drill with as opposed to an 8 inch auger.
You are most likely going to drill more than one hole to find fish. It is important to think about how much energy you can exert to get through the ice. You always want to avoid working up a sweat. Not because being lazy is awesome, but because sweating will chill you to the bone in sub-zero temperatures.
On the flip side, a narrow hole in deep ice increases the difficulties of controlling the movement of a fighting fish. It’s not such a big deal with smaller panfish but large walleye or lake trout can really zip around, even in winter. If you can’t control them, they can cut your line on the sharp, bottom edge of the hole. It is also a challenge to get them pointed up the hole in the right direction.
With all that to think about, here is a simple guide for picking the right size ice fishing hole for the thickness of ice at your location.
Ideal Hole Sizes
|Ice Thickness||Hole Size|
|4 to 6 inches||6 to 8 inches|
|6 to 18 inches||6 to 10 inches|
|18 to 24 inches||8 to 12 inches|
|Over 24 inches||8 to 12 inches|
What kind of auger are you using
Remember, ice is hard to drill through. Even the sharpest hand powered augers are going to be a chore to use if the auger bit is too big and the ice is too thick.
When choosing the best size for drilling holes, you need to consider the type of auger you want to use. There are several choices on the market. These include gas, propane, electric and hand powered augers. Each offers its own unique advantage and all come with their fair share of issues.
Be sure to take a look at our in depth guide for selecting the best ice augers on the market so you can get the right one for you.
Regardless of the auger type, the size of hole is still important. As I mentioned before, 8 inches works for the majority of situations but an 8 inch hole is not always easy to drill.
From my personal experience, I found that an 8 inch hand auger is adequate for ice less that 18 inches. However, on days where I need to move holes often, a gas or electric auger is a life saver, even on thinner ice.
Know what you are fishing for
We all have a passion for catching whoppers but let’s be realistic. If you’re working yourself to exhaustion drilling 12 inch holes because you think the next fish you pull up might not fit through an 8 inch hole, we need to do some math.
The average girth of a 10 pound walleye (a whopper for sure!) is around 16 to 18 inches. Which means, if you measure from the top of the back to the belly, a 10 pound walleye is 5 to 6 inches thick.
Now, let’s consider a monster lake trout. Some true beauties have been pulled up through the ice in many northern US waters and Canadian lakes. A 30 pounder has an estimated girth of about 24 inches. Measure it from back to belly and it would just barely fit through an 8 inch hole. For those of you who regularly catch 30 pound plus lake trout, you may want to consider a larger hole.
For the rest of us mere mortals who catch average sized panfish, walleye, trout and bass, a 6 to 8 inch hole is perfectly adequate. You can also chip any size hole larger with an ice spud.
What is your fishing style
Overtime, every angler develops their own methods and styles for consistently catching fish. Maybe you like to jig, use live bait or you exclusively use tip-ups. The size hole you use is an important factor to matching your needs for any given day.
If you fish in ice shelters, you may not want too big of a hole. Floor space is precious real-estate in a cramped shelter. Or, you may want multiple small holes in one shelter for two or more poles.
Another consideration is how many anglers you have at one hole. While it may seem better to have a hole for each angler, it is not always feasible. A 6 inch hole is going to be a tangled mess waiting to happen with two anglers using it.
Maybe you prefer to be mobile with just a bucket to sit on, exposed to the elements. The hole size for you may not matter as much as how fast you can drill, fish and move on.
Additionally, small holes freeze up faster and keeping them clear of ice requires more effort. If you fish in one spot, use a larger hole so you don’t need to worry about it freezing over all the time.
Either way, before purchasing an auger, imagine yourself in common scenarios to figure out what will work best for you.
How many holes should you drill
Let’s say you decided on the best auger size for drilling holes in the ice. The next thing to think about is how many holes you plan on drilling. While sitting in a chair reading this article, it is easy to assume you could drill dozens with no problem.
However, put on a heavy insulated jacket in sub-zero temperatures and things get harder. Most ice fishermen only drill a few holes a day. Those with power augers can easily drill many more.
If you have a fairly good understanding of winter fish movements and underwater topography in your location, it is a simple task to find fish. Sometimes though, finding fish is a matter of drilling hole after hole until you get consistent bites.
In that case, make sure your auger size is suited to the work required. An 8 inch hole will work in either scenario but think about using a motorized version.
The dangers of big ice holes
No discussion of ice fishing is complete without some mention of safety. Essentially, there is no limit to the size of hole you can cut in the ice. I have seen absolutely ridiculous sized trenches cut in the ice. It may seem cool but it poses a real risk to you and your fellow anglers.
A hole should never be big enough for a person to fall into. There is no worse situation in ice fishing that falling into excruciatingly cold water. This would be especially traumatic for children.
You also need to think about the angler who may arrive after you. A large hole takes longer to freeze solid. The top layer will freeze first, but it could only be an inch or two thick making it invisible to someone walking to their own spot.
With that in mind, I highly recommend that you never make a hole larger than 12 inches in diameter. Always think about safety while on the ice and your day will be rewarded with fun and fish.
The size of an ice fishing hole is just one part of learning how to ice fish. If you find yourself getting stir crazy this winter, then give ice fishing a try. To cure your cabin fever, my how-to-guide for beginner ice fishing is the perfect medicine.
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!