How to go Ice Fishing for Beginners

Fall is past and spring is still months away, but that does not mean the fishing has to stop.  Some of the best fishing of the year waits beneath a sheet of ice. 

Ice fishing requires a bit more preparation and planning than fishing open waters in warmer months.  

The winter environment is harsher and walking on ice is dangerous if attempted with poor judgment.  By taking the right precautions and having the right gear, a day on the ice will not only be comfortable and safe, it is an exceptionally fun and simple way to spend time with family and friends. 

Ice Safety

Without question, the most critical consideration before venturing out on the ice is safety.  Falling through ice into frigid water is no joke.  Even a quick dip in icy waters can cause hypothermia and death.  However, fishing on the ice does not have to be a life threatening adventure reserved for thrill seekers.  

Here are several ways to make sure your own trip ends safely with a stringer of fish and dry clothes.  

  • Bring a friend.  You are literally taking your life into your own hands when you venture out onto the ice alone.  Having a buddy with you not only makes for a fun adventure, it is a good way to ensure you get rescued if all goes wrong. 

If you prefer absolute solitude and must go alone, at least let someone know where you are going and when you will be back.  You can also bring a cell phone so you can call if there are delays. 

  • Visit your local fishing shop for ice reports.  Wherever you decide to go fishing, the locals at a nearby fishing shop will have better information about the ice conditions.  Ice thickness and quality change rapidly throughout the season, so ask about the conditions before each trip.
  • Check for thickness and ice quality.  As a general rule of thumb, never walk on ice that is less than 3 inches thick.  I personally want 4 inches of solid clear ice before I risk another step.  If you are using a snow mobile, you need at least 6 inches.  A small truck is risky on anything less than 12 inches.  

Thickness is not the only thing to consider.  Ice quality is important as well.  Old ice can develop weak spots and cracks as the ice shifts or goes through a few thaw cycles.  If you notice discolored spots or water on the surface, stay away.  

It is a good idea to check ice thickness before heading out to deeper water.  Use an ice pick or “ice spud” to break through the ice and use a ruler to measure the thickness.  Ice does not always freeze uniformly and the ice near shore may be thicker.  Frequently check the thickness as you progress out further. 

Ice quality also depends on the body of water you plan to fish.  Avoid ice fishing on rivers.  Strong currents cause cracks and rapidly changing ice thickness.  Lakes also have underwater features that cause pockets of thin ice, including springs, weeds and even fish that stir up warm water.  Know what to expect before you go.

  • Wear a life vest.  An unexpected plunge into icy water is terrifying.  Your body will instantly go into shock.  Remaining calm and staying above the water as you gasp for breath is near impossible.  Wearing a life vest can save your life and make it possible for you to pull yourself onto the ice.    
  • Bring rope and ice picks.  The life vest will keep you afloat but getting back onto the ice is difficult even in the best of conditions.  Your partner can throw you a rope and heave you back out.  If you are alone, having ice picks attached to you is a good idea.  Wet ice is slippery and it will be difficult to grab when pulling yourself out.  The ice picks will give you extra leverage.
  • Use common sense.  Having all the best safety gear is no substitute for common sense. If the conditions aren’t quite right or you feel unsure, don’t risk it.  Do more research and talk to the locals before heading out to a new spot.  

Finding an Ice Fishing Spot

Before you start shopping for all the new gear, you first need to find a frozen piece of water.  Not all regions of the world are going to have lakes that freeze in the winter, but in the United States, chances are you don’t live too far from ice fishing locations.  

The easiest way to find out which lakes or ponds provide ice fishing opportunities is to ask your local tackle supply shop.  While they may not give away all their best fishing holes, they certainly can get you started. 

Tackle shops are also the place where fishing stories are told.  Ask lots of questions and you will surely glean some useful tips.

A quick visit to your state’s fish and wildlife website is a great way to discover the fishing opportunities near you.  Many states provide a thorough report of fishing locations as well as tips for success. 

If all else fails, call or email your regional fish biologist.  Often times, they have first hand knowledge of quality places to fish.  

