It is cold and windy, there is a foot of snow on the ground, and no fish are biting, right? Wrong! This is the perfect time of year to get your warmest gear on and head onto the ice in search of hungry fish.
Ice fishing is a fun way to escape cabin fever in the middle of winter. This article will provide you with some top ice fishing tips and explain how to ice fish so you can get out and take on this unique variety of enjoying the great outdoors.
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Essential Equipment for Ice Fishing
Ice fishing rod, line, and reel
Ice fishing rods are traditionally thought of as short and lightweight. This has changed somewhat over the past 3 years, but the rods are still about half the size of an open water casting rod. Instead of the old school 18-24 inch rods, ice anglers have adopted 36-inch rods and longer.
When how to chose what rod to bring ice fishing; light, medium, or heavy action will depend on the species you are after. A panfish outing will require a lite or an ultralight setup. A lake trout trip will require using a medium or heavy-rated setup. The advantage of a smaller rod is mobility in the ice shanty tents, which we will discuss later on.
Ice fishing reels are unique; they are small and strong. When fitted with a 5lb braid, they can hold enough line to be sufficient for anything you plan on reeling in. The rod does most of the work, but here is a list of reels that will do the trick.
Lures & bait
There are many options when it comes down to what baits you should use when ice fishing. The main thing to keep in mind is to think small. Especially for panfish or smaller game fish, use small or micro jigs, spoons, or minnows.
For artificials, any small jigging spoons will do the trick. Jigging Rapala’s in the smallest size works great under the ice. Minnows are always a good choice for ice fishing, no matter what the target species.
When trekking out onto the ice, there is never a ton of real estate for a boatload of tackle. For ice fishing, bringing a small tackle box or bag will do just fine. Because the lures or spoons used when ice fishing are small, you never need a giant, hard-sided tackle box. There is plenty of other gear you have to focus on bringing out on the ice anyway.
Ice auger & ice shelter
To keep warm on the ice, shanty fishing is the way to go. These Ice shelters can come in all shapes and sizes. For the more mobile angler, an insulated, canvas, pop-up style shanty is the way to go.
They are a tent-like structure with no base, making them easy to set up and configure to your fishing preference. Out on lakes that freeze for the entire winter season, some anglers build seasonal huts that would remind you of a camper or shed. These are customized and can even be camped in for days at a time!
Ice augers are another necessity out on the ice. To get to the fish, you have to drill a hole through the thick ice; this is where the auger comes into play. In the past, augers were hand-driven drills. Technology progressed, and for the past 20 years, anglers have used gas-powered post-hole diggers to cut through the ice.
Now, even further progression has led to cordless, electric ice augers. My preference is still the gas-powered variety, simply because they are known for starting in any temperatures, whereas the electric versions run on batteries that do not last very long in the extreme cold.
You don’t want to freeze out there! Specific ice fishing outerwear has been designed to keep you toasty warm in recent years. The newest gear even has floating capabilities in the event of you falling through thin ice.
This makes being on the ice much safer. Pair these bibs and jackets with a base layer and some heavy winter boots and some ice fishing gloves to ensure you are comfortable for a long day on the hard water.
How to Find a Good Ice Fishing Spot
Crucial to any fishing trip's success, finding the fish is the priority. You can fish your butt off, but if you do it where there are no fish feeding, you are just freezing your butt off.
Use a fish finder or flasher in test holes to determine where the best spot is before setting up. Use satellite and topographical maps of the lake before heading out to identify changes in the lake bed. Look for transitions from silt flats to rocks and plan to fish those spots first.
How to read an ice flasher will be a great skill to learn once you set up your gear. Flashers are fish finders that indicate where fish are feeding in the water below your hole. These are beginning to be phased out with the introduction of live scope and other underwater fish finders, but it is a valuable skill regardless.
4 Main Ice Fishing Techniques & Methods
How to Ice Fish: A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners
So you just bought a ton of ice finishing gear and are ready to hit the lake. Not so fast. First, go online and look up the body of water you plan to fish. Search the map for transitions where the lake bed has sand meeting rocks or weeds. The structure is great, and you will want to set up as near to that as possible.
Now that you found your potential spots, prep your gear. Depending on how far into the ice you plan to venture, you will want to have a sled or snowmobile to bring everything onto the ice. Charge the batteries on anything electronic, and make sure you have plenty of clothes and hand warmers for your adventure.
