Ice fishing in the winter is a challenge to say the least. It’s hard enough finding fish in the spring and summer, let alone under a layer of ice. The first step is knowing how fish behave and where they go in ice cold water.
Every species of fish has different habitat, food and oxygen requirements. With a lot of research and many winters chasing fish under the ice, we’ve learned some of the best depths to target the most popular species while ice fishing.
For many lakes, the best depth to start ice fishing is in the 8 to 20 foot zone. However, depending on the species, time of year and underwater structure, depths less than 5 feet or more than 20 feet might hold more fish.
Our goal is to make it easier for you to find and catch more fish but keep in mind that every lake has its own unique ecosystem. Where fish are in one lake may be completely different in another. The list we compiled is intended to get you started in the right direction. However, you may still need to move around a bit to locate your target species.
Best depths to try while ice fishing
|Fish Species||Early Winter||Mid-Late Winter|
|Crappie||8 to 12 feet||20 to 40 feet|
|Yellow Perch||12 to 15 feet||20 to 35 feet|
|Walleye||18 to 25 feet||15 to 25 feet|
|Lake Trout||20 to 60 feet||20 to 60 feet|
|Kokanee||10 to 80 feet||10 to 80 feet|
|Northern Pike||5 to 15 feet||5 to 15 feet|
Crappie are some of the most coveted panfish sought by ice anglers. Big schools of fat slab crappies are a welcome treat during the winter doldrums.
Finding the depth that reliably holds crappie depends on the quality of vegetation and how late in the winter you fish.
Find crappie in 8 to 12 feet of water over flats that still have living weeds during first ice. Schools will stay shallow while plants produce oxygen and support a supply of food for the crappie.
As mid-winter arrives, oxygen levels decrease and when reduced sunlight no longer sustains plant life, crappie suspend out over deeper water. Usually over 20 to 40 foot basins depending on the lake. Locating them during this time is easiest with a good sonar or flasher unit since they can be anywhere in the water column.
Suspended crappie sometimes move around so staying on a school means drilling lots of holes. When the bites stop, move to other nearby holes until you start catching them again.
More often than not, crappie tend to hold tight to underwater structure but they like to suspend 4 to 12 feet off the bottom. Only with fishing pressure or a lack of forage do they move to new locations.
Bonus tip: Crappie feed up to bait which means you should keep your lure a foot or two above the fish. Their eyes are located on top of their head so dropping your bait below them is a good way to be ignored.
Perch are one of the easiest and most enjoyable fish to catch all winter long. They also happen to be one of the tastiest fish.
Ice anglers typically target perch on flats in 20 to 35 feet of water during most of the winter season. Although, early season perch can be caught in 12 to 15 feet before the aquatic plants start to die off.
The key to catching more perch is finding transition zones between shallow flat weed beds and the drop off to deeper flats. Use a good contour map of the lake your fishing to find likely spots. Then drill holes at varying depths and test each hole until the fish show up.
Remember, perch like to hold close to the bottom. Drop your bait all the way down and reel up until it’s within a foot or two of the bottom. When you know fish are below you and seem uninterested in your bait, gently tap the jig on the bottom to get their attention.
Most of the time I like to deadstick or use a small tungsten jig tipped with a minnow head or wax worms. Other baits like small forage spoons and small jigging raps can single out bigger fish.
Most conversations about ice fishing are going to involve walleye. Even as one of the most sought after game fish, they still tend to remain elusive to many new ice anglers. Knowing the depth and topography that makes a walleye happy will go a long ways in boosting your catch rate.
First, ice spots are essentially the same as where you left them in the fall. There is still a good food base in mid-depth transitions near shallows with access to deeper water nearby. In most lakes, small schools of walleye hold below the ice in 18 to 25 feet of water.
Points, drop-offs, reefs and healthy weed beds scattered near travel corridors are reliable spots to target. The most successful ice anglers are the same people who know the spots walleye like in the summer and fall, especially during early ice up.
As winter drags on, walleye might move deeper where the water is a bit warmer. At this stage, focus your efforts on humps and points at mid-lake depths.
Late winter brings change in a walleye’s priorities. Pre-spawn activity starts to dominate their habits and lakes with lingering ice will see a good bites in areas where walleye spawn. Key in on inlets and shoreline structure anywhere warmer water enters the lake. Depths vary, but 15 feet of water over structure in spawning zones is where I start.
Even in the winter, walleye are nighttime feeders that move from the depths to cruise the shallows before dawn and at dusk. Overcast weather has the same effect on walleye and the bite may pick up when clouds cover the sun.
Every winter, lake trout attract hoards of anglers to the ice on deep, clear-water lakes. All set out in anticipation of catching a trophy. Generally thought of as fresh water denizens of the deep, all to often anglers overlook shallow shelves and reefs where lakers hunt their prey when winter temps are more agreeable.
