In this beginner guide we cover everything you need to know about ice fishing! You’ll learn new skills—how to drill a hole in the ice, how to find fish, how to stay safe—and with any luck, you’ll make a few catches!
As a kid, I loved the beauty of frozen lakes…but it never occurred to me to drop a fishing line through and see what I could catch. Incredibly, there are many fish that remain highly active even in the cold water temperatures beneath the ice.
If you like fishing, the great outdoors, or cold weather climates, I suggest giving this sport a try.
Why try ice fishing?
Ice fishing is a fun outdoors activity and a great way to socialize. Plus, it’s pretty simple once you get the hang of it. You’ll learn new skills—how to drill a hole in the ice, how to find fish, how to stay safe—and with any luck, you’ll make a few catches.
How to get started
Ice fishing is a relatively straightforward process, and it doesn’t require a ton of equipment to get started. Here are the basic steps you’ll need to take to try out ice fishing:
- Decide on a location, and acquire a fishing license.
- Get the necessary equipment.
- Head outside and test the ice.
- Drill your holes, and set up your lines.
In the sections below, I’ll walk you through these steps in greater detail.
The #1 most important thing here is to know the rules and regulations for your state and the specific body of water where you want to fish.
Different locations have widely varying rules concerning when and where you can fish, how many fish of each species you may catch and keep (if any), what kinds of bait you can use, how many lines you can set up simultaneously, and so on. It’s important to know which rules apply to you and to follow them.
You will most likely need a fishing license. Go to the fish and game website for your state (for example, this is the page for Minnesota) to find out how to get your license. You can often pick one up at an outdoors store or order one online.
You can find out about good fishing spots from more experienced friends, staff at your local tackle and bait shop, books, and online resources. For instance, if you live in South Dakota, this website and the linked Public Fishing Access Map will be useful.
Your area may hold ice fishing tournaments (or “derbys”)—see where these are held, since they’ll be in ideal locations.
In general, look for lakes and ponds that are at least 10 feet deep and have healthy populations of fish like trout, perch, walleye, bass, and crappie. Avoid rivers and streams.
And of course, you’ll need a location that has sufficient ice to support your weight safely—4” of ice is a standard recommendation.
If you want to bring a small vehicle like a snowmobile out onto the ice with you, you’ll need about 8” of ice. Larger vehicles towing ice shanties along behind them will require around 12”—this is a lot of ice, which you’ll probably only find in the coldest of climates.
There are only a few essentials, and you may already own some of the necessary gear (like warm clothing, a tape measure, or a sled).
This section goes through the necessary equipment as well as some optional items that are nice to have, especially if you intend to stick with ice fishing. You can also check out this video for a demonstration of ice fishing equipment.
- Tape measure
- Ice scoop
- Spud bar
- Rod and reel, or tip-ups
- Lures and bait
- Ice spikes
An auger is an absolutely essential tool for ice fishing. It cuts through the ice, giving you access to the water and fish below.
Augers come in different sizes: common sizes include 6”, 8”, and 10”. These measurements indicate the diameter of the hole cut by the auger in the ice. Some places have rules concerning permitted hole sizes; this is something to look up in advance for your specific area!
You can choose between a hand auger (which is cheaper) and a power auger (more efficient).
If you’re on a tight budget, or aren’t sure how often you’ll be ice fishing, then a hand auger in the 6” to 8” range will do just fine.
Otherwise, a power auger will drill holes more quickly and with less effort, making your life a bit easier.
Yes, you can always eyeball ice thickness, but until you become more experienced, I recommend checking ice thickness with a tape measure or with your ice scoop (if it has a ruler).
This simple tool will help you clear the ice out of holes that you’ve drilled. Some scoops also have rulers on them so you can use them to measure ice thickness.
A spud bar is a walking stick that lets you test the strength of the ice in front of you. Watch this video to see how the process works.
Rod and Reel
Specialized ice fishing rods tend to be quite sensitive and on the shorter side—about two feet long. I suggest getting a specialized rod and reel if you intend to go ice fishing with any regularity. However, just about any rod can work for ice fishing, so if you already own one, you can give it a try your first few times.
As for reels, you can also get a specialized ice reel, which is smaller than a regular reel.
In many states, you can set up multiple rods and reels all at once. This is great—but of course you can’t attend to them all simultaneously. So, if you plan to set up multiple rods, then you’ll want some rod holders.
Tip-ups are an alternative to the more traditional rod and reel. They feature crossed arms made from wood, metal, or plastic and an attached line. This line is also attached to a flag, which lets you know when you’ve got a bite.
If you’re unfamiliar with using tip-ups, watch this video tutorial.
The great thing about tip-ups is that it’s easy to set up a few and then relax while the fish come to you. When the flag pops up, you’ll know you’ve got a bite. These flags are visible from a slight distance, so you don’t have to cluster all your lines together but can instead spread them out a bit.
Most people user lighter-weight (4 to 8 pound) line for ice fishing. Lightweight, hard-to-see fluorocarbon works well with smaller ice fishing rods and reels, plus it’s more difficult for fish to see.
Head to your local tackle shop and look for ice-specific line. It’s also a good idea to chat with someone knowledgeable about your specific plans and the kinds of fish you’re after. The right line for you will depend on things like the size and type of fish you expect to catch.
