Ice Fishing Quick Start Guide

Everything You Need to Get Started Ice Fishing

Meet the Author

Jordan Rodriguez has been fishing all his life. It is his passion and he loves to share it with people. He is the author of two regular fishing columns in Idaho, contributing weekly to the Idaho Statesman in Boise and biweekly to the Times News in Twin Falls. He also teaches fishing classes in the Boise area and has been a contributor of fishing content to several other outlets, including He does not have any sponsors, but he does have a good partnership with the local Sportsman's Warehouse and he is interested in expanding his reach through additional sponsorships and opportunities.

Chapter 1 - Ice Fishing Basics

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Ice Fishing Basics

Ice Fishing Facts

Ice fishing is a simple concept—cut a hole in the ice, drop lures and bait to the fish below and try to wrestle them to the surface. At first, it might seem like ice fishing requires a lot of specialized gear. But in truth, all you really need is an auger, a sled, an ice scoop, some ice rods and a handful of jigs. Realistically, anglers can get started for about $200.

You’ll read more about ice fishing gear later in this guide. In addition to equipment, you’ll need to know how to stay safe and warm on the ice. As you might expect, ice fishing can be an extreme weather activity. You definitely want to bundle up with your warmest, driest winter gear. It’s always better to layer down if you get too warm than to underdress and freeze.

Safety wise, it is always best to err on the side of caution. Read local fishing reports and pay attention to other anglers on the ice. Groups tend to congregate where the fishing is best, and it’s also comforting to know where others have already found safe ice.
In order to safely ice fish, you need at least four inches of solid, clear ice. If you aren’t sure how thick the ice is, drill test holes as you go. The thickest ice is usually found around the edges of the lake. Always use the buddy system when ice fishing.
Once the ice reaches 8 inches in thickness, it is generally safe for snowmobiles and other small ATVs. If the ice surpasses 12 inches in thickness, it will support full-sized vehicles pulling ice shanties. This typically only happens in extremely cold northern climates.

Depending on your geographic location, many different species can be caught through the ice. Fish that are active in cold water make the best quarry—trout, walleye, perch and crappie are among the most popular targets. No matter what species you fish for, jigging is the most common method for catching them. Techniques and lures vary, but as a general rule, fish prefer moving targets to stationary ones.

Chapter 2 - Ice Fishing Gear List

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Ice Fishing Gear List

Ice Fishing Equipment

Like many outdoors hobbies, the list of gear you can buy for ice fishing is virtually endless. This guide will focus on the basics, providing an overview of the most commonly used tools and gadgets that can improve your ice fishing experience.

Ice Fishing Auger

An auger is the most vital piece of ice fishing equipment for newcomers to invest in. There are fuel-powered models (gas or propane) and hand-powered models.
Power augers work much quicker and can drill more holes. They are fuel efficient, easy to use and relatively low-maintenance. Top brands include Eskimo, Clam, Ion and Trophy Strike. Starter models cost around $200 and go up from there.

Hand augers require more work but are also more cost effective. They start around $50. With sharp blades and the proper technique, hand augers can drill holes quickly, but they require more time and effort than power augers. Nils and Strikemaster are the top brands.  

Augers of both kinds come in three standard sizes, measuring the diameter of the circular holes they cut: six inches, eight inches and ten inches. Check your local regulations to see what size holes are allowed. In some instances, larger holes can be cut using an ice chisel or chainsaw.

If you want to get into ice fishing, buy an auger! Once you have one, everything else falls into place pretty quickly.

Ice Fishing Sled

A sled is another must-have item for ice fishing—you’ll need one to transport the rest of your gear from your vehicle to your fishing hole. Just about any sled will do, although the tough, spacious sleds made specifically for ice fishing are definitely a good way to go. Otter, Shappell, Clam and Cabela’s are some of the top brands. A decent sled starts at $25 and goes up depending on size. If you plan to pull your sled behind a snowmobile or ATV, consider enclosable lidded models to avoid a spill.

