You are currently viewing Ice Fishing 101: How To Ice Fish

Ice Fishing 101: How To Ice Fish

Sharing is caring!

“As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.”

Ice fishing is fun

There is no reason for an avid fisherman to give up fishing during the long and cold months of the Winter when you can fish on ice. Ice fishing is becoming more and more popular with fishermen from all walks of life. It is a great option for beginner fishermen looking for something to do in the Winter. It also represents a whole new game for experienced fishermen used to warmer waters. Ice fishing is a great hobby to practice and master. We will explore how to ice fish in this ice fishing 101 article.

Ice fishing is a unique experience

People ice fishing in the mountains on a lake

Ice fishing is an incredibly unique experience for the average fisherman. Ice fishing introduces a whole host of unique problems to fishermen and is certainly not something everyone picks up right away. It is a good idea to thoroughly understand how to go ice fishing before you attempt to do it.

Catching fish on ice is certainly a lot of fun for the right group of people. It is just as good of a bonding experience as regular fishing. It may actually be a better bonding experience because of the generally cramped and cozy quarters. Sitting in a portable ice fishing shelter with your companions is a great way to experience both fishing and the outdoors from a fresh perspective.

Ice fishing is popular

Ice Fising is Popular Lots of People Ice Fishing on the Lake

Ice fishing is very popular. There is nothing quite like the solitude and peace experienced out on the blanket white landscape of a frozen lake. It also provides a plethora of unique challenges regular fishing does not. Ice fishing would be a great hobby for any fan of Winter activities. Sitting with your friends and family in a portable ice fishing shelter with a cup of hot chocolate and the portable heater going while waiting for some panfish to bite is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. There is also an incredible amount of supplies and equipment that make the cold of the Winter a breeze.

Fish that are available in the Winter

Ice Fishing Catching Perch on the Lake

Many fish that can be caught in any given area throughout the warmer months will still be around during the Winter. The ones you find will just be slightly more hidden and buried under a heap of ice. Ice fishers are commonly known to catch, bluegill, sunfish, yellow perch, walleye, pike, trout, crappie, bass, and sturgeon, just to name a few.

What you’ll need to catch fish on ice:

Fishing license

Fishing License is Required to Ice Fishing or Fish on Ice

The first thing you’ll need to do before catching fish on ice is to get a fishing license if you don’t have one already. There is no special license required for ice fishing so your basic annual license will carry over from the warmer months if you already have one. Be sure to check your local laws and regulations for any special requirements or limitations imposed on Winter fishing.

Ice fishing rod and reel

Best Ice Fishing Rod and Reel Combo for 2020 Cover
Read our review of the best ice rod and reel combos under $30
Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2 Ice Fishing Reel & Rod Combo
Ice Fishing Spinning Rod & Reel Set Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2

You will need to get your supplies after you’ve gotten your license. You will want to get an ice fishing rod and reel if you don’t already have one. Ice fishing rods and reels are unique in that they are lighter and smaller than open water rods and reels. This also makes them much cheaper generally than most open water rods. One option is to get a combination ice fishing rod with either an in-line reel or a spinning reel. This is a good choice for beginners who don’t want to over-think their purchase. The ice fishing rod and whichever reel will be made to work well together for catching fish on ice.

13 FISHING The Snitch Descent Ice Fishing Inline Reel Combo with Quick Tip

Ice Fishing Inline Reel & Rod Set 13 FISHING The Snitch Descent

Different size rods for different size fish

Most fish that you will be facing during ice fishing will be smaller panfish. There are still some larger fish out there, though, such as walleye, pike, and bass. A slightly larger rod would be a good choice if you’re going specifically after larger fish while a slightly smaller ice fishing rod would be a good choice for smaller panfish. A medium-size ice fishing rod would be a good in-between for someone who is not so sure what they’re going to be catching. Lightweight rods will help you feel the bite of smaller panfish while heavier rods can be used to get the best of larger fish such as bass. Be sure to put plenty of thought into the rod you get. You don’t want to limit your options.

Lighter lines

Click here to read our review of the best ice fishing line for ice fishing.

