Going Ice Fishing: A Step-by-Step Guide

Ice fishing provides an amazing alternative to traditional fishing in the winter months. So, how do you get started with ice fishing?

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Ice fishing may seem like an overly complicated endeavor to those who have never tried it, but it's actually easier to get started than you might think. Not only does ice fishing provide an amazing alternative to traditional fishing in the winter months, it's also a unique and rewarding activity in it's own right. So, how do you get started with ice fishing?

In order to get started with ice fishing, you'll need to perform a few simple steps. These include collecting all necessary equipment, filling out your ice fishing tackle box, and making careful plans and preparations. Once you've performed all of these actions, all that's left for you to do is stick with it and land your first fish!

In this article, we'll cover everything you'll need to know and do in order to be fully prepared on your first ice fishing endeavor. Not only will you learn about every piece of physical equipment you will need, you will also learn a few helpful hints and tips that will make it that much easier once you've made it out on the ice.

Table of Contents

What Is Ice Fishing?

You most likely already know what ice fishing is, but let's define it here really quick for reference purposes. At the most basic level, ice fishing entails finding a frozen body of water, drilling a hole in the ice (an ice fishing hole), dropping your line down in the water and then catching a fish! Simple enough. Where complications can arise is from all of the variables at play as a result of both location and equipment.

What You'll Need to Get Started with Ice Fishing

The biggest curve keeping beginners from getting into ice fishing is likely going to be all the equipment that you'll have to buy. There are many different pieces of equipment ice fishers use, some of which are necessary and some of which aren't. The most common pieces of ice fishing equipment you will see being used are:

  • Ice fishing rod and reel (and/or tip-ups)
  • Ice fishing line
  • Ice fishing shelter
  • Ice fishing sled
  • Tackle box w/ ice fishing lures and bait
  • Ice auger
  • Heavy-duty winter apparel
  • Flasher (fish finder)
  • Ice skimmer
  • Gaff hook or net
  • Plastic buckets
  • Portable heater
  • Portable stove

While this list may seem a bit overwhelming at first, know that the most basic things you will need are simply an ice fishing rod and reel with the right type of line, a properly-stocked tackle box, heavy-duty winter clothes, and some way to make a hole in the ice. Besides these basics, the other items are simply for convenience and comfort, though many ice fishers won't want to go on a trip without them. Here is a more in-depth breakdown of the function each piece of equipment serves:

Ice Fishing Rods and Reels (and Tip-Ups)

Of course, the general use of a rod and reel is to be expected given that ice fishing is, in fact, fishing. However, many people may not realize that there are specialized ice fishing rods and reels that can make all the difference when it comes to fishing on the ice. Ice fishing rods and reels can be bought separately or as package combinations.

Ice Fishing Rods and Reels

Ice fishing rods are typically shorter than traditional rods and are a good deal more sensitive. They are shorter in order to allow for more tactical jigging, a necessity when ice fishing, and more sensitive to better allow fishermen to see when they have a bite. Fish can be lethargic when temperatures reach freezing, meaning bites can be a bit harder to spot during ice fishing than during traditional fishing.

Ice fishing rods may go up in length depending on the size of the fish that you are trying to catch, but they will typically always be more sensitive and a bit more lightweight than their traditional counterparts. Another reason that ice fishing rods tend to be smaller than traditional rods is so they can fit effortlessly into a cramped ice fishing shelter. As far as reels are concerned, most ice fishing reels will be either in-line reels or spinning reels.

While these specialty ice fishing rods and reels are ideal, traditional rods and reels can work. They just won't work as well. If you are skeptical about the sport or not looking to get into ice fishing for more than a single trip or two, you may wish to use your traditional fishing rod and reel. Just remember that you aren't getting the full experience!


A common alternative to the use of the rod and reel when ice fishing is what is known as a "tip-up". These are little devices that you set up around your ice fishing hole with line and bait and then a little flag will pop up when a fish bites. Given the patience required when ice fishing, tip-ups provide a convenient way to set up multiple lines and see what works. You can try different baits and lures, and even set up various tip-ups around different ice fishing holes.

Multiple Rods and Rod Holders

If you don't want to use tip-ups, you may be able to use multiple rods and reels at a time, set up with the use of rod holders. This isn't legal in all jurisdictions but, if it is, it provides an easy and guaranteed way to really cover your ground on the ice. Rod holders can generally be attached to various objects in the vicinity, including buckets and chairs. If you are using this method, though, you'll want to be sure to utilize the anti-reverse switch on your reel so that an aggressive fish doesn't snatch up your line and attempt to take your entire set-up along with it! Once a piece of equipment is lost down an ice fishing hole, chances are you're never going to see it again.