Ice Fishing Shelter

Shelters are an optional purchase, but they come in handy on cold, windy days. There are countless makes and models, with Eskimo, Clam, Frabill and Otter offering various pop-up versions that fold up into a sled or carrying bag. These pop-up models start around $250.

In colder climates, more permanent shelters complete with electricity, heating and seating come into play. These can be bought or built, and they typically require a large vehicle and trailer to get out on the ice when it becomes thick enough.

Shelters are a great way to stay warm, especially if you plan to fish with kids. They serve as a perfect home base for warming your hands and keeping food, bait and other gear from freezing. If the weather is bad, you can also fish from inside the shelter.

Ice Fishing Rods

Any fishing rod will work in a pinch, but specialized ice fishing rods have many advantages. They are very short, averaging about 24 inches in length. This allows for easier jigging and also positions the angler close to the hole. Bites can be very difficult to detect through the ice, so most ice rods are extremely sensitive, especially at the tip. When you hook a big fish, remember to fight it slowly since you are using ultralight gear.

Popular brands of ice fishing rods include Clam, St. Croix, South Bend and Berkley. Rod/reel combos start as low as $15 and go up past $100. Anglers targeting larger species like pike and Mackinaw trout should size up to longer, stouter rods.

Some anglers prefer tip-ups to traditional rods and reels. Tip-ups are metal, plastic or wooden cross arms fixed with a spool of line attached to a flag. When a fish bites and starts taking line off the spool, the flag pops up, alerting the angler. Frabill and Heritage are two popular brands. Tip-ups cost about $10 apiece, on average.

If you fish with rods and reels, it’s a good idea to keep them in rod holders. Read more on that in the next section on ice fishing reels.

Ice Fishing Reels

Basic spinning reels and straight line (or in-line) reels are the most common for ice fishing. Like traditional reels, they run the gamut on price and manufacturers. Quality models typically start around $20, or as part of a rod/reel combo for $30-$50.

Like ice rods, ice reels are smaller than traditional gear. Using right-sized line and making appropriate use of drag are important factors for catching fish, especially big ones.

Many states allow anglers to fish with multiple rods at once through the ice. This means leaving some rods unattended. Rod holders come in handy for keeping your rods safe and clear of ice and snow. There are many different models—some sit on the ice on a triangular base, others fix to a bucket or chair, and some like the Jaw Jacker are spring loaded and will set the hook for you when a fish bites.
To avoid heartbreak, turn on the anti-reverse switch on reels left in rod holders. That way, if a fish grabs the bait, the line will spool off the reel until you come and turn off the anti-reverse (make sure you do so before setting the hook). Without anti-reverse, fish can pull against a tight line and potentially drag your favorite rod and reel to a watery grave!

Ice Fishing Line

Ice fishing line comes in many shapes and sizes. Generally speaking, anglers use invisible fluorocarbon in lighter weights (4-to-8 pounds is most common). Lighter line is harder for fish to see and more of it will fit on undersized ice rods and reels. Virtually all line manufacturers make some kind of ice-specific line. If you are fishing for large species, using braided line with a fluorocarbon leader might be the way to go. And, as usual, a steel leader might be in order if you are chasing toothy predators like walleye, pike and muskie.

Ice Fishing Electronics

Did you know they make fish finders for ice anglers? They are called flashers, and these nifty little machines work by sending a cone-shaped sonar beam to the bottom of the lake, allowing anglers to watch the action unfold on a dial of colored lights. Once a flasher is set up, anglers can drop their jigs and watch them flutter down through the water column. When a fish approaches, it also shows up on the dial. Not only does this confirm that there are fish in the area, but anglers can also experiment with different jigging techniques to see which ones trigger a bite. If the flashes of light representing your jig and a fish overlap, get ready to set the hook! A fish is headed for your bait and is likely to strike.

The video game-like interface of using a flasher takes a little getting used to, but many hardcore ice anglers swear by them. Like a fish finder on a boat, they can be crucial to locating schools of fish and revealing what depth they are feeding at.

There are many makes and models, with Marcum, Vexilar, Garmin and Humminbird representing the most popular brands. The starting price for a basic flasher is about $300.
Try using the ANGLR fishing app to plan your trips (you can layer past trips on top of each other), record your day (GPS route, waypoints, catches, conditions), and then improve your next trip using insights you learn from your personal fishing analytics dashboard that is automatically created for you.

