Ice Fishing (Ultimate Beginner’s Guide)

Ice fishing is a wintertime activity that involves fishing through holes in the ice on a frozen body of water. It is a popular pastime in many cold-weather regions, as it allows people to enjoy the outdoors and potentially catch fish even during the colder months of the year.

To ice fish, people first drill holes in the ice using an ice auger or chisel. They then use a variety of specialized tools and techniques to lure and catch fish, such as jigging rods, tip-ups, and portable fish finders.

Ice fishing can be done from the shore (a bit awkward and difficult), or from a portable shelter set up on the ice (the normal way). These shelters, which are often insulated and heated, can provide a comfortable place to sit and fish, even in very cold temperatures.

Ice fishing can be a fun and rewarding activity, but it is important to be safe and prepared. Proper clothing and equipment, such as thermal boots and ice picks, are essential. It is also important to be aware of the thickness and safety of the ice, as falling through the ice can be dangerous or even deadly.

In this article, I will outline some of the very basic procedures, skills, and introductory techniques for ice fishing. It’s only an introduction, so to get more specific information on more advanced tips, tools and advice on specific species, please check out our extensive list of ice fishing articles!

What Gear Do I Need to Get Started?

At a bare minimum, here’s my list of items you’ll need in order to access the fish. It’s not a list of all the cool things you COULD have. That’s another article altogether!

  • You’ll need to start with a fishing license. Along with your license, you’ll need to determine what species of sportfish is legal to catch in your area and during the time you’ll be fishing.
  • Ice auger or chisel: This is a tool used to drill holes in the ice. There are hand-powered augers and those that run on gasoline or electricity.
  • Fishing rod and reel: Look for a rod and reel specifically designed for ice fishing, as these are typically shorter and more sensitive than traditional fishing rods. However, you can just use your regular Summer open water fishing rod and reel even though it will be longer and more awkward to use than a dedicated ice fishing rig.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
A typical ice fishing rod and reel. Its short length allows you to sit near the hole and its simple reel is practical for a NON-casting rod
  • Bait and lures: What you use for bait or lures will depend on the type of fish you are targeting. Live bait, such as worms or minnows, can be effective, or you can try artificial lures designed to imitate the movements and appearance of live bait.
  • Ice skimmer: This is a net used to remove slush and ice chips from the holes in the ice.
  • Thermal boots: These are insulated boots designed to keep your feet warm and dry in cold, wet conditions.
  • Warm clothing: Dress in layers to stay warm, and be sure to bring a hat, gloves, and a facemask to protect your face from the cold.
  • Something to sit on! While technically not necessary, we’re pretty sure you’ll want at least an upside-down pail to sit on for a couple hours!

We’ll discuss more ice-fishing equipment like fish finders, ice picks for enhanced safety, tip-ups and more in our article dealing with the top items you’ll want for ice fishing!

How Thick Does Ice Need to Be to Ice Fish?

As rule, ice that is at least 4 inches thick is safe to walk on. Ice that is at least 7 inches thick is acceptable for an ATV or snowmobile, while 12-inch ice is the minimum thickness to support a car or small pickup truck. Remember these ice thickness standards refer to solid ice known as clear ice or black ice, and not ice made from melted snow (known as slush ice, snow ice or white ice).

Any ice made from melted and re-frozen water or from splashes from waves in open water, is not as strong. Air bubbles and crunchy snow mixed with ice is fine if it’s on top of clear ice, but the clear or black ice needs to be at least 4 inches thick if you’re on foot.

I use 5 inches as a minimum just to be on the safe side and in case I run across areas of thinner ice due to moving water, springs, steams and other factors that can compromise the integrity of the ice.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
A great example of CLEAR or BLACK ice. This is ideal for measuring your minimum depths for safety plus it’s a lot more fun to walk on than a lake with 3 feet of snow on top of the ice!

How Do I Find a Good Location to Ice Fish?

The first thing to do is to check the local fishing regulations to make sure you are allowed to fish there and be sure to get permission if you are fishing on private property.

Great places to look at are lakes that have been home to various fishing competitions and tournaments (especially if they are ice fishing tournaments) in the past, since they are known to have decent populations of gamefish that can be caught in the cold months.

Another great way to research a good fishing spot is to ask at a local tackle store to find the latest news on any good spots that have been recently successful for local anglers.