“You have arrived at your destination." Perfect, now it is time to locate fish using your auger and fish finder. Pop a few holes in a line moving from shallow to deeper water along the transition. Once you find the most signs of life, set up the rest of your gear, including your hut.
If you have tip-ups, throw those in the holes you drilled as locators, and maybe one will go off and indicate that the fish have moved deeper or shallower than you have set up. If they do, great, you will have a secondary location if the first does not pan out.
Once you have your shanty set on a promising pair of holes, tie on one jig and one minnow or jigging spoon to your light, fast action rods. Use a fisherman’s knot for each to keep the presentation as subtle as possible and avoid using swivels of clips from the leader to the bait. This will minimize visual markers to the fish that your bait is attached to a line.
Waxworms, nightcrawlers, or minnows can all be used as a live or dead bait option. To hook a waxworm for bait, you can either thread the worm onto the hook head-first so that the hook runs through the entire core of the worm. Or, you can just pierce the body of the grub-style worm like you would a wacky rig for bass fishing. Either way will work.
Your fishing rods should be baited with different baits at first so that the fish have an option on which bait to choose. Use a 5lb braided line with a 5 or 6 lb fluorocarbon leader for the line. This should be strong enough for any panfish or walleye. Steel leaders are used for pike, but you may want to bump up the size of all your tackle when pike or trout fishing through the ice.
Once your baits are in, jig them in alternating patterns. Use a high-frequency or low thump-style jigging method until you find what the fish desire. If you are using a flasher, watch the display to predict when the fish will be rising off the lake bed to strike your bait, and be prepared to set the hook.
Because you do not have room for a net through the ice, retrieve the fish head-first through your hole in the ice and make sure they do not escape back down. Be extra careful that your line does not rub against the ice when reeling because that may damage the line and cause you to lose the fish.
Pro Tips for Catching Different Species of Fish When Ice Fishing
How to Ice Fish for Walleye
Catching Walleye through the ice can be tricky. Actually, walleye are tricky to catch regardless of the situation. Walleye ice fishing tips are as follows, find them first, try and use live minnows, try fishing at night.
Walleye are generally nocturnal, so dusk or night fishing increases your odds. Because they have great eyesight and sense of smell, minimize terminal tackle and use as fresh of bait as possible. Finding the fish is key because walleye school up and feed in packs; where you find one, you will tend to find more.
Crappie Ice Fishing Tips
Crappies are fun to catch through the ice. For my ice fishing for crappie tips, follow the same steps you would for walleye, but add daylight and small tube jigs to the list. You probably won’t have much luck fishing at night for crappie, but the same rules apply for finding the schools and fishing them with a finesse presentation. Small or micro-size jigs will increase your chances of hooking up.
How to Ice Fish for Northern Pike
Ice fishing for Northern pike is a bit tougher to translate into words. You have to think like a pike in order to catch one, especially through the ice. These fish will be looking to get a larger meal for their efforts, so try and use larger dead baits to entice a bite. The pike moves slower in the cold water and will be looking to expend the least amount of energy as possible to feed. Do not try and jig your bait around in front of a pike; you may have better luck fluttering large cisco or artificial bait on the bottom, stirring up mud as if the bait was dying along the lake bed.
Ice Fishing Tips for Bluegills
Catching bluegills through the ice in places like Lake Michigan is super fun. Find shallow water where the weeds and grasses enter the ice. Here, the fish will be feeding on small insects and grubs in the weeds.
Try to hit the lake bed with your auger and stir up some of these natural baits onto the ice. Use these on a slender hook for the best chance of hooking into tons of bluegill.
How to Deep Ice Fish for Perch
You can stack up perch through the ice. Use a small spoon, a small jig, or a minnow for these tasty morsels. Perch feed in schools, so it is mostly about finding those schools to have good luck. There is no specific depth at which they can be found, but I like to fish for perch around 15ft or so to start.
The best option is to drill a bunch of holes at different depths and search for the fish with your fishfinder. Set up your gear on the edge of the school so that you do not spook them. Ensure you have enough bait, because catching 50 or 100 perch through the ice is not a rare occasion, especially up here on the great lakes!
Popular Places for Ice Fishing
Ice fishing in Wisconsin is as popular as Nascar in North Carolina. Chequamegon Bay is a primary location for anglers because it is one of the first places in the country to "ice up." In early January, the ice sets in on the bay and soon becomes safe for anglers to venture out onto it. This location provides great fishing for multiple species, including panfish and lake trout. The primary ice fishing targets are walleye in this location.