Other Important Ice Gear

An ice scoop is essential to keeping your holes clear of slush. A slotted spoon from your kitchen will do in a pinch. Plastic and metal versions are available at outdoors retailers, usually starting at just a few dollars.

Ice cleats come in handy on the ice, especially when the surface is hard and snow-free. Strap-on cleats that fit over your boots are the easiest to use. Yaktrax and Korkers are popular brands. Cleats typically start between $15 and $20.

Many anglers store their rods, tackle and ice gear in five-gallon buckets. These are inexpensive, they fit well in sleds and they are a good way to keep things organized. They are also good for sitting on if you don’t bring a camp chair.

A small propane heater is great to have on cold days. If you run one inside a shelter, make sure you have proper ventilation and wall clearance. Running a heater in an insulated shelter can keep you toasty even in the coldest conditions.

The aforementioned rod holders are crucial if you are using traditional rods and reels.

Sunglasses, waterproof landing gloves and a small, tailgate-style cookstove are also great items to have on an ice fishing trip.

Chapter 3 - Planning Your Ice Fishing Trip

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Planning Your Ice Fishing Trip

Where to Ice Fish

Once you have your gear lined up, where should you go? For the most part, ice fishing happens on still bodies of water like lakes, ponds and reservoirs. Check with your local tackle shop or read fishing reports to see what ice fishing destinations are available in your neck of the woods.

If possible, try to ice fish on lakes you are familiar with. This will give you the advantage of knowing what species are present, what they like to feed on and what spots have typically held fish during the open water season.

One important factor to keep in mind is access. Snowfall can limit accessibility for vehicles and foot traffic. If you plan to hike in, you’ll want a destination with plowed roads and some parking relatively close to the water. If you are using snowmobiles, you have more flexibility for commuting longer distances from your vehicle to your fishing spot, if necessary.

Selecting a Spot

Once you are on the ice, you want to maximize your chances of success. Starting in spots where you’ve caught fish before is a good bet, while using electronics like an ice fishing flasher can help eliminate some of the guesswork.
Moving camp can be a pain, but it is often necessary in order to find active fish.
If you have electronics, the best strategy is to drill a few test holes, use the flasher to locate fish and try a few drops. If you catch fish, set up camp and work the area for a while. If it’s quiet, it’s probably best to move on and find some action before going through the effort of drilling all your holes and setting up all your gear. Again, having snowmobiles is a big help for covering lots of ground. If you are on foot, you’ll have to be more strategic with your planning and movement.

Come Prepared

In addition to warm clothing, make sure you bring plenty of food, water and other necessities for a fun day on the ice. On good weather days, ice fishing with a group of friends can feel like a tailgate party!

Lastly, it is important to set reasonable goals and expectations. There is a learning curve to ice fishing, so be patient and keep track of your successes—perhaps using the ANGLR Bullseye—so you can start to build confidence in different spots and techniques.
And remember: ice fishing is a challenge!
There are fewer variables within the angler’s control, and many species are less active during the winter months. On certain magical days, you’ll be slipping all over the ice as you run back and forth tending to bites. But on many trips, scraping together enough keepers for a post-trip fish fry will count as a well-earned success.

Chapter 4 - Ice Fishing Tackle, Rigs, Lures, and Baits

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Ice Fishing Tackle, Rigs, Lures, and Baits

Ice Fishing Lures

Virtually all ice fishing lures share one commonality: they are meant to be jigged. But jigs come in dozens of shapes, sizes and colors, and they are meant to be fished with different mechanics and methods. Here is a quick breakdown of some basic lure types.

Simple jigs: These lures are a basic hook attached to a small metal jig head. They can be made of tungsten or lead—tungsten lures are more expensive, but they sink faster and give anglers a better feel while fishing with lures the size of a thumb tack. Venom, Lindy, Kenders and Mormyshka are popular brands. White, pink, green and glow-in-the-dark color patterns are popular, and almost all ice anglers tip their jigs with some kind of bait. Simple jigs usually don’t cost more than a couple bucks apiece.

