Photo: Andrew Peacock/Tandemstock

Ice Fishing Basics

Make fishing a year-round passion with this guide to winter angling.

If you love to fish, there’s no need to put away the gear in winter. Ice-covered lakes make for adventurous fishing—you just need to be prepared. Here’s how to get started, stay safe, and improve your chances for success.

Use the Right Gear

Ice fishing requires a few pieces of specialty equipment. Of course, you need the tackle to catch the fish, but you’ll need added gear to get through the ice, to stay comfortable on top of it, and to stay safe. Use this gear overview to get outfitted. 

Ice Fishing Skills

Time Your Outing 

The thickness of the ice, not the calendar, is what matters most. January and February are often the best months but it’s possible to fish in December and March, depending on your local weather, bodies of water, and the quality of your ice. Like regular fishing, early morning and dusk are when the fish will be most active. 

Pick a Spot to Fish

When it comes to finding places where you are likely to find fish, winter fishing is similar to fishing during the rest of the year. Look for an area near the edge where vegetation usually pops out of the water, just be careful of potentially thin ice. Also consider spots with sharp drop-offs, points, and deep holes surrounded by shallows. In general, you can find fish in the winter in the same places you’d find them throughout the rest of the year. Avoid rivers, streams, and spring-fed lakes; moving water can cause areas of weak ice. 

For a bit more information about your local lake or pond check with your local Department of Environmental Conservation to see if they have depth charts of your local bodies of water that can help you find deep holes and drop-offs that you didn't know about.

Drill Your Holes

Drill as many holes as you have tip-ups or rods and reels to give yourself the greatest chance of success. Some areas have local laws about the number of lines you can fish at once, though, so be sure you are up to date on local regulations (and permits). Clear your holes of slush and ice. Going after large fish? Be sure you drill a larger hole so you can get the fish up through it. 

How To Fish Your Holes

For most beginners, working with live bait like minnows or worms will be the most effective way to start. (Always check local regulations to know what types of bait are allowed.)

It's important to work the water column beneath the hole to find where the fish are. Lower your line until it is about a foot from the bottom; in clear water on a bright day you may be able to see the bottom, otherwise consult a depth chart. If you don't get any bites after 10 or 15 minutes, move your line up a few feet in the column. Repeat this process until you find the level where the fish are. If you don't have any action in about an hour, consider moving locations. Also, consider using a fishfinder.

Stay Quiet on the Ice

Just as you avoid hooting and hollering on the water when you fish in the summer, limit your volume as you fish. Also, minimize walking or stomping around your fishing holes. 

Bait

If you aren’t using live bait, try “jigging,” or giving your line small rhythmic taps to give your lure the appearance of something alive and moving. Choose a lure that’s appropriate for the local fish.  

If you do use live bait, be sure to store it in a cooler. Not to keep it cold, but rather to keep it from freezing. The last thing you want is a minnow-cicle or crunchy worms. 

Photo: Andrew Peacock/Tandemstock

Stay Safe

Know the Ice

Check reports for the lake you are fishing on and confirm the ice is safe. You want at least 4 inches of clear ice for walking and fishing (don’t bring a vehicle onto the ice). Avoid areas where water may be moving and ice may be forming irregularly, like inlets or outlets. 

To check yourself, start at the edge of the water and make a hole, measure the depth. If the ice is at least 4 inches, you can walk out, just be sure to recheck the depth every 150 feet, especially if the ice is at or near 4 inches. 

To make a hole, punch through the ice with your spud bar, your auger, or even a handheld drill and drill bit (just be sure to dry the bit after each use), then measure the thickness by inserting a tape measure into the hole, catching the end on the underside of the ice, and measuring to the top of the solid ice (not the snow). 

Bring Safety Tools

It's critical that you can rescue yourself should anything go wrong. Use a spud bar (a long 4- to 5-foot metal walking stick) as you move across the lake to test the strength of the ice ahead of you.

Wear safety picks—which are metal spikes with handles—around your neck so if you fall through the ice you can grab a spike in each hand and stab the spikes into the surface of the ice to pull yourself out. Pull yourself out of the hole you fell through in the direction you came from, which you know was strong enough to hold you up in the areas you walked on before you fell through. Kick your feet in the water as you pull on the picks until you are prone on the stronger ice.

For extra safety, wear a personal floatation device on the ice. These days, they can be small and convenient. Many options only inflate should they become wet.

Beware of Weak Ice

Stay away from ice over moving water and stay clear of ice surrounding plants or rocks or other objects that come up out of the water, as it can often be weaker than surrounding ice. 

Tell People Where You’re Going

As with any outdoor activity, let a friend or loved one know your plans: where you’re going, when you expect to be back, and who to contact if you fail to return on time. It’s always better to go ice fishing with a friend.

Bring a Phone

Keep it warm (next to your body) to preserve battery life. If there’s an emergency and you have cell reception, this will be the fastest way to get help. Know the body of water you are on, and where on it you are, to better help potential rescuers find 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.