You will generally want to use a lighter line when catching fish on ice. This will make your line less detectable when stationary. Lines are not nearly as active during ice fishing so there will be a lot of stationary time for your line. The lighter line will also help your bait sway more naturally as it goes down into the water and during jigging.

Sufix Ice Magic 100-Yards Spool Size Ice Fishing Line

There are specially made lines for ice fishing that are thinner and less detectable while also being made out of stronger fibers that stand up to the cold better than traditional lines. These will make a good addition to your ice fishing tackle box.

Spring bobber

HT Enterprises Slab Stopper Spring Bobber-Pack of 2, Micro, Red
HT Enterprises Slab Stopper Spring Bobber

Another great addition to your ice fishing rod is a spring bobber. Spring bobbers are made from coils and hook right onto the end of your ice fishing rod. These bobbers work well in the cold and are incredibly sensitive to the bites of even smaller panfish. They also buffer your jigging so overly intense jigging doesn’t scare away any weary fish. They are the most widely preferred bobbers for use when catching fish on ice.

Click here to see the best ice fishing spring bobbers and how to use them

Different hook sizes for different size fish

You will want a variety of hook sizes depending on what fish you plan to encounter and what fish you are trying to catch. Larger fish such as pike, walleye, and bass will need bigger hooks than their panfish counterparts.

Booms Fishing R2 Hook Remover
Booms Fishing R2 Hook Remover

You will also want to make sure you have a hook disgorger or hook remover for getting the hook out of the mouth of a larger fish. These special pliers are made to work the hook out nice and easy.

Gaff hook

Sea Strike SSHG-3 Aluminum Hand Gaff 3 Inch Stainless Hook, 12 Inches Long
Sea Strike SSHG-3 Aluminum Hand Gaff

Another tool for ice fishing is the gaff hook. The gaff hook is a hook that is used to hook onto your fish and pull it through the ice fishing hole once you’ve reeled the fish close enough to the surface. Getting a fish through a small ice fishing hole can be a little tricky. Gaff hooks shouldn’t be used for catch-and-release fishing because the fish will be mortally wounded.


Ice Fishing Tip Up in the Setting Sun on the ice

Another device used for ice fishing beside the rod and reel is the tip-up. This is a rig that rests over your ice fishing hole and sets a line down at a given depth that is adjustable. A fish biting on the line will trigger a flag to “tip-up” on the device and signal for you to come in for the fight. These are great for use in ice fishing because they require little active involvement. You can simply sit back and enjoy some company and hot chocolate and wait for the flag to pop up telling you that you’ve got a bite.

Click here to see our review of the best ice fishing tip ups

Live bait

The last thing you will need to buy to totally fill out your ice fishing tackle box is the right kind of bait. Some of the best live baits for ice fishing are different larval baits such as waxworms and mealworms. These are absolutely ideal for catching panfish. Larger fish can be caught using minnows. Be sure to always keep your bait fresh and alive to entice the most fish.

Keep waxworms in sawdust to keep them alive and keep them warm

Waxworms and mealworms need to be kept dry, as well. They are generally packaged with sawdust. You will want a bait bucket with a dip net to keep your hands dry. if you are going to be using larger live bait such as minnows.

Use waxworms to catch:

  • Sunfish
  • Perch
  • Crappie
  • Trout

Use mealworms to catch:

  • Bluegill
  • Crappie
  • Trout
  • Perch

Use Small Minnows to catch:

  • Crappie
  • Trout
  • Walleye
  • Bass

Use large minnows to catch:

  • Bass
  • Walleyes
  • Lake Trout
  • Pike

Artificial lures

You can also go the artificial route with jigs and lures. Good artificial lures for ice fishing would be ice flies for smaller panfish and minnow jig for larger fish. These can be some of the sturdiest and most reliable baits when you first learn how to ice fish.

