What is the Best Live Bait for Ice Fishing

There are more baits and lures for ice fishing than ever before.  I sometimes find myself spending more time choosing the best setup than I do fishing.  

When the choices overwhelm me, I know it is time to go back to the basics.  Nothing is more basic in ice fishing than using live bait.  For good reason too.  Live bait reigns supreme when the fish get pressured and artificial lures alone don’t do the trick.  Even finicky fish have a hard time passing up a live meal.

Along with your regular assortment of Swedish Pimples, Acme Kastmasters and Jigging Raps, a supply of live bait should always accompany you onto the ice.  

So, what is the best live bait for ice fishing?  Here is our list of the best live baits that work in most situations for many types of fish.

  1. Wax worms
  2. Mealworms
  3. Nightcrawlers
  4. Spikes
  5. Minnows

1. Wax worms

There are plenty of arguments among the ice fishing community about the best presentation and baits for fishing.  However, always bringing along some wax worms is the one thing everyone can agree on.  

Wax worms have long been a staple for ice fishing.  They are the larval form of the bee month and can be up to 1 inch long.  Waxies are generally white in color and hold up in the cold well.

They certainly are not a natural food source for most fish but they can seldom resist devouring them.  

Panfish are most often targeted with wax worms.  Tip a few of these grubs on a small tungsten jig or a plain size 10 hook.  It won’t take long to have a limit flopping at your feet.

There is nothing keeping bigger fish like walleye and trout from finding waxies irresistible either.  You may want to stick with your jigging lures of choice, but simply tip the hooks with a couple grubs and your plain old lure looks a whole lot tastier to picky fish.

To get the most out of your wax worms, store them at room temperature between trips.  When you go out on the ice, avoid letting them freeze.  I like to keep the container in an inside pocket for the most lively larvae.  Wax worms live for 1-2 months if stored between 55°F and 65°F.

Most tackle shops will have wax worms on hand during ice fishing season.  Pet stores also keep a fair stock since they are common reptile food.  Online sellers are also available.

2. Mealworms

A top bait for die-hard ice anglers, mealworms are the larval stage of a darkling beetle. These fat little grubs range in size from 1/4 to 1 inch long.  

Mealworms are a prime bait for trout and panfish.  Fish them much the same way as wax worms.  Fish them plain on a jig or hook, but they work better as a tipping bait on spoons and ice jigs.  

Typically, they are not very cold tolerant, which is why most anglers use them when the temperatures start to warm.  Although, they stay on a hook well and where one grub is good, several are better.  For the really big mealies, try hooking them sideways and squeeze it a bit to increase their scent. 

Like the wax worms, keep them from freezing by placing them in a pocket or near the heater.  After your ice fishing trip, you can keep them in the refrigerator for up to a year if you feed them with a bit of potato or similar vegetable.  Beware, they may turn into beetles at some point.  

Find them at tackle shops or pet stores.

3. Nightcrawlers

Few baits are as universal as a nightcrawler.  They simple catch fish all year long.  Everything from trout, panfish and walleye seem to find worms irresistible.  

There is not much a big nightcrawler, on a size 8 hook, won’t catch.  For trout, I like to suspend them just off the bottom using a marshmallow to float them up.  

You can really slay the panfish with a chunk of worm on a tungsten jig.  A variety of lures are greatly improved by tipping them with a small piece of worm as well.  

Even walleye can’t resist a juicy nightcrawler.  I have had great success with a nightcrawler on an 1/8 oz jig.  Drop it to the bottom and lightly tap it to stir up some silt.  Usually after the initial drop, walleye vacuum it off the bottom and the fight is on.

Of course, you can always buy worms from tackle stores, but it is super easy to get a year long supply of worms from your own yard.  Check out our worm catching article to learn how to find and care for them.

4. Spikes

Here is another small larvae for the list.  These bluebottle fly maggots are a bit smaller than wax worms and are ideal for a variety of fish.  They max out at about 1/2 inch in length, yet their tough exterior keeps them on the hook longer.

Plenty of anglers use them solely for bluegill and sunfish but trout and whitefish are especially fond of these little morsels.  