Ponds and lakes should be deeper than 10 feet to give you the best chance of connecting with a variety of species. It’s not uncommon to fish in the same hole on multiple days and catch multiple fish of one species on one day, and a completely different species the next day.

Here’s a good checklist of a few other variables to consider:

  1. Look for areas with a good population of the type of fish you want to catch: Different species of fish prefer different types of habitat, so do some research to find out where the fish you are targeting are likely to be found.
  2. Consider the depth and structure of the water: Fish tend to congregate in areas with diverse bottom structures, such as drop-offs, points, and underwater humps. These areas can provide cover and food for the fish, and can also be good places to find fish during the winter.
  3. Look for safe and accessible areas: Choose a spot that is easy to get to, and be sure to check the thickness and safety of the ice before venturing out. A minimum of 4 inches is suggested, but I use 5 inches as my minimum.
  4. Consider the weather and wind conditions: Wind can affect the movement of the fish, and can also make the ice unsafe. Choose a location that is protected from the wind, or plan to fish on a day with calm winds.

CAUTION: Something to be cautious about (especially if you’re a beginner) when looking for locations, is to avoid bodies of water with significant moving currents (like rivers, creeks, streams, etc.). In locations with current (including spring-fed ponds), ice thickness is notoriously unpredictable and inconsistent.

It’s much easier to find yourself in big trouble surrounded by cracking ice as you stumble across an unexpected current. Stick with lakes and ponds with still water for a consistent and predictable ice thickness.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Streams or creeks that enter a frozen lake (like this one) can be dangerous since ice gets thin (under the snow in this example) near moving water

How Do I Know Where to Drill my Hole(s)?

Deciding where to drill can be an intimidating task since it could take you a very long time to get through the ice. If you choose the wrong location, you may be wasting valuable time and energy!

One of the best ways to find a strategic and successful place to drill is to start researching places before the ice sets in. Summer fishing trips are a great way to determine areas where fish like to congregate like inlets into a lake or pond, underwater structures like fallen trees or boulders, and drop-offs like underwater edges and even underwater springs.

I mentioned earlier in this article to avoid places with moving water, so my advice on where to drill a hole may seem contradictory. In a sense, it is.

However, it’s possible to use caution and keep your distance from areas of questionable ice safety, while still taking advantage of the presence of predatory fish that are there. If not, drill your hole in an area where ice depth is not compromised.

If you approach a stream entering a lake, it’s possible you may not need to drill at all as there is often an open water area at the entrance point of the stream into the lake.

Underwater structures, on the other hand, can be found anywhere and the quality of ice is not compromised by their presence.

There are instruments that can measure ice depth without having to chop or drill a hole in the ice, but they are prohibitively expensive in most cases, so using a thin auger or pry/spud bar with a sharp end will serve well enough to make at least a small hole into which you can insert an ice thickness measuring tool.

If you’re wondering how many holes to drill, that depends on your motivation, your equipment and local regulations. There is no limit on the number of holes you drill but there may be a limit on the number of fishing rods being used by one person. Check your local regulations on this issue.

Theoretically, if it’s allowed, you can drill as many holes and use as many rods as you like, but you’ll need tip-ups (unsupervised fishing rods on a small stand meant for ice fishing).

Unfortunately, holes with no constant human presence can freeze over quickly in sub-zero conditions.

How Deep Should I Fish Under the Ice?

When ice fishing, it’s important to fish at the right depth in order to increase your chances of success. The depth at which you should fish depends on a number of factors, including the species of fish you are targeting, the time of year, and the structure of the lake or river in which you are fishing.

As a rule, it’s not a bad idea to let a lure sink to the bottom of the fishing hole and then reel it up a few feet off the bottom. This is a typical zone that will hold fish if they are in the area.

Here are a few general guidelines to follow when determining how deep to fish when ice fishing:

  1. Consider the species of fish you are targeting: Different species of fish tend to be found at different depths. For example, panfish (such as bluegill and crappie) are often found in shallow water, while larger predatory fish (such as pike and lake trout) tend to be found in deeper water.
  2. Check the time of year: Fish tend to move to deeper water in the winter to avoid cold surface temperatures. As a result, you may need to fish deeper in the winter months to find fish, though there are exceptions to this guideline.
  3. Look for structure: Fish often congregate around underwater structures, such as drop-offs, points, or weed beds. These structures can provide cover and food for the fish, so it can be worth your while to fish around them.