Lures and Bait
You have tons of options for lures and bait—choosing the best type can be a real challenge, and you may end up experimenting to see what works best. In general, ice fishing lures are meant to be jigged. They bob up and down and do a great job of attracting fish.
There are tube jigs, ice spoons, and swim jigs, among others They come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and models, and they work in different ways. You might look into something like the Swedish Pimple which provides great results, its silly name notwithstanding.
As for bait, I find that there really is no substitute for live bait like minnows. However, live bait is not legal everywhere. Check the rules for your location!
Other good bait includes worms, mealworms, and wax worms, which all work quite well for ice fishing. You can also add things like Powerbait or even marshmallows as an extra scented attraction.
How can you move all your gear from your car to your fishing spot? This is where a good sled comes in handy. If you already own a sled, then you can go ahead and use it for this purpose.
Eventually though, you may want to purchase a tougher, purpose-built sled by a brand like Shappell or Otter. Some sleds even come with lids to keep all your gear firmly inside if the sled tips.
Bringing a shelter is optional, but I highly recommend one, especially in windy conditions when you’ll want a break from the wind and cold. You can either purchase a portable shelter or rent out a hut.
Speaking from personal experience: I have a great pop-up shelter that folds down to fit in my sled. It’s a total gamechanger. It keeps me warm and dry on long, cold, windy days. It gives me a comfortable place to take a break, store my snacks, and keep my gear.
Some anglers even bring space heaters along to make their shelters even more comfortable for hanging out. If you plan to bring a heater, do your research beforehand so you know how to use your heater safely.
In extremely cold climates, you may see huts and other more permanent structures—some even have heating and electricity. If the ice is thick enough (12”+), these shelters can be hauled out onto the ice.
If you’re a beginner, I recommend getting a decent shelter or borrowing one from a friend. Good brands include Clam and Otter.
You may want to try out ice fishing at least once to see how you like it before investing in a shelter. If so, then check the forecast and aim for a milder, less windy day.
You’ll be outside for quite a while, so bring something you can sit on! This doesn’t have to be fancy, just a simple folding chair, stool, or even a bucket will do.
Dressing for the weather is essential if you want to enjoy your time out on the ice. For my outer layers, I typically wear a pair of warm, waterproof snow pants or overalls and a heavy coat. I layer these items over some long underwear, a moisture-wicking top, and an insulated windbreaker.
You also need waterproof gloves and insulated, waterproof boots. I often bring extra pairs of gloves and socks just in case my first pair get soaked; keeping your hands and feet warm and dry is important!
It’s a good idea to bring an extra top or jacket. If you get caught in the rain or take a spill in the water, you’ll be glad to have a dry change of clothes.
In addition, bring a scarf, balaclava, or head cover to protect your face and neck. You can also bring sunglasses, since ice and snow are quite bright.
These spikes are a handy safety tool just in case you fall in the water. You’ll simply wear them dangling around your neck. If you end up in the water, you can use the spikes to help pull your body back up onto the ice. The spikes stay covered unless you’re actually using them, so you won’t jab yourself by accident.
A fishfinder is a useful electronic device that will tell you information like water depth and vegetation. They’ll also show you any fish that approach and indicate if they seem interested in your jig.
You may not want to invest in a fishfinder your first few times out. However, if you plan to ice fish regularly, this device will help you catch more fish.
Advice and Safety
So you’ve chosen a location, got all your gear, and picked up a fishing license—Now what? It’s time to get out there!
You’ll pick a spot and set up your shelter, drill holes, drop your lines through, then wait for the fish to bite. There are tons of videos out there like this one, which demonstrates how to get set up and shows you what to expect.
Here are some tips to help you have a safe and productive session:
How to ensure the ice is safe
Unsure if the ice is safe? Remember you need at least 4” of ice for a safe ice fishing spot. Dark, clear ice is more solid than white ice.
One way to find out in advance is to check in with the local tackle shop. Then, as you approach a potential fishing location, look around to see if there are other people already out on the ice. This is a good sign!
Remember to be respectful of other groups, however, and give them their space.
Once you’re on the ice, use your spud bar or auger a hole to check the thickness for yourself. This is an important precaution even if there are other people out there.
I strongly recommend bringing a friend or family member along with you on your ice fishing adventure. The “buddy system” helps keep you safe, and it’s a fun way to socialize!
How to drill a hole in the ice
Take the cover off your auger blades and place them against the ice. Take care and pay attention to what you’re doing—these blades are very sharp. Apply pressure and crank the auger; the blades should move down into the ice and sink all the way through.
What to do once you’ve caught a fish
Bringing in a big fish can be a little more challenging on the ice. When you feel a pull and think you’ve got a big fish, be patient and don’t reel it in right away. Let it swim and tire itself out, then slowly pull it in. Once the fish’s head emerges through the hole, grab it behind the head and pull it the rest of the way through.
Doing catch-and-release? Unhook the fish and release it back promptly. Keeping the fish? Kill it quickly and store it somewhere where it will stay cool without freezing solid.
That’s pretty much it. As you get more experienced, you’ll discover your personal preferences regarding things like rod and reel, bait, lure, and techniques for specific fish species.
Many new ice anglers quickly find that ice fishing isn’t as difficult or expensive as it may seem at first. With a few items of essential gear, and a solid shelter for greater comfort, you’ll probably find yourself looking for excuses to head onto the ice and counting down the days until it’s cold enough for the lake to freeze over.
Have fun and stay safe!