To access your state’s fish and wildlife department, check out my interactive map of Fish and Wildlife by State.

Once you find a lake to fish, you still need to determine the best spots for drilling a hole.  Even below the ice, fish will still use contours and structure for protection and feeding.  Use a map or google earth to get a birds eye view of potential hot spots.

The Essential Gear

It is very easy to get carried away and buy lots of new and specialized gear when first learning to ice fish.  However, getting started does not need to cost a fortune and most of the equipment is probably stuff you already have. 

While the list of gear below is not exhaustive, it is everything I use to have a fun day on the ice.  Some items on this list will be discussed in greater detail later.

  • Fishing license.  You will still need a fishing license to fish in winter.  You should also review the regulations for the area you plan to fish.
  • Cold weather gear.  More on this later.
  • A bucket with a lid.  A bucket is good for keeping your catch and if it has a lid, you can sit on it too.  Being able to sit will keep you focused on fishing longer.
  • Snow sled. It will be hard to carry all that gear in your arms while tying to safely get to your fishing spot. A sled with a pull rope makes it easier to transport everything onto the ice
  • Fishing pole.  You can purchase a pole specifically for ice fishing. They are small, short poles that fit well inside a small ice fishing shelter and allow you to stay next to the hole. If all you have is a conventional 6-7 foot fishing pole, start with that.  However, after a couple trips on the ice, the advantage of a short pole becomes apparent.  
  • Tackle and live bait. 
  • Ice auger, ice spud and ice skimmer.  These tools are needed to get through the ice to the fish below.
  • Safety gear.  At a minimum you should bring a life vest (please wear it), rope and hand picks.
  • Ice shelter.  This is not really essential but it can increase your comfort level significantly.  There are many options ranging from small, tent-like shelters to wood framed shelters that require a vehicle to place on the lake.  I prefer to keep it simple and do without.  However, when it gets windy, a small tent shelter is a blessing.
  • Heater and hand warmers.  A propane heater is an awesome addition for a day on the ice.  Whether you are in a shelter or out in the open, a heater is a great way to keep the cold at bay.  I personally use buddy heaters.  They are safe to use and very portable.  
  • Good food.  This is a must.  Warm soup in a thermos goes a long ways to keep you fishing longer.  Some anglers go as far as bringing a small barbecue on the ice to make hot dogs and beans.  Throw in your favorite drinks and you have a recipe for a great day with friends.

Dress for the Cold

There really is no way to get around the fact that fishing on ice in the winter will be chilly.  Having the right clothing, though, can make your day much more bearable and fun. 

While sitting on an exposed piece of ice in the middle of a lake, you will begin to understand the wisdom of dressing in layers. 

A bottom layer of water wicking cloths will keep sweat from chilling you to the bone.  Even in temperatures well below freezing, it is possible to sweat when you exert yourself while walking or drilling holes.  Move slow and try to work at an even tempo to avoid over heating.

Your mid layer should consist of a long sleeve wool or fleece shirt.  I like to wear this while drilling holes.  It provides protection from the wind while still allowing me to work without getting too hot.

When the work is done and you start fishing, the cold really starts to sink in.  Now is the time to put on a well insulated outer coat, preferably with a hood.  Insulated, waterproof pants are also a must since you will frequently kneel on the ice.

The first part of your body to get cold during a long day on the ice will probably be your feet.  They are standing on the ice all day after all. Insulated, waterproof boots with good traction, in combination with warm socks, will help keep those toes nice and toasty.

Make sure to read our dedicated article on the 9 best ways to keep your feet warm while ice fishing if you are prone to getting cold feet.

There are a few other essentials to bring that will increase your comfort while fishing. Ear muffs or a stocking cap will protect your ears and thick gloves will keep your fingers working properly.  Don’t leave the sunglasses at home either.  Glare from the snow and ice can be blinding even on overcast days.  

Bonus tip.  Bring a thermos full of your favorite hot beverage and lots of hand warmers.  When it gets really cold, I like to stuff hand warmers in my coat to warm my core while sipping something hot.  

