Ice Fishing Beginners Guide - Fishing Companion

Ice Fishing 101: Our Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide

It’s that time of year again when we start to prepare for the cold and ice. For many people this means getting out the skates, corralling their sled dogs, and readying their skiing gear; but for others, it means cracking out a fishing pole and heading out onto the ice.

Ice fishing is a time-honored tradition for some. Every year, thousands of people brave the elements and go out on frozen lakes to try their luck at catching cold-water fish such as perch, trout, and whitefish.

While some people who head out onto the ice might be experienced anglers returning for another season, many beginners will take to the ice with little knowledge of how to fish or what safety precautions they need to follow.

This guide is designed to give beginner ice fishers an idea of some safety measures, equipment, and basic fishing tips and techniques when getting started.

What is Ice Fishing?

Ice fishing is a form of angling that takes place on a frozen body of water, usually a lake. Ice fishers drill holes through the ice and use rods to catch fish already living in the water below.

This is possible because certain species of fish can survive the winter months by burrowing into the mud at the bottom of these bodies of water –and when they’re hungry enough, they’ll swim onto the ice to feed off insects, worms, and other small aquatic organisms that get caught in its surface.

How Do I Get Started Ice Fishing?

All it takes is a little determination and the right equipment. As always, it’s advised to consult with your doctor before starting an outdoor activity such as this; however, if you’re generally healthy and not taking any medications that would cause complications with cold exposure, then getting started is as easy as heading to your nearest frozen lake and drilling a few holes.

As mentioned above, ice fishing doesn’t take much equipment– but there are some useful things to have on hand. As you begin building up your gear, it’s worth considering what kind of fish you intend to catch and the size of the body of water you’ll be fishing.

If you plan on spending most of your day out on the ice by yourself, you should bring some things along to make it more comfortable. Items like food and beverages, sunscreen, bug spray, extra batteries, gloves, and a first-aid kit are all important to bring.

What to Bring Ice Fishing

The following list is organized according to priority; however, it’s important to remember that safety comes first. Most importantly, to stay safe on the ice, you’ll need good winter gear.

Safety Gear: This should include a life jacket, flares, or other signaling devices in case of emergencies, and an ice pick for pulling yourself up should you fall through the ice.

Winter Gear: Clothing should be both warm and insulating, including a toque, scarf, gloves or mittens, several layers of pants and shirts to keep yourself from getting wet or cold, a waterproof outer shell that still allows freedom of movement (especially important if you plan on skiing or snowshoeing to your fishing location), and a pair of sunglasses or ski goggles to protect your eyes from the glare off the ice.

It’s also a good idea to bring a buddy along when you go fishing. Even if your friend isn’t an experienced angler, having someone to assist you with your gear and to help with the catch makes the outing more fun (and safer).

Ice Fishing Gear

Once you’ve got your safety gear and winter clothing, all it takes is a rod (or two), reel (optional), line (such as braided or monofilament), sinker or weight, lures/bait, an ice spud bar, and an auger

Rod(s): There are several styles of rods to choose from; however, beginners should stick to a simple rod and reel set. A one-piece rod is ideal because the line can be attached directly to the tip of the pole; however, you can also use a two-piece split grip or casting rod if that’s what you have on hand.

Reel(s): Reels allow for more sophisticated line management and delivery of lures. This added functionality is more or less unnecessary for beginners, though it can be useful when fishing deeper water and you find yourself needing to wind your line back in quickly.

Line: Lines come in a wide range of weights and thicknesses; however, most beginner ice fishers should start with a braided line that’s designed to be cut down for the size of the hole they’re drilling.

The thicker your line, the less chance you have of losing a fish; however, it also reduces your casting distance and increases the likelihood that you’ll get snagged on underwater obstructions such as rocks or branches.

Weight: A weight is necessary to keep your bait or lure on or near the bottom of the lake. For beginners, it’s best to start with a simple sliding sinker– one that slips along your line rather than being tied directly to it.

Lures/Bait: If you’re targeting panfish or walleye, then all you’ll need is some basic bait such as worms, minnows, or waxworms. When targeting pike, pickerel, trout, salmon, or bass you’ll need lures such as spoons and spinners in a variety of sizes and colors depending on water depth and clarity.

Ice Spud Bar: This is the only tool you’ll need to drill holes in your chosen ice. Pick one that’s sturdy, but not too heavy; larger barbell-style spuds are easier to hold but can be cumbersome when crawling around on hands and knees in search of a fishing spot.