Water in the 40°F to 50°F range are ideal for lake trout. Once winter arrives, lakers can leave the depths where summer heat has banished them and enter nutrient rich shallows.
The best depths to ice fish for lake trout varies from lake to lake but depths of 20 to 60 feet are most common. The key is finding the right terrain that draws in cruising trout.
Seldom do lakers sit in one spot for very long. Their big bulk requires constant hunting of bait fish, like ciscos, to sustain them.
It is well documented by biologists that lake trout prefer to cruise along specific contour lines while they hunt and avoid moving up or down in the water column. This makes it easier to predict where trout will be as they move around points, coves, reefs, saddles and humps.
Inside turns are especially good places to drill a hole in wait for lakers. Pockets of bait fish in the area hold tight to these spots and draw in small packs of feeding trout.
Late season trout are harder to locate. Dispersed food sources play a main role in this change. Often you will find them at the same depths but over open water structures where they pursue bait fish that feed on surface level zooplankton.
Kokanee, land locked sockeye salmon, are fast becoming one of the most popular game fish of large lakes and reservoirs in the west. While most of us think of kokanee salmon as an open water target, ice fishing can be a highly productive way to catch them.
For a more in depth tutorial on ice fishing for these little beauties, check out our ultimate guide to kokanee ice fishing.
The challenge when ice fishing for kokanee is finding them. However, a few concepts will help you establish where to start.
First, kokanee feed primarily on light-sensitive zooplankton that suspend in mid-depth portions of the water column. Zooplankton move up or down based on light intensity. During ice over, they tend to stay shallower more of the day.
Second, lakes do have some current beneath the ice so focus on points and bars that extend into the lake and catch masses of the microscopic zooplankton.
Finally, an ice fishing sonar will be immensely beneficial when locating schools of kokanee. If you don’t have access to one, then a bit of trial and error is necessary.
Most kokanee schools are going to suspend anywhere from 10 to 80 feet as they follow the zooplankton throughout the day.
Once you find a likely spot that holds kokanee and their food source, start fishing at about 15 feet below the surface and work your way down in depth a few feet at a time. Give it a few minutes at each depth until you find the right spot. A line counter helps with reproducing successful fishing depths.
These big, toothy predators bring joy to many thousands of anglers every year. For the dedicated pike anglers, winter ice is a great time to find and catch trophy pike.
The best approach to catching pike is the simplest. Most ice fishermen use tip ups rigged with live or dead bait fish. Ciscos, sucker, shad and goldeye are favorites. In most cases, bigger is better. Monster pike can devour a 12 inch sucker with ease.
Pike are best fished at depths that support vegetation. Most bodies of water support weed growth at 10 to 15 feet or shallower. Find the depth with the best weed lines and drill some holes. As a general rule of thumb, fish your bait at half the total depth of where you are fishing. If it’s 12 feet deep, suspend the bait at 6 feet.
Pike frequently patrol shallow water scavenging for food. It is not uncommon to find the majority of fish in 5 feet or less of water. For that reason, you must be super sneaky to avoid spooking the weary predator.
Tip up fishing is a set-it-and-forget-it affair. Tip toe to the hole when setting your bait and sit a short distance from the hole. Try not to make too much noise and sip your hot drink of choice while you wait. When the flag springs up, head to the hole quickly for the big fight.
Other common questions
Are fish as active when the water gets cold
Fish still actively feed when lakes freeze over. However, as cold blooded creatures the frigid water slows down their metabolism. Species that are better adapted to the cold continue to aggressively bite lures and bait but they do not usually put up as much of a fight once hooked.
How to locate the right depth to fish
No matter what species you are after, finding the right depth to fish can be a challenge. Most of the time it takes some trial and error to locate where fish are in the water column. Electronics make it much easier but it is not required.
Want to up your ice fishing game? Invest in a quality flasher of ice fishing compatible fish finder. The Vexilar FL18 on Amazon is one of the easiest to use flashers for locating fish beneath the ice and we love it.
Get an all in one package for ice or open water with the Ice Helix 5 by Humminbird. This is a must have for diehard ice anglers and the built in GPS and lake maps will help you find the best spots all year.
Be sure to read our comparison guide to learn more about the benefits of flashers vs. fish finders for ice fishing.
Usually, you can find the right depth by drilling multiple ice holes that start shallow and get progressively deeper. Then either try marking fish on sonar or fish it for a few minutes. Change holes until you get a bite.
Unfortunately, there is not a universal correct answer to how deep you should ice fish. The depth depends on the lake you are fishing and how far along the winter season is. Fish depth is also highly variable among species but hopefully our quick guide helps get you one step closer to consistently finding fish.
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!