A small, 1/32 oz, Kastmaster or Swedish Pimple tipped with a couple spikes is quite effective on whitefish.  These smaller maggots seem to be just the right size for their small mouths.

Keeping spikes alive and preventing them from pupating is a frustration for many anglers.  Generally, it is best to keep spikes in the coldest spot of your refrigerator in a sealed container.  

You don’t want them to freeze though.  They should last the whole season without too much trouble.  The spikes seem to pupate or die quickly if I remove them from the fridge and warm them up too often.  I avoid this by only taking what I need for a day of fishing.

Dedicated tackle shops and online sources are your best bet for purchasing a supply of spikes.  

5. Minnows

Nothing is more natural than the lively action of a struggling minnow and few baits catch as many fish.  If big walleye and slab crappie is what you’re after then minnows are the bait for you. 

Fatheads, shiners and sucker minnows are the most readily available for ice fishing.  Keep a variety of sizes on hand because you never know what the fish are looking for from day to day.  

For walleye, a favorite tactic is to deadstick a minnow on a small spoon or ice jig and suspend it with the tail just smacking the bottom.  This creates just enough commotion and flash.  Walleye in the area will do a quick 180 and pin it to the bottom.  Watch your rod tip for a single solid tap.

If you are going after crappie, 1-2 inch minnows work well.  There are a few ways to hook them.  Through the lips, under the dorsal fin or through the head.  It really just depends on how you want to present the minnow to the fish.

I find that minnows die quickly when hooked throughout the lips because it inhibits their breathing.  For that reason, I opt for hooking them under the dorsal fin.  When using an ice jig, I hook them through the head.  Surprisingly, this doesn’t kill them and they stay on the hook longer.  

Keeping a supply of minnows is more of a logistical challenge than the worms or maggots.  Buying fresh minnows each day ensures the best quality.  However, if they die, not all is lost.  Sometimes the fish are on a scavenging bite and dead minnows are the hot ticket.  

Other great baits for ice fishing

There are plenty of other baits that catch tons of fish.  While not considered live baits, I have listed some that are worth their weight in gold.

  • Powerbait:  An excellent choice for trout and panfish.  Leave it suspended on a bare hook or use it to tip a small jig or worm.  Either way, it is a sure fire way to get your limit.
  • Salmon eggs:  A favorite among whitefish, kokanee and trout anglers.  Use a small spoon to get the eggs close to your target.  Red eggs are the most popular but don’t be shy of other colors like orange or yellow.  Sometimes fish key into one color over the other.
  • Cut Bait:  Natural flavors and scents are sometimes superior to artificial baits.  When your live minnows die or you have scraps from cleaned fish, save some cut bait to tip your lures.  Deadsticking is also a great way to present cut bait to foraging walleye or lake trout.

Do leeches work for ice fishing

Most ice anglers would agree that leeches are best saved for warm water fishing.  Leeches have a tendency to ball up on the hook in cold water.  It ends up being a less-than-appetizing meal for a fish.

But don’t be so quick to dismiss leeches altogether.  It may be the secret weapon you are looking for.  Savvy anglers know that leeches can be acclimated to colder temperatures by storing them in the fridge prior to fishing.

In water temperatures that hover around 37°F to 39°F, they will swim with a slow enticing wiggle that can prove killer for walleye, crappie and perch.  Fish them near the bottom for best results.

You can also freeze leeches.  After thawing, they firm up and stay on the hook really well.  Often this presentation works better than other live baits that fish see all the time.  Yet, no one does it.  

Is live bait legal

It is always important to check the local regulations before trying new live baits on a lake.  Some locations require the use of artificial bait only.  

Live minnows are especially problematic for sensitive ecosystems and may be prohibited to prevent the introduction of invasive species.  However, dead or frozen minnows are often allowed, as is trapping native minnows for fishing.

Conclusion

It is always exciting to try the newest ice fishing lures and build your collection.  Just remember, that sometimes the simplest techniques work when everything else fails.  Hopefully, one of the live baits on this list will convince you to try out some tried and true methods this ice fishing season.  

Have fun and be safe.