Auger: An auger is a tool that’s used in conjunction with an ice spud bar. Its main function is to drill and remove larger chunks of ice for preparing your fishing spot; however, it can also be used in place of an ice spud bar in some cases.

Other Gear: Include a number of hooks, a selection of lures and bait, a net for catching fish if you don’t have a gaff, a small shovel for clearing ice slush from the surface of your fishing hole, and rope to tie off around trees or posts.

Finally, ice fishing takes place during winter, so it’s essential that all gear is both waterproof and insulated against cold temperatures. Avoid cotton clothing as it loses its insulating properties when wet; instead, opt for wool or other natural, breathable fabrics.

Tip-Up Ice Fishing

Tip-Ups are mechanical devices used primarily in northern climates to detect the presence of a fish at the end of your fishing line. An angler may set one or more tip-ups along their preferred fishing hole. When a fish bites, the flag at the top of the device pops up, indicating that you have a fish on your line.

What kind of fish can you catch on ice?

There are several fish species that can be caught while ice fishing. A few of them include:

  • Crappie
  • Pike
  • Trout
  • Salmon
  • Perch
  • Walleye

With all the different fish that can be caught on ice, it should be no surprise that the majority of people go ice fishing to catch fresh fish for dinner.

Where to Go Ice Fishing

Depending on where you live, ice fishing may be incredibly popular or pretty much unheard of.

It’s important to know what fish you plan to catch and how large they tend to get in your area; this will help you choose a body of water with the right kind of fish. Most anglers also prefer still waters like ponds or lakes out of concern for safety.

Before you head out, check the local weather forecast to see if there are any wind or precipitation warnings. While some frozen lakes may be stable enough for walking, driving across it with a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle can create dangerous pressure ridges that easily break through thin ice.

Be sure to bring along a list of all the rules and regulations that apply to the body of water you’re fishing since most bodies of water are owned by either private landowners or government agencies.

Regulations will vary depending on what species of fish you’re after; whether you need a license; how many fish may be caught in one day; and whether or not you’re allowed to drive a vehicle on the ice.

Keep in mind that moving slowly and staying aware of the thickness of the ice around you is absolutely vital. Be sure to avoid areas where water seems to be seeping up through cracks and use an ice spud bar, drill, or auger to check how thick the ice is at different points.

What Does Ice Thickness Mean?

Ice safety rules are determined by measuring ice thickness in centimeters (cm). Since it’s typically a lake or pond frozen over, there’s still (very cold) water covered by a relatively thin sheet of ice.

The thicker the sheet of ice, the more weight it can support. It’s important to observe and move carefully, especially if you’re visiting an area for the first time. Generally, an ice thickness of at least 10 cm is recommended for a single person.

A floe refers to any large stationary sheet of ice that’s not directly attached to the land or another body of ice. In most cases, it’s a large piece of ice that’s broken off from an iceberg or a body of floating ice. You want to watch out and be careful of these. Here’s a helpful chart.

Ice Thickness Measurements

  • 10 cm – 3 in: Safe for one person walking along but use additional support.
  • 18 cm – 7 in: One person can drive a snowmobile or ATV on this ice.
  • 30 cm – 12 in: This thickness of ice is considered very safe and allows for two people to comfortably walk along the surface. It’s suitable for most types of vehicles and is what we typically think of when traveling over ice.
  • 40 cm – 16 in: This ice is suitable for all-terrain and heavier vehicles.

How to Measure Ice Thickness

Pick a safe location and drive your spud bar into the ice about 20 to 30 centimeters. With one hand, hold the top of the spud bar while pushing down with your body weight to keep it from slipping out. With your other hand, pull up on the spud bar’s handle to remove it from the ice.

Immediately measure the length of the exposed shank of the spud bar. If the shank is 3.8 cm or less, the ice thickness is probably 2 meters (6.5 feet) or more and it’s safe to walk on. If the shank is more than 3.8 cm, the ice thickness is probably less than 2 meters and fishing may not be safe.

If you can’t feel or hear any water, then the ice is more than 30 centimeters thick and should be safe for travel. However, if you can either see water between yourself and the spud bar or hear a splashing sound as it enters the water, then the ice is likely thinner than 30 centimeters and you should move to another location immediately.

You can also use an auger or drill to measure the thickness of the ice, though it’s important to be safe when choosing a point of entry with either of these tools. A hand auger will allow you to safely drill into the ice without slipping through and can be useful for larger bodies of water.