Ice Fishing Line

There is no one single kind of ice fishing line that gets the job done. However, there are many types of line that are favored towards the types of conditions you will encounter when ice fishing. What type of line you will want to get specifically will depend on your personal wants and needs, as well as what type of fish you are aiming to catch.

Most types of ice fishing line that you will find is translucent and lighter than average. This is so that the line is harder to see in the cold waters and so that the lure will have an effortless sway and flow while jigging or sinking.

The heavier and bigger the fish you are trying to catch is, the more heavy-duty and thick your fishing line will need to be. You may wish to use braided line when going after larger fish like pike and walleye. All lines should advertise their tensile strength, letting you know the weight of the fish that they are ideal for catching. Be sure to keep multiple lines on hand, as many waters feature fish of various sizes and strengths.

Portable and Permanent Ice Fishing Shelters

Here we come to our first purchase that could be considered optional. There are portable and permanent ice fishing shelters, with portable shelters being more common. A portable ice fishing shelter is essentially a specialized tent for winter conditions with an open bottom that allows for an ice fishing hole.

For those who have never been ice fishing, this may seem like more of an extraneous purchase than it actually is. Experienced ice fishers will generally tell you that ice fishing shelters make a huge difference as far as the overall level of fun and comfort one can experience on an ice fishing trip.

The necessity of an ice fishing shelter, as well as what kind you wish to purchase, will depend on the severity of the conditions in the area you wish to ice fish. If the area you are going to be fishing at has relatively mild winter conditions with little chance of a blizzard, few winds, and acceptable temperatures, you may easily get away with eschewing an ice fishing shelter entirely.

However, in other conditions, some type of ice fishing shelter may seem like more of a required purchase. They will protect you and your equipment from snow, winds, and frost. Heavy-duty ice fishing shelters will be able to protect you from some pretty heavy blizzards, and they can be made to fit several people comfortably.

Portable vs Permanent

Portable ice shelters, like tents, can usually be folded up and transported in a carrying case or small bag. Because of this, they can provide quite a bit of comfort without being too big of a burden as far as transportation and storage are concerned. Permanent ice shelters are a different story.

Permanent ice shelters are generally only reserved for serious ice fishermen who frequent absurdly cold climates. While they are called "permanent" versus "portable", they are still technically portable, it's just that you're going to need a large vehicle to haul them wherever you are going.

These ice shelters are typically constructed on a transportable base. They can be made to include all sorts of amenities including electricity, lighting, and heating. They are still much smaller than a cabin, but will provide you with a great deal more comfort and shelter than a comparable portable shelter.

Ice Fishing Sleds

An ice fishing sled is what you'll use to transport all of your gear, including your shelter, across the ice to your fishing location. A good ice fishing sled will typically be spacious enough to allow for plenty of supplies to be transported while maintaining proper weight distribution so the ice doesn't crack. While you may be able to get away without an ice fishing sled if you don't have too much equipment, they can be very helpful.

Ice Augers and Ice Chisels

An ice auger is the tool that you will use to create your ice fishing hole. For this reason, an auger can be seen as one of the most vital pieces of ice fishing equipment besides your ice fishing rod and reel. There are two kinds of augers, those being fuel-powered augers and hand-powered augers.

Obviously, fuel-powered augers are going to be a good deal more powerful than augers that are powered by hand. However, this means that they are also going to be a good deal more expensive, as well as a good deal harder to transport. For beginners, you can typically get away with going the route of the hand-powered auger. Just remember that it can be a bit of a workout.

There are three main sizes of auger that you will find on the market depending on the size you want your ice fishing hole to be. Some jurisdictions can impose rules on ice fishing that disallow holes over a certain size, so be sure to check local regulations. Once the auger has been used, the size of the hole can be slightly adjusted with the use of an ice chisel.

Flashers (Fish Finders)

Ice fishing flashers are portable fish finders that are made specifically for ice fishing. If you are familiar with the concept of a portable fish finder, flashers function about the same, except they are favored for ice fishing. They allow you to see the location of fish in the water on a small and portable radar display.

Flashers work by sending a sonar beam into the water that will then bounce back and show the device where in the water the fish are located. The device will then communicate this to the portable radar, which will show the information to the fishermen using a simple color-coded display. This can be valuable in locating schools and in figuring out which types of jigging, lures, and bait is attracting currently-available fish.

While ice fishing flashers certainly aren't an essential purchase, they do allow you to get the most out of your ice fishing trips. Ice fishing can require a nearly unlimited amount of patience from fishermen and an ice fishing flasher takes a lot of the guesswork out of the overall experience. Some people think they make ice fishing too easy, some people think ice fishing is a waste of time without them- it's up to you!

