We’ve covered quite a few topics when it comes to fishing on boats.com, but one we’ve never broached is what you need to know to go ice fishing. Considering that those of us located north of the Mason-Dixon line have winterized our boats for the season, the timing seems right to check out this fun and surprisingly effective form of fishing.

Although ice fishing is a fairly simply, it does require some specialized gear.

Although ice fishing is a fairly simply, it does require some specialized gear.

Ice Fishing Gear

Before you set out on to a frozen lake or river, you’ll need an assortment of ice-specific gear. Obviously, you’ll need a way to cut some holes in the ice. This is usually accomplished with an ice auger. Augers are available in several sizes and types, including some powered by hand, some powered by gas, and more recently some powered by lithium-ion batteries. Prices range from $60 or $70 for a hand auger to $1,000 or more for high-powered mechanical versions with motors.

A “spud” can also be used to chop through the ice. Spuds are essentially poles with a chisel attached to the end that you use to chip open a hole, and you can make one simply by duct-taping a chisel or screwdriver to the end of a broomstick. It takes twice as long to get through the ice as drilling holes open with a hand auger, and the holes aren’t nearly as neat, but for someone who only goes ice fishing once or twice a year a spud will get the job done. It’s good to have a spud on hand even if you do have an auger, because it makes an excellent walking stick for use on slippers ice and can also be used to quickly check ice thickness.

The rods you’ll need for ice fishing are a bit different than those used on open water. Casting distance is moot and one usually jigs or drops their bait while sitting or standing right next to their ice hole, so ice rods are usually just a couple feet long. Reels are commonly small, ultra-light sized spinning reels. It’s important to make sure they’re spooled with relatively light, low-visibility line, as the fish are moving slowly and will have plenty of time to stare at your offering while they decide whether or not to strike. Two- to six-pound test is the usual range for panfish like perch and crappie, and using line over 12-pound test through the ice is rare, even for larger species like walleye and bass. Once exception: some anglers up-size when specifically targeting very big fish, like pike.

Along with rods many ice fishermen utilize tip-ups. These are essentially spools of line on a frame that’s sized to sit over a hole in the ice, with a spring-loaded flag that pops up when the spool begins to turn. You set your bait at the appropriate depth, sit the tip-up down, and can fish a rod and/or numerous other tip-ups until a fish grabs the bait and gives a tug. This causes the spool to turn, which triggers the flag. When an angler sees that flag pop up, he or she runs over to the tip-up, lifts it off the hole, then pulls in the line—and hopefully dinner—by hand.

An angler can set several tip-ups in likely looking spots, then watch for the flags to pop up as fish strike.

An angler can set several tip-ups in likely looking spots, then watch for the flags to pop up as fish strike.

An item that few newbies think about but every ice angler needs is a strainer spoon, to clear ice chips out of the hole. A metal strainer will work, but will also freeze up into a block of ice on very frigid days. Plastic ladle-style spoons work much better. The best ones have markings on the handle that let you quickly measure the thickness of the ice, and if yours doesn’t, make sure you carry a tape measure to check the thickness.

We’ll talk more about measuring ice thickness in the Safety section below, but there’s another piece of gear you should carry as a matter of safety: a pair of ice picks. The ones used by ice anglers are attached by a cord and have thick floating handles and short prongs, so you can use them to pull yourself out of the water in case you fall through the ice.

Finally, you may want to invest in an ice tent or shanty. Many pop-ups built on sleds are on the market, and while they aren’t 100-percent necessary, they do make ice fishing much more comfortable when it’s extremely cold, raining or snowing, or the wind is blowing. The down-side? They’re also expensive, and since the ice fishing season can be quite short in many areas of the nation, people tend not to spend too much money on such specialized equipment. If you want information on how to assemble a complement of basic ice fishing gear without spending too much cash, check out the article Cheap and Easy Ice Fishing.

Ice Fishing Safety

As we mentioned earlier, specific safety gear includes ice picks and something to measure the ice with. You should also have a short length of rope handy, so if anyone falls through the ice another angler doesn’t have to approach too close to the edge to lend a hand. Tie a loop into one end of the rope, to make it easier to grasp. A set of strap-on spikes for your boots can also be good to have, because the icy surface of a lake can get quite slippery and falls are not uncommon. On top of these items, obviously, high-quality warm clothing is a must to prevent frostbite and hypothermia. You are, after all, standing out on a frozen body of water in the middle of winter.

The most important safety measure you can take when ice fishing is to simply not attempt it when the ice is too thin. Adventurous anglers consider three-inch-thick ice the bare minimum, and safety-conscious people look for ice of at least four inches. Before walking out over the ice always punch a test-hole through near land, to measure and verify the ice thickness. Also, remember that black or clear ice is stronger than milky or white ice, which contains air bubbles and breaks more easily.

Certain areas of lakes or especially rivers are prone to have thinner ice. Anywhere there’s flowing water, such as a creek with a feeder stream, is likely to have thinner spots. Bridges should always be avoided, since the roads get salted and much of that salt will eventually run off the roadway and onto the near-by ice. And the strip of ice closest to the shoreline is usually the first area to get thin on bright, sunny days, as the sun warms the shore and that warmth keeps the areas within a few feet of solid land slightly warmer than the rest of the water.

Tactics and Techniques

Although the basics of angling through the ice are similar to those you use from your boat, particularly when it comes to vertical jigging (since everything that happens when ice fishing takes place with your lines fished vertically), there are a few subtle differences. The most dramatic is the need to slow everything down. Fish are cold-blooded creatures, and their metabolism is quite lethargic at this time of year. They commonly swim around slowly and only make a fast move when actually eating a bait or lure. So quick, rapid jigging motions tend to scare off fish more than attract them. Short, slow jigging motions are the norm. The moment you feel a bite, however, it’s time to vigorously set the hook.

A tiny jig tipped with a meal worm or a similarly small bait can produce banner catches of panfish through the ice, like these bluegills.

A tiny jig tipped with a meal worm or a similarly small bait can produce banner catches of panfish through the ice, like these bluegills.

Another effective tactic is dropping your jig or lure all the way to the bottom, then bringing it up several feet, then slowly letting it fall again, in a slow-motion yo-yo type of action. After three or four jigs up and down, pause the offering half-way and hold it there for several seconds, waiting for a bite.

Tip-ups are commonly baited with something that provides its own action, like a minnow. (If you’re not sure how to rig them on the hook, watch our How to Fish: KISS Bass Fishing video. Although it’s focused on bass, the method we describe is perfect for ice fishing with minnow on tip-ups). These are set just a few feet under the ice for trout, and at or near bottom for most other species.

So: are you ready to make like Nanook of the North, and set out on a winter fishing adventure? Fill that bucket with minnow, get your ice fishing gear in order, and bundle up—you might be amazed at just how fun and productive ice fishing can be.

Written by: Lenny Rudow
With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld, boats.com, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.