Ice Fishing 101: Expert Tips for a Successful Catch

hole in ice for ice fishing

If you feel like you’ve done all there is to do when it comes to angling and have tried just about every lake, stream, and stretch of ocean there is, the next frontier is to head to the ice.

This unique setting can provide a wonderful take of traditional fishing and many people find that the fish are surprisingly receptive during this time of year.

How do you go ice fishing, though?

Ice fishing is a technique used for fishing in sub-zero conditions, with the two most common methods being ice traps or a specialized rod that works through a hole in the ice.

Although the fish are considered easier to catch, the technique used for ice fishing is more challenging than regular angling.

There’s a lot to love about heading out in the freezing cold to enjoy a spot of fishing when nobody else is around, and even better when you see how receptive the fish are.

If you’ve been thinking about getting into ice fishing but need to learn the fundamentals, this guide can help you out.

What Is Ice Fishing?

what is ice fishing

Ice fishing is a style of angling that takes place on a frozen body of water. The fisherman will use a series of tools and methods, like spears, hooks, and lines, to catch fish through an opening on a sheet of ice, and most likely a hole they’ve created.

The practice of ice fishing can be done in many ways, including using a specially built shelter to protect against the freezing weather or sitting atop the ice and fishing into the water below.

People may spend days camped out for an ice fishing expedition or go out for just a few hours, so there’s no limit to how you can do it.

The gear used for ice fishing is specialized and it can’t be done with your regular angling equipment. There should also be safety measures in place due to the heightened risk of falls through the ice, and cold-related illnesses like hypothermia and frostbite.

How Do You Ice Fish?

The most important part of ice fishing is finding the right location, as just like regular fishing, this could make or break your day.

Depending on what stage of winter it is, the fish will be somewhere different, so during mid-winter, they’ll be in deep waters, and in early winter they’ll still be hanging out in their usual spots before the water froze.

Once you have the location, time it so that you’re there either near sundown or in the morning, as this is when they’re feeding. The biggest benefit of ice fishing is that fish are trying to conserve their energy because the temperatures are so cold, and they’re not as fast as usual.

The two main techniques used for ice fishing are tip-ups and jigging a bobber, and some even like to use a spear or club.

A tip-up is a specialty device that lets you lower the bait to a set depth in the water and leave it, with a marker on top that can show you once a fish is biting.

A bobber is a short light rod that you place in a hole in the ice and jiggle it around using small bait to try and attract fish. Both of these options are good, but jigging is considered more enjoyable and tip-ups allow you to cover more ground.

The Essential Gear

The key to any successful fishing trip is having the right supplies, and this couldn’t be more true than when talking about ice fishing. These are some of the essential pieces you’ll want for a successful day on the ice.


light rods for ice fishing

The best rod for ice fishing is something light and small, around 28 inches in length, and fairly cheap.

There’s no need for anything expensive like you would use in other forms of fishing.

Spring Bobbers

A spring bobber is made of wire of a coiler spring and will attach to the rod, acting as an extension of it.

These bobbers are a lot more sensitive than a regular one, and they absorb the jigging so it’s not too intense under the water.


The best type of line for this purpose is a fluorescent line as it will present invisibly in the water so that your fish are none the wiser, and are less likely to tangle.

Choose an ice fishing fluorescent line specifically for the best results.


lures and baits

If you’d rather not use small bait like maggots and wax worms, you can go the artificial route with a lure.

The three most popular ice-fishing lures are small spoons, vertical jigs, and horizontal jigs. There is a specific time and place where each of these would suit, so make sure you’ve done your research. 

Tip Ups

A tip-up can be store-bought or made at home, and they are there to signal the angler that a strike has been made.

With tip-ups, you’ll be able to have a few different lines going and the flag of the tip-up will inform you when the action happens.


clothes for ice fishing

Staying warm is critical when you’re on the ice and even if you think you’re working hard fishing, the warmth can be deceptive.

Choose some carefully layered clothes so you can remove or add them as needed and make sure you keep your head, feet, and hands covered as well.

Safety gear

There’s a whole lot of additional safety gear needed for ice fishing vs regular fishing, and you should never leave home without it.

Some of the essentials you’ll want are ice cleats, metal cleats, a life vest, and a whistle to call for help if you need it.

For longer fishing trips, shelter is essential for safety, so consider using an ice shanty to keep warm.

Staying Safe While Ice Fishing

When you think of a regular fishing trip, it’s not exactly considered a death-defying activity or something that would satisfy a thrill seeker.

As far as ice fishing is concerned, though, it’s another story, and if not done carefully, can lead to injuries and fatalities.

To ensure you’re protecting yourself while ice angling, follow these tips for absolute safety.

Know the thickness

Know the thickness

You should only ever fish on ice that’s at least four inches thick, as anything less than this won’t be able to support you.

Experts recommend four inches for fishing, five inches for a snowmobile, and eight inches for a car, so know the snow’s thickness before proceeding.

Old vs New Ice

There’s a huge difference between new and old ice in terms of strength and you need to learn how to establish how much ice might be underneath supporting you.

New ice is stronger than old ice and less of it is required to provide the same amount of support as twice as much old ice.

Avoid flowing water

places with flowing water avoid

Although ice forms easily overflowing water in winter, it’s not a safe place to set up your fishing spot.

You should avoid ice fishing in any area that covers flowing water including underneath bridges, on streams, and rivers. This ice can be thick and the water moving underneath makes it unstable.

Be wary of the ground

Even if you think that the ice on the floor looks like it’s a certain thickness, there’s a good chance it’s not that way for the entire surface.

Most of the time, ice will freeze in an uneven pattern and just inches away there could be a thin part of the ice that’s not substantial enough to support your weight.

Look out for large schools of fish

large schools of fish

You might assume that a school of fish is a godsend when you’re trying to catch one, but you should avoid them if you’re ice fishing.

The movement of them in the water can bring bubbles and warm water to the surface which threatens the solidity of the ice, so you should be cautious.

Learn the sounds of the ice

You can tell a lot about what’s happening underneath the ice and whether it’s safe just to be sitting in silence and listening.

Although it might seem like a cracking sound is dangerous, it might just mean that the ice is moving with temperature changes, and expanding and contracting.

Keep an eye on the snow

If there’s snow nearby, be mindful that it also affects the safety of the ice. Snow is a natural insulator which means the ice won’t be getting as cold, and it adds to the maximum weight that the ice sheet can take, so looks can be deceiving.

Have a buddy system

buddy system ice fishing

Avoid going out alone if you plan on ice fishing, even if you’re an experienced winter angler.

Accidents are more likely to happen with serious consequences in this type of fishing and having a buddy with you close by can prevent matters from getting worse.

Winter Fishing Made Easy

There’s nothing like the experience of angling in the winter, but learning how to ice fish is a whole lot different than any saltwater or freshwater setting.

With a little bit of practice, some safety measures in place, and the right type of gear, you’ll be able to experience the joy of ice fishing for yourself.

Ice fishing is a unique spin on angling that not everyone has tried before, and most people find themselves hooked once they’ve given it a try.


Some risks come with ice fishing that might not be present in other types of angling and it requires more stringent safety measures.

Hypothermia, frostbite, and falls through the ice are just a few additional risks of fishing in winter, and understanding the potential dangers of being outside in winter can help prevent them.


The minimum thickness that ice should be before attempting to fish from it is four inches, with anything thicker than this being ideal.

Ice with a thickness of four inches is capable of holding around 200lbs of weight, so it would only be suitable for one adult to fish on at a time.


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