Heavy-Duty Winter Apparel

It goes without saying that you are going to want to invest in some heavy-duty winter gear before heading out on your first ice fishing trip. If there is ice, that means that there are freezing temperatures. When ice fishing, you're going to be spending a lot of time sitting out in the cold. Not having the right kind of clothing won't only affect how much fun you're having but can also affect your health.

The ideal jacket for ice fishing would be a heavy insulated jacket with a wind-breaking and waterproof surface. You can buy a jacket that already contains these layers or simply mix-and-match various jackets to attain this mix of materials. The insulated layer will provide you with some much-needed warmth while the outer layer will protect you from water and the various harsh winds that may try to overtake you.

Besides a heavy-duty jacket, you will also want gloves, goggles or glasses, and cleats. Gloves and goggles will be used to protect you from frost and wind. The cleats will be used to give you proper traction when navigating the ice so that you don't slip.

Ice Skimmers

An ice skimmer is used to free up the ice fishing hole from any slush and debris that has fallen into it. You will generally use your ice skimmer immediately after creating the hole and then periodically while fishing. Slush and debris has a habit of accumulating no matter what you do, so an ice skimmer is going to prove fairly valuable over the course of your trip.

Gaff Hooks and Nets

Finally, you may wish to purchase a gaff hook or ice fishing net. These will be used to pull your fish up through the ice fishing hole should the line not suffice. Gaff hooks shouldn't be used if you're planning on catching and releasing a fish as they will likely kill the fish. Instead, catch-and-release fishermen should opt for a net.

Other Equipment You May Want:

Plastic Buckets

Plastic buckets serve a variety of functions, from storing equipment to providing you with an easy and portable place to sit. Buckets are easily transportable and can be used to carry and transport pretty much anything you will need over the course of your trip. As well, rod holders can be set up in plastic buckets to allow for multiple lines to be cast at once without the need for extra fishermen.

Portable Heaters

If you have a portable ice fishing shelter, you are definitely going to want to invest in a portable heater. A portable heater can turn your portable ice fishing shelter into a cozy little living quarters for you and your fishing mates. Don't underestimate the value of heat when it comes to spending time out on the ice!

Portable Stoves

Besides a heater, you may also wish to have a portable stove. If you are going to be spending multiple days out on the ice, a stove is a must. Hot food can make all the difference when sitting out on the ice and waiting for the fish to bite. You can even boil up some water and make a nice and relaxing cup of hot chocolate!

What Will You Need in Your Tackle Box?

We've talked profusely about all the equipment you will need for ice fishing, yet we haven't even mentioned your tackle box! Ice fishing typically requires a good deal of unique lures, baits, and rigs, depending on the type of fish you are trying to catch. Here's an overview of some of the many things you may want to include in your tackle box before you set out on your first ice fishing trip.

Ice Fishing Lures, or "Jigs"

While ice fishing and traditional fishing both involve a rod and reel, the method used to attract fish is typically different. Ice fishing relies heavily on vertical jigging as compared to the horizontal casting and reeling of traditional fishing. Because of this key difference, ice fishers generally seek out unique lures that are apt for jigging.

Lures for jigging are referred to as "jigs", for obvious reasons. However, there is no one specific type of jig that works equally for all types of fish. In fact, there are a near infinite variety of jigs that come in all variations of size, color and shape. Some common jigs include:

  • Simple jigs
  • Ice spoons
  • Tube jigs

Simple Jigs

Simple jigs consist of a traditional hook that is usually attached to a small metal bit, or "head". They can be made out of different metals but are usually made out of either tungsten or lead. Tungsten is more expensive, sinks faster, and provides a weightier feeling that may make it easier to control and jig. Lead is cheaper, lighter, and doesn't provide that same level of weight or control.

Given that jigs are meant to entice a fish by appearance alone, they can be used with or without bait. Fishermen will generally choose to use bait with them in order to increase their options. Simple jigs can come in all different colors, and some even glow in the dark.

Ice Spoons

Ice spoons utilize the same basic idea as simple jigs but are usually bigger and made to look like small fish, such as minnows and other baitfish. They are made to more specifically resemble the type of prey that larger fish will go after in the ice. For this reason, ice spoons are perfect for ice fishermen who are going after bigger catches.

Tube Jigs

Tube jigs are made of a basic hook and jig-head shoved through a small tub that covers your line. The tube part of the rig is meant to imitate the body of a small fish or other water dweller. It helps the jig-head and bait mimic the motion of a naturally occurring underwater creature.

