How to Cut an Ice Fishing Hole Without an Auger

Eight inches of ice was all that stood between me and the fish.  Armed with just an axe, I was determined to cut through to the water below.  With each blow to the ice, I was keenly aware that this was probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

When you are new to ice fishing and on a budget, there are a few ways to cut an ice fishing hole without an auger and they do work in a pinch. 

Here is a quick list of all the methods I have seen used to successfully cut through ice without an auger.  

  • Axe 
  • Spud bar
  • Digging iron
  • Pick axe
  • Chainsaw
  • Ice saw

Safety First

Before you go banging away on the ice, let’s talk safety and common sense.  All of the non-auger methods of getting through ice involve swinging or pounding a sharp implement onto a sheet of ice over frigid water.  

To avoid a cold swim with the fish, never go on ice that is less than 4 inches thick.  The ice should also be clear and solid without any thaw cycle pockets.  Old ice that is cloudy or slushy is too risky for my taste.   

If you are ever in doubt, just don’t go!  

You should also note that all of the methods for cutting an ice fishing hole use sharp tools.  Never use a blunt tool like a sledge hammer.  It will break through the ice, however, it will fracture and weaken the ice around it as well.  

Here, on FishingDuo, we recommend safety above all else.  Hand augers are inexpensive and the cheapest way to go ice fishing safely.  It is worth the investment.  If you agree, then find out everything you need to know about the best ice augers on the market from our recent article.

For those of you determined to go ice fishing without an auger, keep reading for more information about cutting ice without augers.

Use an axe

Many people own an axe already.  Whether it is for camping or home use, it will work to cut an ice fishing hole.  Just make sure it is fairly sharp.

An axe gets through the ice by chipping pieces away and is best suited for ice that is less than 10 inches thick.  No matter what, you will work up a sweat if you work too fast, so take your time and work methodically.  

I found that it is easier to start your cut with a square outline about 12 inches across.  Keep chopping around that outline and the ice will flake off in larger portions.  If you just hack at the same spot, it is difficult to enlarge the hole without splashing cold water over yourself.

Remember, you are swinging a dangerously sharp tool at a solid surface of ice.  Be sure to start with secure footing and avoid swinging for the fences.  Controlled cuts are more efficient and you won’t loose your balance.  Also, be aware that clipping at the ice can send shards flying towards your face.  Protective eye glasses are good idea. 

Try using a spud bar or digging iron

Spud bars and digging irons are long, heavy, iron rods with either a pointed tip or chiseled end.  They are great for testing ice thickness, but they can also be used to break open a hole for fishing.

Like the axe, you will be chipping out the ice to make a hole.  12 inches of ice would be the max thickness to try this on, otherwise it just takes too long.  

Always start the hole bigger than the final size you want.  Start chiseling a 12 to 16 inch  outline to end up with a 6 to 8 inch hole.  It is definitely good exercise and patience is required on thick ice.

Spud bars cost around $30 but you can make your own out of rebar.  Use a grinder to sharpen one end to a chisel.  With a little creativity you can make a handle from a bit of foam and thin rope.  

Whether you make your own or buy one, make sure it has a wrist sling or tether attached.  Otherwise, you won’t be the first person to loose your grip and send the spud to the bottom.

Eventually, when you upgrade to an auger for making holes, the ice spud will still be an invaluable tool to have on every outing.

What about a pick axe

Surprisingly, a pick axe doesn’t work as well as you might think.  Sure, it is used to dig through dirt and rock but it meets its match with thick ice.  Maybe the most determined ice angler can make it work.  Although, I guarantee they will be sweating by the end.

Yet, if that is all you have, it can actually be the fastest way to get through 4 to 6 inches of ice.  Anything thicker and I would grab for a regular axe first.

Bring out the chainsaw

I know you’ve been waiting for this one on the list.  If you’re staying warm in the winter with wood heat then I bet you have a chainsaw handy.  

Anglers looking for fast access to the water below without an auger have their wish granted if a chainsaw is around.  No pounding, swinging or sweating required.  

I have seen holes cut in 18 inches of ice with an average saw that has an 18 to 20 inch bar length.  It makes for quick work.  Just be aware that instead of throwing out wood dust, the saw will be spitting buckets of ice cold water and ice chips.  Water proof cloths, boots and gloves are saviors for the more cold sensitive among us.

Also, keep in mind that water and ice are not ideal for the health of your chainsaw.  For those of you who rely on this expensive piece of equipment for winter firewood cutting, you may want to avoid possible damage and opt for another ice cutting method instead.

Ice saws

Here’s the last ice cutting item on the list.  It’s not because ice saws are slouches though.  It is last on the list because an ice saw also requires a spud bar or other method of making a hole (like an auger) in the ice before you can cut with it.  

An ice saw consists of a long, narrow, cutting blade on the end of a wood shaft.  They zip through over a foot of ice with ease.  Ice saws are awesome if you like sight fishing in a hole that looks like a big flat screen tv.  

In order to start sawing, you need to make a hole to fit the blade.  Some people use a spud bar and others make a starter hole with an ice auger.  Once you start cutting, a good quality saw goes through the ice like butter.  

Ice saws are not cheap and you may need to use an auger to start the hole anyway.  Most ice anglers will simply purchase an auger over an ice saw.  

Final thoughts

People from every walk of life make their way to frozen lakes each winter to try their luck at ice fishing.  Not everyone can afford a powered auger so many ingenious (or not so ingenious) methods have been used to cut a hole through ice with any available tool.  If an axe is all you have, then don’t let that stop you this winter.

However, augers are still the best tool for the job and should be considered by anyone serious about ice fishing.  

Augers are designed for efficiently cutting ice fishing holes with less effort and better safety.  There are a wide range of auger types that fit every budget.  From hand augers as cheap as $40, to electric augers costing over $400.  Going ice fishing has never been easier.  Check out our recommended gear list for ice auger reviews.

Want to learn the basics of ice fishing?  Check out our beginner ice fishing article to learn how to catch more fish under the winter ice.

Want to get the most out of your ice fishing season? Check out our Washington State Ice Fishing Secrets book. 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!