Photo: Metelevan

How to Gear Up for Ice Fishing

So the weather is cold and the lake is frozen—that doesn’t mean you can’t still go fishing.

With a little extra gear and know-how, you can take to the lake all year. Ice fishing is relaxing, fun, and an excellent way to enjoy the great outdoors in the quiet season. Getting started can be a little intimidating, though. Not only are you fighting the fish, you’re also fighting thick ice and cold weather. The ice fishing essentials outlined below will help you get out and start getting bites.

Gear to Get Through the Ice

Before you start pulling fish out of the ice, you're going to need to get through it.

Auger

An auger is a large drill that puts a hole in the ice. You have two choices here: a hand auger or a powered auger.

A hand auger has two handholds slightly off-axis, which allow you to crank-spin the auger through the ice. They’re cheap with many available for under $100, easy to use, and durable. Downside: Augering a hole by hand requires a decent amount of physical effort, especially in thick ice. Hand augers come in sizes ranging from 4 to 10 inches. Most beginners can get away with a 4-inch auger (smaller hand augers are easier to use than large ones). But remember, the fish has to fit through the hole, too, so if you’re looking for larger fish, make sure you have a larger auger.

Powered augers run on gas or propane, work through the ice quickly with little effort, and allow for bigger holes. These tools are heavier than their hand counterparts, often weighing around 30 pounds, so it will take more work to get them out on the ice. They’re more expensive as well, with many costing hundreds of dollars, and will need to be serviced over the course of a few seasons.

Ice Skimmer

As you fish through the ice, the water near the top will want to refreeze. To be sure that your hole doesn't reclose, use an ice skimmer or scoop to pull out the freezing slush. These often look like ladles with holes in the bottom to gather the chunks but let the water through.

Gear to Catch the Fish

Getting through the ice is only half the battle. Now, you’ll need gear to get the fish.

Rod and Reel

If you are just getting started ice fishing, the rod and reel you already have will likely work. Just put your line through your hole in the ice and start fishing. Use a 2- to 4-pound line for smaller fish and a 6- to 8-pound line for larger, predatory, fish.

You can also use small jigging rods. These shorter rods made for ice fishing have a simple spinning reel. Rather than casting, you lower your line into your hole and wait for a nibble to start reeling in.

Tip-Ups

Upgrade your setup with tip-ups. Tip-ups consist of a spool of line that sits over the hole and dangles in the water. When a fish takes your bait, a mechanical device shoots a flag up, or “tips” it up, to let you know there’s a fish on the line.

Once your tip-up triggers, grab the line itself, feel for the fish, give a sharp yank to set the hook, and then pull in the line, hand over hand, to “reel” in the fish. Experienced ice fishermen will fish multiple tip-ups at the same time. 

Bait

Many ice fishermen swear by live bait, especially minnows. If you don't like live bait, look for lures that best approximate live bait, like small plastics with swim tails that you can jiggle up and down to create interest. 

Photo: Chankz

Gear to Stay Warm

It’ll be cold out there, especially for your extremities, so layering with the right apparel is a must.

Clothing

Wear warm, moisture-wicking base layers on your top and bottom. Thicker layers made from merino wool or synthetic materials work well. Add toasty midlayers made from fleece or wool, then an outer jacket, either insulated with down or synthetic fill, or at least a windproof shell. You won’t be moving much, so be sure your gear is very warm. It’s better to err on the side of too much insulation rather than too little. (If you start sweating, shed those insulated midlayers while maintaining a windproof outer layer.)

Footwear and Accessories

Be sure you have exceedingly warm boots and gloves. Both should be waterproof, as you will more than likely be walking through water as you auger a hole and be handling water as you haul in your fish.

Gear to Stay Safe

Ice fishing, like all fishing, involves the dangers of water. On top of that, there are the risks 

of ice and cold. This safety equipment is a critical part of any ice fishing setup.

Spud Bar

Spud bars are long (about 5 feet), heavy, metal walking sticks. Use it to test the ice in front of you by poking or knocking it to make sure it can support your weight.

Ice Safety Picks

Should you fall through the ice, these handles with sharp tips can be used to pull yourself back out of the water and across the ice to safety. Hang them around your neck so you can easily find them in an emergency.

Personal Floatation Device (PFD)

One more emergency essential for the worst-case scenario: flotation. You don’t have to wear a bulky horseshoe collar paddling vest, though. Many modern angling PFDs are streamlined to be worn unobtrusively, rapidly inflating by a CO2 canister that’s only triggered when and if you end up in the water. 

Gear to Stay Comfortable

Out on a frozen lake, a few comfort items go a long way. You don’t need these items, but they’ll sure make your ice fishing excursion smoother and more enjoyable.

Shanty

These affordable pop-up structures can greatly increase your comfort by cutting down the wind while still granting access to your fishing hole.

5-Gallon Bucket

This simple piece of gear is a favorite among ice fishers. You can carry your bait and gear in it, sit on it, and use it to haul your fish home.

Sled

All of the above ice fishing gear adds up. Add a sled to your kit to make hauling it all to and from your fishing site easy.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Can I get through the ice?

Make sure you have the right tools to drill through the ice and keep your hole open as you fish.

Am I ready if I fall through the ice?

Ice fishing can be dangerous. Make sure that if anything goes wrong you are prepared to self-rescue and get yourself out of a bad situation.

Will I be comfortable?

Make sure you have proper layers, no matter what weather the outing throws at you.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.