Ice Fishing Baits

Just like with lures and jigs, the type of bait you will want to use depends largely on the type of fish you think you'll be catching. Of course, the type of fish you will be catching can be determined by both date and location. Different types of bait you will see being used by ice fishermen include:

  • Bait fish
  • Worms
  • Mealworms
  • Wax worms
  • Cut bait
  • Salmon eggs
  • Marshmallows/PowerBait

Bait Fish

Bait fish are the perfect way to catch some larger fish, like muskie and pike, as they are the closest thing you will find to the natural prey of those fish. Minnows are one of the most common types of bait fish.

Using live fish as bait isn't always legal, so be sure to check with your local fishing regulations beforehand! If live fish aren't legal to use as bait, you may wish to cut some fish fillets up, also known as "cut bait".


Worms are one type of bait that carries over from traditional fishing to ice fishing pretty well. Set up your worm, either whole in or pieces, with a floater so they don't sink all the way to the bottom. From there, jig your little worm to your heart's content and a trout or walleye will likely take notice!


Didn't we already say worms? Well, mealworms aren't actually worms. In fact, mealworms are the larvae of a certain type of beetle. They are only called "worms" because they vaguely resemble worms in appearance.

Perhaps more than any other bait, mealworms have become practically synonymous with ice fishing. They are the ideal bait for jigging, both lightweight and irresistible to fish Mealworms are ideal for going after trout and panfish.

Wax Worms

Here's another worm that isn't really a worm! Instead, wax worms are another form of larvae, this time from a type of caterpillar. These little guys offer a great alternative to the more traditional mealworm that many fish will view as a rich delicacy.

Cut Bait

Cut bait would be bits of meat that you have cut up into smaller pieces. Traditional cut bait will usually be taken from larger fish fillets, as previously mentioned. Cut bait can exude a stronger scent than bait that isn't cut, meaning it will stand a greater chance of breaking through a stubborn fish's decreased winter senses.

Salmon Eggs

Although not as commonly used as some other baits, salmon eggs work really well for catching trout. Specialized hooks can be purchased if you have a hard time working a single salmon egg on to a traditional hook. If you can get the trick down, salmon eggs may be your secret weapon.


The same artificial bait you use during traditional fishing also often has a place on the ice. These baits provide unique colors, flavors, and scents that may work better in certain conditions and for certain fish than natural bait. As well, they provide a natural bit of flotation that can work wonders during ice fishing.

Ice Fishing Rigs

Finally, let's take a look at some rigs! For those who don't know, a rig is simply a little conglomeration of hooks, sinkers, lines, bobbers, swivels, and lures that are all tied together. The overall shape, appearance, and function of rigs is designed to be as attractive as possible to fish.

Rigs can include different types of lures as well as multiple hooks. For this reason, rigs can be seen as an easy way to cover more ground with a single fishing line than you could otherwise. Rigs can also be made to include different types of bait before casting.

The different machinations and lures involved in various rigs can be incredibly captivating to fish when jigged. Imagine a rig as a big neon sign that says "BITE HERE" to all prospective fish in the water. Used correctly, a rig can make ice fishing easy.

How to Plan Your First Ice Fishing Trip

Once you've gotten all the equipment procured and tackle box filled, you've got the hard part behind you! Now it's time to put all those supplies to use. Here are some tips for planning your first ice fishing trip.

What Type of Location to Look For

There are various methods used to find spots for ice fishing, including your own exploration, word of mouth, and third-party resources. While you can likely find some great locations on your own by checking out local ponds, reservoirs, and lakes, asking people at your local fishing shop might grant you access to some hidden secrets. As well, you'll be able to find many resources both on the internet and in print at your local bookshop, library, or fly fishing supply store.

The ideal ice fishing location is one that you are already familiar with as a traditional fishing location. Navigating an area can be tricky during the winter, so already being familiar with the layout of the area is a huge plus. As well, you'll have prior knowledge of what kind of fish frequent the area and what their favorite snacks are.

Keep in mind how open the roads or trails to certain locations are. Accessibility can be a tenuous thing in the winter months, meaning that certain ideal locations may not be accessible under current conditions. Always plan ahead and double-check that you'll be able to access the area you're planning on.

Selecting Where to Make Your Ice Fishing Hole

After you've determined the general area, it's time to pinpoint the specific location to create your ice fishing hole and drop your line. There are a few different things to keep in mind when finding a good place to put your ice fishing hole. These include the likelihood of fishing being in the location, as well as the safety of the location.