Use ice fishing flies to catch:

  • Bluegill
  • Sunfish
  • Perch
  • Crappie
  • Trout

Use jigs to catch:

  • Bass
  • Pike
  • Walleyes
  • Crappie

Other equipment to catch fish on ice:

Once you’ve filled out your ice fishing tackle box you are going to make sure you have all the other equipment you need. The basic equipment for ice fishing 101 includes:

  • Ice fishing shelters (also known as shanties or shacks)
  • Sleds (also known as toboggans or runners)
  • Ice auger
  • Ice saw
  • Ice chisels (also known as spuds)
  • Ice skimmer
  • Ice fishing buckets

Ice fishing shelters

Ice Fishing Shacks on A Lake Ready to Ice Fish

Ice fishing shelters or shanties can be either stationary or portable. You can make your own or purchase one. You can make your own semi-permanent ice fishing shelter at home out of wood or other materials and even put in your custom own insulation. These can be set up for the ice fishing season wherever you plan to fish.

Portable ice shelters are much smaller and generally should be just large enough for a small handful of people to stay cozy in and to store all their supplies and equipment. They can be insulated and made for different levels of Winter conditions. You can use a portable heater or stove to really get the most out of your ice fishing shanty.

Best Portable Ice Fishing House Cover
Click here to see the best portable ice fishing houses

Ice fishing shelters can often be expensive or inexpensive to purchase. There will be many variations at different price points. A good and inexpensive portable ice fishing shelter will get the job done so long as conditions aren’t too terrible. Be sure to be wary of your needs and your budget when deciding on the best ice fishing shelter. A good shelter can make all the difference when learning how to go ice fishing.


Shappell Jet Ice Fishing Sled
Shappell Jet Ice Fishing Sled

Sleds are used to drag your supplies and equipment around on the ice. This can make a huge difference when you’re out on the ice. Sleds can carry your shelter along with all of your supplies and equipment. A good sled will be easy to pull along the ice and will save you a great burden.

Ices augers and chisels or spuds

Ice Fisherman Jiging on Ice with Ice Auger for Drilling Holes
Click here to see the best ice augers on Amazon

Ice augers and ice chisels or spuds are different tools that are used for the actual digging of your ice fishing hole. Augers can come in different sizes depending on the size of the hole you need and be either gas-powered or manual. Manual ice augers are cheaper but will require a good deal more manual labor.

Eskimo Ice Fishing Ice Chisel
Eskimo Ice Fishing Ice Chisel

Ice chisels can be used to break open a whole again if it has been partially frozen over.

Ice skimmer

Berkley Ice Fishing Scoop
Berkley Ice Fishing Scoop

You will then use the ice skimmer to routinely free the hole from slush and debris after the hole has been established.

Ice fishing buckets

THE FISHING CADDY - Bucket Storage Organizer Kit
THE FISHING CADDY – Bucket Storage Organizer Kit

You will want to bring plenty of buckets. Not only do buckets make great chairs to sit on while perched up around your ice fishing hole but they can also be used for a variety of other functions, as well. This makes the bucket one of the most important multi-purpose ice fishing tools you can have. Your buckets can be used to carry supplies and equipment, rest your rod, and carry any fish that you catch. Making good use out of your ice fishing buckets is a huge part of learning how to go ice fishing.

Staying warm:

Ice Fishing Walking on ice with the sun setting

Dress for the conditions you’ll be facing

Another thing you will want to make sure you have before going out on the ice are some good ice fishing clothes. Sporting good stores and outdoors supplies shops will have a wide range of clothing during the ice fishing season that is made for handling the harsh conditions and temperatures of the Winter. You will need to dress warm to stay safe on the ice. Being in the cold can be dangerous if you are not properly prepared.

Dress in layers

It is a good idea to dress in layers for ice fishing so that you can add and subtract layers as temperatures vary. You will want to have a light bottom layer, a heavy middle layer, and a top layer that protects against the wind as well as the cold.

One very important this is to stay away from cotton. Cotton does not do a very good job at keeping you warm if it gets wet (think sweating) at all. Compared to wool or other synthetic materials it is not a good choice.

A good choice for the bottom layer is an undershirt made of water-resistant synthetic fabric or even better Moreno wool fabric which keeps you warm and wicks away moisture. Moisture-wicking fabrics are necessary because built-up moisture around your body such as sweat can make you much colder than you would be otherwise.