This is a location where you will find those long-term ice shanty buildings that we discussed earlier. Here, ice sets in around thanksgiving, but the solid ice is not safe until early December. Fishing for walleye, pike, and panfish make up the majority of ice fishing on Mille Lacs, and there is plenty of each. Spearing is legal here, so do some research and try your luck if you plan on hitting this ice fishing hot spot.
Perch, crappie, walleye, and other panfish are what you will find on Winnebago. Fish close to the green grasses in the early season. Later in the winter, punching holes all over the main basin and scouting around for the schools are going to be your greatest chance for catching in this location.
Late winter ice is when you will find yourself on the western basin of Lake Erie. In February, when the ice is safe to set up camp, you can find almost unlimited walleye and perch. There are plenty of ice fishing charters on this side of the lake, but self-guided trips are easy if you find the right information online. Use the normal panfish and walleye techniques; nothing spectacular or unique make fishing any easier out here.
Important Safety Tips to Keep in Mind When Ice Fishing
Ice fishing can be dangerous if you are not careful. Even if the ice seems safe, it is always thinner near the shoreline, and the holes left by other anglers could be booby traps if you are not paying attention. Here are some other things to think of before your trip.
Common sense would tell you not to head onto the ice when the weather was too cold or windy, but these are some of the best times to ice fish. The climate you are not looking for on an ice fishing trip is warm temperatures. High winds are not favorable either, just for the sake of being cold. The best fishing comes on low-pressure days where overcast skies roll in. Use the extended forecast to plan your ice fishing adventures.
How thick does the ice need to be for ice fishing? Four inches of ice is the minimum for “safe” ice. Keep in mind, the more weight you bring onto the ice, the thicker you will need the ice to be. Bringing vehicles on the ice seems crazy, but ice over 7 inches is okay for snow machines, and waiting for 18 inches of ice would be wise before driving a pickup or a cabin-style shack out onto the ice. Be very wary of snow-covered ice, especially fresh or deep snow. This insulates the ice and keeps it from freezing solid.
Color of the Ice
Clear blue ice is the strongest. Try to always set up your gear on this type if possible. It forms after weeks of safe temperatures and can be trusted more than any other ice. White ice is half as safe as blue ice. It is semi-safe as long as it is thicker than 4 inches and has been established for a couple of weeks. Lastly, stay away from gray ice. This is rotting ice and is soon going to be liquid water again. It is the softest and least safe, but still holds snow, which is another case of being wary of snow-covered ice fishing holes.
Ice Fishing Safety Picks
Something to think about as far as safety gear are ice picks. These can be worn around your neck and deployed quickly in the event of a breakthrough event. They are simple, with handles and sharp studs that you can use as claws to pull yourself up onto ice if needed. Keep a set handy and around your neck on the outermost layer whenever you are on the ice. Like wearing a seatbelt, they are a great form of insurance if you ever needed them.
People also Ask (FAQs)
How do you set up helix 5 for ice fishing?
Setting up your Helix 5 for ice fishing is not very difficult. You need to buy or make a rig that allows your display to be electrified and portable. This can be bought on Amazon, or tutorials can be found on Youtube. The settings can easily be customized to run flashers or sonar.
How do you use a boat transducer for ice fishing?
Boat transducers can easily be converted for ice by building or bing a suspension mast. This takes your transducer from a boat mount to a post mount. The post has to be adjustable for getting your transducer below the ice and have arms that lay across the surface of the ice, which keeps the post suspended.
What to do if ice starts cracking?
Ice does tend to creak and crack if you are on it or not. If you find yourself out on the ice and cracks become uncomfortably loud or visible through the ice, it is a safe bet just to move off of that spot. Slight sounds and random noises are common, so as long as the ice is thick enough to be safe, you should not let creaks and thumps scare you.
Why do people love ice fishing more than regular fishing?
People love ice fishing more than open water fishing because it can be a party-style sport. Bringing friends and spouses is a regular occurrence out on the ice, and fishing can be supplemented with beverages, bonfires, and pop-up football games. Sometimes, once the tip-ups are out, anglers kill time waiting for a bite by grilling up food and playing cards as they wait for a flag.
Ice fishing is an awesome way to spend a day where there is not much else to do. It makes a great alternative to skiing or snowshoeing, and frankly, gives you a great excuse to buy fishing gear and get out of the house.
It can be made quite comfortable, regardless of the winter conditions, with a shanty, and can be enjoyed day or night. So, go out and try your luck. Let us know how you make out!