In general, it’s a good idea to start by fishing at a moderate depth (around 10-15 feet) and then adjust your depth as needed based on the conditions and your success status. It can also be helpful to use a fish finder or other electronic device to help locate fish and determine the best depth at which to fish.

I have found success fishing under the ice at depths that don’t deviate too much from successful Summer fishing depths. For example, Pike are often found in 5-10 feet of water in the Summer, and I have found them at just that depth under the ice as well.

Bass, on the other hand, tend to be slow and lethargic (all species are in the Winter compared to Summer but bass especially) and are found in deeper water than in Summer. 25 feet is a good starting point for ice fishing for bass where allowed by law.

What Are the Best Lures or Bait for Ice Fishing?

While there is no absolute answer for this, a great place to start if panfish, bass or walleye is the target species, would be gold and silver or brightly colored jigs designed for ice fishing and sized a bit smaller than those used during the warm weather season. As a beginner, it can be advantageous to start with live bait which will move and act on its own, unlike lures which will need the angler’s expertise and experience to make it look like bait.

Many lures are made for a variety of species so they’ll be the most versatile options. However, many anglers find more success with live bait (or dead bait) or a combination of both.

Worms and minnows are good not only in warmer months, but they work well for ice fishing as well. If you’re using a tip-up system, you’ll need to have some form of bait rather than just an artificial lure.

Experimenting is always suggested (especially if using all artificial lures), but if you have a particular live or dead bait, I’d use it as much as possible while experimenting more with depths and locations rather than baits.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
A typical predatory fish ice fishing lure. Because it is not pulled through the water directionally, it has hooks on all sides to catch fish if they attack from any angle as the lure dangles in one position. The only action comes from twitching the lure vertically, so the lure has a thick, clear, plastic tail that enhances a wiggling action as it briefly descends before being twitched upward by the angler

How Long Should I Stay at One Ice Fishing Hole?

As a basic starting point in determining how long to stay at any one given location while ice fishing, a good rule of thumb is about 1 hour without success. However, before moving on, it’s best to consider whether other factors like bait or presentation are affecting your level of success.

Many anglers drill multiple holes and tend to them all while using different baits/techniques in each hole. This is the best way to determine whether or not it’s a good fishing day.

There are many factors that will usually affect your decision to move on, but if your multiple holes (chosen based on factors like underwater cover/drop-offs, etc.) are not producing any fish using a variety of baits, then it’s likely that moving to another location on the lake will produce the same results.

Can I Ice Fish From Shore?

The idea of ice fishing from the shoreline is a novel concept to many, but it’s something that is done more than one might think. Under the right conditions, it’s very possible and even preferable (for the sake of safety) to fish from shore when the ice is too thin (less than 4 inches) and it’s not safe to walk on.

If the ice is thinner than about 1-inch, it’s possible to use a disposable rock or another heavy object to break a hole in the ice with a throw from shore (tied to a rope so you can retrieve it and throw it again to increase the size of the hole).

Ideally, you’ll want to be on a shore adjacent to relatively deep water like near a drop-off or on the edge of a canal, etc. so you’ll have access to deeper water fairly close to shore.

Then, it would be a matter of casting a small jig with an open water fishing rig (Summer fishing rod and reel) and reeling the lure over the hole to let it drop in to begin fishing.

This technique is used successfully by many anglers though it may not sound like it would work well.

Here’s a video to see this technique in action;

Ice fishing from shore – it’s possible!

Ice Fishing for Beginners – Key Takeaways

Ice fishing is a fun and exciting way to enjoy the winter months and catch some fish. However, it can also be dangerous if proper precautions are not taken. It is important for beginners to understand the risks and take steps to ensure their safety while ice fishing.

It can also be intimidating if you’ve never gone ice fishing and don’t know what fishing techniques to use, how to make a hole in the ice efficiently and safely, or where to fish. Hopefully, this article has helped with some of those challenges!

It is also important to be respectful of the environment and to follow all local laws and regulations. With the right knowledge and preparation, ice fishing can be an enjoyable and rewarding activity for beginners.

Pete Stack

After 40 years of experience canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and climbing in the Ontario wilderness, Pete is eager to combine his love for the outdoors with his passion to write. It is our hope that his knowledge can be passed on through this site and on Rugged Outdoors Guide on YouTube.

Recent Posts

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This