If you’re using a battery-operated drill, pick a location where the ice is thickest and drill a hole about 20 to 30 centimeters deep for testing purposes.

Remember that any disturbance in the surface of the ice will create cracks in the ice that spread outward. If you intend to drill multiple holes, try to spread them out as much as possible.

How To Drill An Ice Fishing Hole

Once you’ve found a safe enough area and measured the ice thickness, mark the location of your hole, and follow the following steps to drill an ice fishing hole:

#1. Clean the Area

Start by clearing away any snow or twigs on the ice surface around your intended hole.

Then, create a wider hole of at least 20 centimeters in order to keep your auger out of contact with the bottom of the lake or pond until you’ve finished drilling. This will minimize disturbance to the surrounding ice and reduce your risk of falling through.

#2. Pick Your Point

Using your ice spud bar or an auger, find a point on the surface of the ice that is at least 20 centimeters away from other holes you have drilled. Mark the desired starting location with an X in order to avoid accidentally hitting it when you begin to drill.

#3. Begin Drilling

Attach your electric drill, cordless drill, or hand auger securely, and drill several centimeters into the ice about 10 to 15 centimeters into your marked point to create a starter hole. This will help prevent the tip of your auger or drill bit from slipping once you begin coring.

Continue gradually, keeping the drill as perpendicular to the ice as possible. If using an electric drill, set it on a medium speed setting and allow it to do the work; don’t push down too hard or you risk snapping its tip.

Keep drilling until you’ve reached a depth of at least 20 to 25 centimeters. Then, clean the surrounding area of any remaining ice chips and pack snow around the hole in order to minimize melting.

#4. Flag Your Hole

Remove your auger from the drill and insert a brightly colored flag near the top of your hole so it’s visible from all angles. You can also use a spud bar to make a short, angled mark across the ice at the edge of your hole. This makes it easier for you to find your way back later on.

#5. Safety First!

You’re almost ready to drop a line and start catching fish, but it’s important that you don’t rush through this step. Make sure that you have a friend or companion watching as you prepare your fishing hole so they can pull you out if you fall through the ice.

In addition, do not smoke while on the ice, as chemical-laced cigarettes could cause burning holes in the ice. Also, keep your pets away from potential holes as they may run onto thin ice without your knowledge.

#6. Pull the Plug

Once you’ve drilled your hole, it’s time to remove any residual water by pulling the plug. Use a screwdriver or spud bar to pull out the loose ice chunks and any leftover slush.

Next, take your auger or drill bit and spin it around in circles about five to ten centimeters under the surface of the ice to create a large cone-shaped hole.

What is Tip-Up Ice Fishing?

Now that you know how to drill an ice fishing hole, learn about how tip-up ice fishing works!

A tip-up is a type of portable fishing platform used by anglers who enjoy ice fishing. It consists of three parts: the spool, flag, and base. The spool hangs vertically on the center pole with the line running through it. The flag is the upright device that alerts you when a fish has taken the bait. The base is where you can set up your chair and other things while you’re fishing on the ice.

When is the best time to start ice fishing?

Ice fishing season usually begins in early December and lasts throughout most of March, depending on the climate where you live. It’s important that you check local regulations before heading out onto the ice during any time of year.

Where is the best place to ice fish?

Many people prefer fishing in open, flat areas where they can sit comfortably in their chairs throughout hours of waiting for a fish to bite. Think about where you would like your tip-up set up to be located before heading out onto the ice. If you choose an area with little to no trees, you will have more sunlight available during the day.

How Deep Should I Ice Fish?

It’s best to ice fish at least 30 centimeters below the surface of the ice as this is where most (if not all) of your fish will be. Of course, if you’re using a tip-up, then you won’t have to guess as precisely because it uses a spool that alerts you when you’ve got a bite!

You want to fish at the depth where the fish are most likely to be, which will change throughout the day. You can either use a fish finder or start by fishing shallow and working your way deeper as the sun goes down.

Ice Fishing Shelter

You may also want to consider bringing a tent or shelter with you if you plan on fishing for multiple consecutive days. Remember that ice fishing shelters provide protection from the elements only and should never be used as a substitute for tip-ups, life jackets, etc.

How Long Will My Fish Keep?

If you don’t plan on eating your catch right away, you can preserve it using one of the following methods:

Freeze your fresh fish in a freezer until you’re ready to cook it.