Ice spoons: These are similar to simple jigs, but they are typically larger and have an elongated, fish-shaped body. Popular models include the Swedish Pimple, the Lindy Glow Spoon, the Northland Forage Minnow and Hali jigs, which have a chainlike piece that hangs down from the spoon and makes noise as the angler jigs it. Again, these lures are usually tipped with bait—often a piece of cut bait to imitate a wounded baitfish. Ice spoons range from about $2 to $7.

Tube jigs: These will be familiar to open-water anglers, as they are a go-to presentation for panfish, bass and other species year-round. The setup involves two parts—a small weighted jig head and a plastic tube. Feed the hook through the plastic or stuff the jig head inside the tube and you are ready to roll. Small models in pink, white, red and yellow are popular for catching crappie and perch, while large tubes in white or silver are a popular choice for targeting large Mackinaw trout. Tube jigs are relatively inexpensive and can be found year-round at tackle shops in countless sizes and colors.

Swim jigs: These jigs often have multiple treble hooks and resemble a traditional crankbait. Popular models include the Salmo Chubby Darter, the Rapala Jigging Rap and Rattlin’ Rap and the Acme Hyper Glide. Each of these lures come in small models that target panfish and larger offerings that target trout, walleye and pike.

While tubes, spoons and simple jigs have straightforward actions that can only be manipulated by the angler, swim jigs are designed to make specific movements in the water. The Chubby Darter and Rattlin’ Rap are jigged in quick, vertical motions that cause them to rattle and randomly dart. The Jigging Rap slowly swims in a circle as it falls, which can be irresistible to hungry predators. And the Hyper Glide has retractable wings, which catch the water as it falls and send the bait swimming off in different directions.
Tipping these lures with bait is still common, though most anglers use just a small chunk of worm, mealworm or cut bait to avoid altering the lure’s intended motion in the water.
These lures are the most expensive of the bunch—small models start around $5 and larger versions can cost $10 or more.

Ice Fishing Baits

Bait is a vital part of ice fishing success. Anglers almost always tip their ice jigs with some kind of bait, and there are many options to choose from. Here are some of the best:

Worms: A stalwart bait for all kinds of fishing, worms work great though the ice. When fished on their own, worms should be rigged with a slip sinker and a marshmallow to help them float a few inches off the bottom. A small chunk of worm works great for tipping ice jigs, spoons and tubes. Trout, perch, walleye and bluegill especially love worms.

Mealworms: Mealies are a go-to bait for ice anglers. They stay on the hook well and make a great tipping bait for ice jigs and spoons. Trout and panfish are most commonly targeted using mealworms.

Wax worms: Waxies and other grubs are a staple of the ice fishing bait collection. Fish would rarely encounter these small white larvae in the wild, but that doesn’t stop them from gobbling grubs with gusto. Panfish are usually the target, but larger species will eat a grub, too.

Power Bait: The combination of color, scent and flotation makes Powerbait great for fishing on the end of a worm, or as added flavor on a lure. Trout are big fans of the larger Powerbait nuggets, while crappie and perch eagerly gobble the smaller nibbles.

Marshmallows: Similar to Power Bait, marshmallows can be used to add scent, color and flotation to a bait. Trout especially like them.

Minnows: Using small fish as bait is deadly through the ice. In states where live minnows are legal, they are absolutely lethal on walleye, pike, crappie and perch. If live bait isn’t permitted where you live, dead minnows will catch fish, too. You can trap and freeze your own or buy frozen or preserved minnows from the tackle shop.

Cut bait: Cut bait is great for ice fishing—it stays on the hook extremely well and gives your jigs realistic scent and flavor. One of the best ways to acquire cut bait is to save small, leftover pieces off your fillets when you clean a batch of fish. Perch meat works great for many species—especially perch! Suckers, shad and whitefish are other popular species to use as bait.

Salmon eggs: Eggs are a popular bait for trout and Kokanee salmon. Brook trout especially love them. Single eggs in red, yellow or white fished on a tiny jig or an egg hook are the ticket.