Ice Fishing Merino Wool Base Layer Best for Fishing on Ice

A good and thick middle layer could be made of either wool or fleece. These heavy fabrics will keep you warm and insulated so heat doesn’t escape. A wool or fleece sweater would be ideal paired with a synthetic or wool jogging pants or other style of pants. Since wool clothing can be expensive you may get lucky at a local thrift store and find a cheap wool sweater that will work perfect for ice fishing.

Orvis Merino Wool Ice Fisihng Mid Layer

The final layer needs to be something wind-resistant that keeps out even extreme winds. A basic nylon windbreaker would be a good fit for less extreme weather. Down jackets or synthetic insulated jackets will make a good outer layer in harsher conditions. They generally have wind-resistant fabric outer layers.

Ice Fishing Outer Layer Arctix Mens Performance Tundra Jacket

Protect your face and eyes

You will also want a good wool or fleece hat to protect your head. Perhaps a face mask to protect your face in extreme conditions as well. The wind can do a lot of damage to any exposed skin. Goggles can also be a useful part of the ice fishers’ ensemble in extreme conditions.

Protect your hands

Palmyth Ice Fishing Gloves Convertible Mittens Flip Fingerless Mitt with Thinsulate 3M Warm
Palmyth Ice Fishing Gloves Convertible Mittens Flip Fingerless Mitt with Thinsulate 3M Warm

Hands are one of the most often exposed parts of our bodies. It is pertinent that you get a good and warm pair of gloves that are fitted for ice fishing. You will want good heavy-duty gloves that both insulate and protect the hands. Gloves with a flip back top to easily expose your fingers can be very helpful. You will also want them to be water resistant.

Heavy-duty waterproof boots

Sorel Men's Bear Extreme Snow Boot Great for ice Fishing
Sorel Men’s Bear Extreme Snow Boot Great for ice Fishing

It is also a good idea to get some heavy-duty boots. Nothing can make a good day of ice fishing turn sour like cold feet. You will need waterproof footwear that protects your feet. Your feet can be some of the most vulnerable parts of your body because they are always on the ground. You need to ensure they stay warm and dry. Large rubber-soled boots are often the primary choice for ice fishing. Many boots that are available are well-insulated for extreme weather conditions.

Keep a compass on hand

Another thing you might want to take along with you is a compass. Winter conditions can often cause white-outs. You can use your compass to find your way back to the land if you are stuck out on the ice and can’t see anything.

Now that you’ve procured everything that you will need to start catching some fish on ice, it’s time to get cold!

How to go ice fishing:

Know the location

It is always a good idea to start out in an area that you are already familiar with when learning how to ice fish. Winter has a habit of drastically changing even very familiar landscapes. Having a good amount of knowledge beforehand about the area in which you are wanting to fish on ice will give you a great advantage should anything go wrong. It will also give you a good idea of the types of fish that you are likely to stumble upon.

Best to not go alone

You also want to make sure that you preferably do not go alone. The Winter climate and conditions can be quite a mixed bag. This is especially true out on the ice. You will always want to have at least a second pair of hands and eyes to back you up should anything not go according to plan. You’ll also want the company! The more the merrier as far as catching fish on ice goes.

Backwaters and channels

Backwaters and channels coming off of large bodies of water are often the first areas to freeze and will provide you with some good, accessible early-season ice fishing spots in areas that you are likely to already be familiar with.

Testing the ice

You will need to find a good spot to dig your hole once you’ve decided on a general area. Finding a good spot to dig a hole can be tricky. You need to make sure the ice is thick enough to support you. Try to find fresh and clear ice. Clear ice is stronger than white ice or ice mixed with snow.

Ice Thinkness Needed for You To Ice Fish

It is a general rule of thumb that 4 inches of clear ice is enough ice to support people. Equipment and vehicles will require much thicker ice. Over a half of a foot is needed for a smaller car or ATV. Over a foot of ice is needed to support a truck. You can check ice thickness with any of your hole-digging tools and a tape measure.

Watch out for thin and “rotten” ice. Rotten ice is a term used to refer to ice with slush or other deformities such as cracks and discoloration. This ice is weak and will not be able to support you. Be sure to watch out for any nearby holes that may signal that ice in the area is giving way, as well.