If you’re going to eat your fish within a few days, try bringing it in water and salt to kill any bacteria and add flavor.

You can also choose to smoke your fish if you plan on eating it later than a week after catching it. Just remember that this method only works with leaner, white-fleshed fish.

How to Rig My Tackle

Before you land a fish, it’s important that your tackle is set up properly. Here are a few guidelines to follow:

#1. Your tip-up should have at least six feet of line from the spool to the flag with anywhere from 20-50 pound test line. The heavier the test line, the more easily you can pull in large fish.

  1. Make sure your fishing line is tied securely to the end of your fishing rod.
  2. Use a small, strong spring bobber to keep your bait at the right depth (if you’re using one).
  3. If you’re not using a bobber, be sure that there’s enough slack in your line for you to pull up your catch.
  4. Your fishing line should also have a small swivel tied onto the end to prevent tangles.
  5. Use a sturdy rod that’s balanced and can handle being covered in ice while you’re out on the ice. Choose a reel with a strong drag system so it can be pulled away from your body easily if a fish takes your bait.

How to Rig a Bait?

Once your tackle is set up, it’s time to hook on a lure! While this may seem simple, there are a few important things that you must remember:

#1. Make sure your bait is hooked through the middle of its body. If your hook goes straight through the nose, it won’t be able to wiggle properly.

#2. Make sure you are using a single barbless hook, especially if you’re using live bait. This will make it much easier to unhook once you’ve caught a fish.

#3. Most ice anglers prefer using live bait such as worms, minnows or leeches because they’re easily caught and will attract more fish. However, you can also use artificial bait such as spinners if you’re not fortunate enough to catch any of these creatures.

What Type of Bait Should I Use When Ice Fishing?

There is a wide variety of lures and ice fishing baits that you can try out while out on the ice! For coldwater fish like trout or salmon, common choices include jigs, leeches, nightcrawlers, and wax worms.

If you’re planning on catching a larger fish, live bait is your best bet! Try using maggots, minnows, or fatheads. Additionally, some anglers will cut nightcrawlers into pieces if they are fishing for perch.

How Long Does it Take to Catch a Fish?

It can be difficult to determine how long you will have to wait before catching a fish, as they are often feeding at different times of the day. If you’re using tip-ups with multiple lines, this allows you to check more than one line at once so you don’t have to wait as long and can move on to the next fishing spot.

It can take anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours for a fish to bite, so be patient and wait it out! As you acquire more experience in ice fishing, you will begin to discover which baits work best in different locations.

How do I know what type of fish I’ve caught?

When you’re ice fishing, it can be difficult to determine the exact species of fish that you have caught on your line without having it properly identified by someone with knowledge of local wildlife. It’s important to realize that different types of fish feed at different times of day, so you will want to keep an eye out for them throughout the day.

You can also refer to your local fishing regulations guide, which is usually available online or at most sporting goods stores such as Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops. This will help you determine if the fish has been caught legally and how many you are allowed to catch.

Ice Fishing Tips and Tricks for Beginners

  • If you’re using an electric drill, make sure it’s fully charged before heading out. Also, keep your spare batteries in a warm pocket so they will be ready if yours fail.
  • Use the screwdriver or spud bar to pull out any ice chunks that come up with the plug; these could damage your fishing hole and endanger your safety.
  • Pack some snacks such as beef jerky or trail mix so you don’t get hungry while fishing. Try to bring water in a sealed bottle, as the caps of screw-tops could freeze shut and become difficult to open.
  • Bring along a spool of fishing line and at least one hook in case you accidentally drop your gear into the water. You can also bring an extra rod or auger for backup if necessary.
  • Ice thickness is very unpredictable; this means that you should never assume it’s safe to drill additional fishing holes if yours begin to collapse. Instead, pack up your gear and move on to another location where ice conditions are more favorable–preferably close by!
  • Keep an extra sweater or coat in your backpack just in case the weather turns bad for a short time; it’s better to be safe than sorry!
  • Bring along some hand warmers so you don’t have to remove your gloves while checking for fish or changing lures. It may take a little while for them to warm up initially, but they can be lifesavers when cold weather strikes at the worst possible time.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on the ice, as this could be a recipe for disaster. A good rule of thumb is no more than one or two people on a single fishing hole during cold weather conditions.
  • Keep safety in mind, above all else.

Ice fishing is a wonderful sport that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and skill levels. With a little patience, you too could become a pro ice fisher in no time at all!


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