Bait fish: One of the best ways to catch large species like pike and muskie through the ice is with large bait fish like a shad, sucker or cisco on a tip-up rod. If live fish aren’t legal where you live, try a cut-plug style baitfish on a tip-up. Fishing deep water with this type of presentation can also tempt big Mackinaw trout.

Corn: This bait comes with some fine print. Corn is easy to chum with—which is usually illegal—and fish don’t digest it well, so dumping whole cans through the ice can actually harm the ecosystem. Used properly, though, with a kernel or two on each hook, corn can be a very productive bait for trout and Kokanee.

Ice Fishing Rigs

It’s important to maximize your chances while ice fishing. Most anglers fish with the maximum number of rods allowed (unless the fishing is so hot that you can only keep track of one or two). You can also try fishing multiple hooks on a line to present baits at different depths. This is recommended while using simple jigs or bait hooks.
Larger lures are more effective fished solo.
If you do fish with multiple hooks on a line, be sure to check them after you’ve had some bites, or if they go quiet for too long. Your line can become twisted on the way down, or when fish play with your bait. Putting a slightly heavier lure at the bottom of your rig can help keep your line straight, but it’s good to stay vigilant so you don’t waste time or miss a fish because of a tangle.

Chapter 5 - How to Land Your Fish

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How to Land Your Fish

Landing fish—especially big ones—can be tricky through the ice. Keep these tips in mind to increase your landing rate:
If you hook a big fish, let it run. You want it to be tired by the time it gets to the surface.
Keep your holes clear of ice chunks and sharp edges that might damage your line or interfere with landing a fish.
When the fish gets to the hole, the angler must try to bring it headfirst through the hole. When the head comes through—and only then—the angler or a partner should grab it behind the head and hoist it up on the ice. Never try grabbing the fish by the side, back or tail.

Handle fish gently and quickly release them if you don’t intend to keep them. Keepers should be quickly and humanely killed and then stored in a place where they won’t freeze solid.

Chapter 6 - Ice Fishing Tips By Species

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Ice Fishing Tips By Species

Ice Fishing for Bass

During the summer, bass are known for their aggressive appetites, demolishing everything from large spinnerbaits to topwater frogs. In cold weather, though, bass’ metabolism slows to a crawl. Fish will typically be found hugging the bottom in 20 to 30 feet of water, and they are much less likely to chase big baits. Instead, drop tiny ice jigs tipped with a small piece of worm or grub. With subtle movement, you can usually entice bass to bite. Lure size is key when fishing for bass—many anglers won’t use anything bigger than 1/32-ounce jigs.

Ice Fishing for Perch

Perch are one of the most popular species to catch through the ice. They are active in cold water, they make great eating and they typically live in large schools—which means if you find one, you’ll usually find a bunch. Perch aren’t too picky when it comes to bait. They will eat a variety of jigs and lures tipped with worms, mealworms, grubs, Power Bait, minnows or cut bait. Depth is important when fishing for perch—30 feet is a good place to start your search. One hint for hunting perch is to take advantage of their cannibalistic tendencies. A perch colored lure tipped with a piece of perch meat is a hard combo to beat.

Ice Fishing for Crappie

Crappie are another schooling panfish that make great ice fishing quarry. Like perch, they are active in cold water, though they are usually found a bit shallower in 10 to 15 feet of water. Tactics for catching crappie through the ice are similar to open-water fishing—use anything that looks like a minnow or, if possible, an actual minnow. Lure-wise, ice spoons and swim jigs that mimic small perch, crappie or other baitfish are the way to go. Be prepared to move a lot when you fish for crappie. You’ll know fairly quickly if fish are there, and after hot stretches of fishing, you’ll need to find new holes. Using a flasher can help you more quickly locate schools.