Try to follow a good path of thick ice from the land so as to ensure that the spot you will be digging in as well as all surrounding spots are stable. A good chunk of ice that isn’t properly tethered to the land can break away and send you floating out into the waters with no way to get back.

It is generally always a good idea to check ice conditions before heading out on an ice fishing trip. You can find this information on the news using your smartphone or computer with a google search.

Dig your hole

So you’ve found a good spot to drill your hole. Now it’s time to start digging. You will want to drill a hole that is about 8-10 inches wide. It needs to be big enough that you can pull a fish through but not so big that you or your companions run the risk of falling in or dropping any important supplies. Use your ice auger to drill the hole. You will then use your ice skimmer to clear out slush and debris from the hole periodically. Always make sure the hole is marked if you are leaving it so that it doesn’t become a hazard for you or your companions.

Set up camp

You can set up your ice camp around the hole once it’s dug. Setting up your portable ice fishing shelters will give you a safe warm place to start preparing your line and make any other preparations necessary for fishing or comfort. You will want to make sure that you are as comfy and cozy as can be to ensure you have the best time possible when ice fishing. Setting up the stove and making some hot chocolate is a great way to start off a fishing session. You are now ready to put into action all you’ve learned about how to go ice fishing!

How to catch fish on ice:

Know your catch

It’s time to drop some lines once you’re all settled in. A good idea is to aim for some of the smaller panfish first if you aren’t sure what type of fish are available and biting. Get your lightweight ice fishing rod and reel and hook up some mealworms or waxworms. Drop your line in the hole when you’re ready.


Let the line fall to the bottom and then lightly jig your line. “Jigging” is simply the act of bouncing your line up and down to entice any fish that happen to be around it. Jig a little, then pause, then repeat. Your jig shouldn’t be too crazy. Just perform a slight motion that keeps the bait moving and dancing in the water. You can try pulling up your line a little bit to a lesser depth if you haven’t gotten a bite after a while.

Patience is key for some fish

You may need a lot of patience. It can take time to catch the attention of some fish during the Winter months. Bass and trout can be slow and lethargic during the Winter. In these instances, they will be harder to catch because they aren’t actively in pursuit of food as much. Patience and determination can be required in getting a bite. Other fish, such as pike, crappies, walleyes, and perch are still active and easier to catch.

Refresh your bait often

Small baits need to be refreshed often. Waxworms and mealworms have a tendency to fall off the hook in moisture. Routinely check your hook every 15 minutes or so as to ensure that your bait is still lively and abundant.

Ice fishing finders or flasher

Read our review of the best ice fishing flashers and finders.

Ice Fishing Flasher or Sonar to Easily See the Fish Below the Ice

You can use an ice fishing finder or flasher to make your ice fishing life much easier. These devices use SONAR to digitally track fish in the area and show you at which depths the fish are congregating. Using an ice fishing finders or flasher can help take some of the guesswork out of ice fishing.

Reeling a fish in

Once you’ve gotten a bite it’s time to fight your fish. It can prove tricky keeping them hooked and pulling them through the hole. This is where your gaff hook can come into play for a larger fish, like a pike, if you don’t plan on releasing it after it’s been caught. Once the fish has been brought close enough to the surface you can use your gaff hook to hook them through the hole or simply graph them with your hand and bring them out. And now you’ve caught your first fish!

Keep at it!

The same basic steps apply to larger fish as well. The only difference you will be using a larger hook and larger bait, and perhaps a larger rod. You can also set up some tip-ups. There are many options available when learning how to go ice fishing. Experiment and figure out what works for you!

That’s Ice Fishing 101!

Catching fish on ice is a fantastic experience for the right individual. There is just something to be said for being out in the solid white of the ice and the snow with your closest friends or family and hiding from the extreme weather while catching fish on ice together. The wide range of supplies and equipment available to enhance the experience only serve as greater reasons to try ice fishing today.

Trying to catch fish on ice may seem tricky at first but if you take the proper precautions, get the right equipment, and know what you’re doing, ice fishing can be a wonderful thing. You are ready to go and implement all you’ve learned about how to go ice fishing now that you know ice fishing 101!

Recommended Further Reading:

6 Best Portable Ice Fishing Houses

Best Ice Fishing Bag

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.