If you've sprung for the flasher during your equipment-purchasing phase, this device can be used to help determine the ideal location for your ice fishing hole. Flashers need to be dropped through the water on a fishing line in order to work, but the hole you'll need to create in order to do so will be much smaller than a traditional ice fishing hole. You can drill several small test holes around your area and then drop in the flasher beacon to help determine which specific location would be ideal for creating your ice fishing hole.

After you've determined that there are, in fact, fish frequenting your location, ice fishing becomes a game of patience. If you feel you haven't gotten a bite in a good 20 minutes to a half-hour, you may wish to put the flasher back into action or simply drill a new hole and start over again.

As far as safety is concerned, you always want to find a location where the ice is at least four inches thick if you're on foot, and a good deal more if you have a vehicle along with you. You can use the same type of test holes you would use for your flasher in order to determine the depth of the ice. We'll cover this more in-depth later under the "General Ice Fishing Safety" section.

There's No Such Thing as Being Over-Prepared!

As you're getting ready, remember that there is no such thing as being over-prepared when it comes to your first time. So long as you've got the means to carry your equipment and supplies, aim for the stars! Your first ice fishing trip should be fun above all else, which means you should bring along everything you'll need to be comfortable and content. Taking along all the snacks and creature comforts you'll be wanting can make the difference between an ice fishing trip and an ice fishing chore.

Don't Get Overly Ambitious On Your First Time

It's important to remember that your first ice fishing trip is going to be mostly learning. You are most likely going to make at least a few simple mistakes along the way.

Patience is important all-around when ice fishing, but it may be the most important on your very first trip. Just remember to have fun and to keep calm! You'll get the hang of it eventually.

Understanding the Basics of Ice Fishing

We've already gone over so much here, but one other thing we should look at is how to actually land a fish. Ice fishing is an all-around different game than traditional fishing, although many of the variables are the same. Landing a fish through the ice can be a bit of a trick for newcomers, so here are some quick tips.

Keep Your Hole Clear and Open

Firstly, always be sure to keep your ice fishing hole clear and open. Use your ice skimmer routinely to ensure maximum visibility as well as easy line removal. As well, utilize your ice chisel in order to smooth and polish any rough edges around your ice fishing hole that could snag or cut your fishing line should a struggle ensue between you and some over-sized fish.

Let the Fish Wear Themselves Out

When a fish bites, you may wish to let it pull the line out a little bit in order to wear it down. Fish can have a sudden burst of adrenaline during cold temperatures, so letting them tire themselves out is ideal before getting into the real wrestling match.

Keep a Net or Gaff Hook By Your Side

Once you're ready to try and pull your fish through your ice fishing hole, you may wish to have a gaff hook or net on hand. These can be used to pull up your fish as soon as they are visible in the water. Remember that a gaff hook can damage the fish, though, so you should never use a gaff hook when you are catch-and-release ice fishing.

Store Your Fish Properly or They'll Freeze!

If you are planning on keeping your fish to eat later, try and find a place to store them where they won't be frozen solid by the time you've got your stove heated up. A properly insulated fish box should be able to keep ideal temperatures that will store fish without allowing them to freeze.

What Kind of Fish Can You Catch When Ice Fishing?

You can catch a lot of the same fish when ice fishing as you would during traditional fishing. It all depends on where in the world you are located. Some of the most active types of fish during the winter include crappie, walleye, trout, and perch. All of these fish are considered very common ice fishing targets.

General Ice Fishing Safety

One last thing we should discuss before you head out on your first trip is the very pertinent matter of safety on the ice. Ice fishing can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. Let's take a look at everything you should keep in mind when heading out on the ice for your first time.

Bundle Up!

We've already discussed the importance of bundling up. Temperatures can get incredibly low when out on the ice. There is a very real danger of frostbite and other issues that may permanently damage your health if you aren't careful.

The most important thing to remember is to always stay warm and dry. This includes not overdressing to the point where you get really sweaty, as sweat can end up making you a good deal colder. Many people will choose to wear layers, that way they can simply remove a layer when the temperature increases.

Don't Tread Thin Ice

Besides low temperatures, the ice also poses another very real risk; breaking. If you are on thin ice, you may fall into the water and not be able to get yourself back out. For this reason, it is important that you find safe ice before drilling your hole.

As we discussed briefly earlier, the minimum recommended depth of ice when it comes to ice fishing on foot is 4 inches. This goes up to 8 inches if you have a small vehicle with you such as a snowmobile and 12 inches if you have a full-size vehicle. You should never risk it when it comes to ice thickness.

Consult the Locals If You Can

If you have a local ice fishing community in your area, such as a supply store or club, you may wish to ask around. Other fishermen may share with you locations where they've found safe ice this season. Remember, too, that the thickest ice is usually found around the perimeter of whatever body of water you are fishing at.

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