Ice Fishing for Walleye

Walleye fishing offers a ton of variables, and they differ from lake to lake and region to region. Generally speaking, underwater points and drop-off ledges are good places to look for walleye. Fish can be found in anywhere from 10 to 40 feet of water depending on temperature, light conditions and time of day. Fishing with a flasher can help you more quickly identify where walleye are in the water column. Once you find fish, target them with large minnow-imitating lures like Chubby Darters, Jigging Rapalas or flashy spoons. Many anglers like to use lures that rattle to attract fish from longer distances. Tipping lures with worms or fishing with minnows (live or dead) on small jigs can also be very effective for walleye. Because walleye grow to large sizes, fishing with heavier line and tackle is a good idea.

Ice fishing for Pike and Muskie

Muskie and pike are the largest—and probably the wiliest—of the ice fishing target species. These toothy predators are notoriously difficult to catch year-round. Pike are generally more willing takers than muskie, but both will strike if you present the right prey at the right time. Underwater humps, points and the edges of weed beds are good places to find pike and muskie. Depth will vary, but 15 feet is a good place to start. When you find fish in a feeding mood, they will take large swim jigs and spoons, or a live/dead bait fish setup. One popular technique is to drill a circle of holes and move around jigging one at a time while leaving a baited tip-up in the middle. Oftentimes, fish will be attracted to the jigging commotion and then take the natural bait. Heavier tackle, steel leaders and Kevlar landing gloves are recommended for battling and handling muskie and pike.

Ice Fishing for Trout

Trout are a staple of the ice fishing landscape. They are active in cold water, they willingly take a variety of baits and they are capable of reaching large sizes. Generally speaking, trout hunt higher in the water column than many species. Most anglers target them in about 10 feet of water, or in the top third of the water column over deeper stretches. Ice spoons like the Swedish Pimple are very popular for trout. Fish will also take larger swim jigs like the Rattlin’ Rap or small ice jigs tipped with a worm, mealworm, grub, salmon egg, corn or Powerbait. Bait fishing with tip-ups is another effective method for catching trout.Mackinaw trout are the exception. They are usually found in deeper water, feeding 50 feet down or more. Large spoons, swimbaits or tube jigs in silver, white or rainbow trout pattern are the best lures for targeting Mackinaws. Heavier tackle is recommended, and most anglers tip or stuff their lures with cut bait.

Ice Fishing for Other Species

There is virtually no limit to what fish you can catch through the ice. Here are a few more species to think about:

Bluegill are another schooling panfish worth targeting. They aren’t quite as active as perch and crappie during the winter months, but the action can be steady if you find a school. Tiny jigs tipped with worms or grubs are the ticket.

Kokanee can be great fun through the ice. When large schools come through, anglers can often sight-fish for them just inches below the surface. Small, brightly colored jigs tipped with corn or a salmon egg are the go-to presentation.

Burbot are popular targets in the regions they call home. These cod-like predators typically feed near the bottom, where they will forage worms, cut bait and other natural presentations.

Sturgeon can be caught through the ice in states where it’s legal to take them out of the water. These giants are North America’s largest freshwater fish, so stout tackle and an oversized ice hole are required to target them. Pickled herring, squid and large chunks of cut bait are the best offerings.
Catfish aren’t usually thought of as ice fishing targets, but they definitely feed through the winter. Bottom fishing with worms, cut bait or a live minnow is the way to go.

Are you ready to ice fish? Hopefully by the end of this article, you’ve learned enough to dispel some of the mystery. Like any new hobby, the only way to get better is to go out and do it! Ask your local tackle shop for recommended destinations, get your hands on an auger—or a friend with an auger—and give it a try.

Always keep safety and warmth top-of-mind when you go ice fishing. Being prepared will make it a comfortable experience whether the fish are biting or not.

When it comes to catching fish through the ice, the key is finding the fish. Whether you use previous knowledge, follow other groups of anglers, use underwater electronics or keep moving until bites come, putting yourself on top of the fish is often the hardest part. Once you are there, experiment with different lures, baits and jigging techniques to see what tactics work best.

Lastly, remember to enjoy the experience! Ice fishing isn’t always easy, and there will be some days when the fishing is almost as cold as the weather. But catching your first lunker through the ice s an unforgettable experience, and the days when you are slip-sliding across a frozen lake trying to keep up with all the bites will be some of the best times you’ve ever had on the water.