Getting through the Ice

Obviously, the main difference between ice fishing and other types of fishing is the ice.  Cutting a hole in the ice will require an ice auger (technically, you can cut a hole without an auger but it is much easier with one).  There are countless varieties, including ones that are motorized for faster drilling with less effort. We’ve written another article that goes over the different types of augers and how to pick the best type for you.

A hand cranked auger with a sharp cutting blade will be more than adequate for the average angler who intends to only drill a few holes in a day.  

The size of the hole you need depends on the size of fish you expect to yard up to the surface. The most common auger size is 8 inches.  All but the most massive fish will fit through an 8 inch hole.  Augers that are 6 to 10 inches work best, but the larger the hole, the harder it will be to drill. 

We discuss ice fishing hole sizes in great detail in this article.

For safety, never make a hole big enough for a person to fall through. 

Once you have a hole in the ice there will be some maintenance required to keep it from refreezing.  An ice skimmer is a tool used to scoop out small pieces of ice from the hole.  It is essentially a ladle-like sieve with a long handle.

In addition to the little ice floaters that will form in the water, the hole itself will gradually freeze shut.  

To keep the hole open, an ice spud (a long metal pick) is periodically used to chip away at the edges. The ice spud is also good for checking the ice thickness as you make your way out onto the ice.

Fishing Gear and Techniques

Like most types of fishing, gear and tackle selection can get unnecessarily complicated.  Many of the lures and bait choices offered by retailers are aimed at snagging cash from your pocket instead of actually catching fish.

Try to keep it simple when first learning to ice fish.  The gear and tackle needed to actually start catching fish is simple and relatively inexpensive.

Rods and Reels

When you are first starting, a basic ice fishing pole is all you need. You can even use a regular spinning setup if that is all you have.  The style of rod that is right for you will depend on the species of fish you are targeting.  

For panfish in shallow water, a palm rod that resembles a small spool of line connected to a short stick, will help keep your setup easy to pack and is still plenty of fun to use.  This is a great option for kids too.

For most fishing, a conventional ice rod and reel combo is universally effective for many species, including walleye and trout.  Rod and reel combos for ice fishing are similar to regular spinning rods but much shorter, which allows you to use them in a shelter and stay close to the hole.

Once you have your pole picked out, it is time to put on some line.  During the winter months, fish do not fight as hard, so light weight line is fine.  I use 4 – 6 pound test monofilament line for most situations.

If you live in a location where you can have multiple lines in the water, a tip-up device is an option.  A tip-up uses a spring release mechanism that tips up a bright colored flag when a fish bites your bait.  This allows you to fish multiple spots at one time and notifies you quickly when a fish bites.  

Tackle and Bait

This is where it is easy to get overwhelmed.  There are so many choices of baits, jigs and spoons, however, you only need a small selection of tackle to catch lots of fish.

For most panfish, small jigs or a size 10 hook with live bait works best.  Wax worms are arguably the most effective live bait to use. 

Walleye can be caught using live minnows or minnow imitation jigs with bait or scent added.

For trout, I recommend a size 8 hook or panfish jig with a piece of worm or salmon eggs.  

These simple bait choices are a great place to start and will produce the bulk of your success.  

Fishing Techniques

Remember, fish are moving slower in the winter than they do when the water is warmer.  

Their metabolism is slower and they will avoid wasting energy to chase food.  

Lower your line to the bottom and then reel up a couple of feet.  If you are snagging weeds, try reeling up a foot or two more. Let your bait sit and occasionally jig your bait in small increments.  

Don’t be afraid to experiment.  Every lake has different conditions and factors that affect the quality of fishing.  

Another piece of equipment that may be useful is ice fishing sonar.  The hard core ice angler uses sonar to pinpoint schools of fish and the depth they are swimming.  This is certainly not necessary for success but may be an option after you get started.

Final Thoughts

It may seem like it takes a lot of expensive gear and know-how to start ice fishing, but it is ultimately up to you to keep it as simple as you want.  The basic idea is to stay safe and warm while catching fish.  With an ice auger, and a little bit of tackle and bait, you can cure your cabin fever and go fishing this winter.