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Begin with the Basics for Ice Fishing Success
My first experience with ice fishing was like a baptism that opened my soul to winter rejuvenation. The ice popped and sang underfoot while the soothing warmth of the afternoon sun lay across my shoulders like a quilt. A few friends and I made small talk as we sat around jigging rods and a small, crackling fire.
Three lines of tip-ups stretched in all directions covering a variety of depths and terrain features. Tip-ups are small, folding frames with a spool of line and a flag. You drop the line through the ice, bend the flag to a catch point that also holds the spool in place, and set the frame over the hole. When a fish takes the bait, the flag pops.
“FLAG!” Bill hollered, pointing to the line behind Josh. The farthest tip-up had tripped on a tip-up sitting overtop a saddle between two islands in about 12 feet of water. We ambled over to see the line slowly turning from the spool. Josh carefully removed the tip-up from the hole, stripped out some extra slack, set the tip-up aside, and softly gripped the line until he felt tension from the fish. A swift jerk set the hook on a 10-inch yellow perch that was destined to meet the frying pan.
That first foray on the ice as a college kid with just enough loose change for a beer run was about as primitive as it gets. The gear was cheap or borrowed, but we were successful nonetheless. Hence, I’ve largely held to the basics while accumulating gear over the years.
Now that winter has descended upon us with an arctic blast, ice should be forming on lakes like mad from the central US north. If you’re curious about ice fishing, there’s no better time than now to get started, and anyone can find success with a few standard items and fundamental knowledge of fish habitat.
This is a basic must-have list for everything you need to go ice fishing. Read further for more details.
- Bathymetric map of the lake
- 6- or 8-inch manual auger
- Spare auger blades with the appropriate Alan wrench to change them
- Slush ladle
- Two fully-spooled tip-ups
- 6-pound fluorocarbon tip-up leader material
- #4 hooks for tip-ups
- A box of varied split-shot
- Two jig rods with 4-pound fluorocarbon
- Glow-in-the-dark jigs 1/32nd to 1/64th ounce
- Bait (shiners, nightcrawlers, or maggots)
- Multitool with needlenose pliers
- 50-foot rescue rope
- Sled to transport everything
Knowing a lake’s bathymetry (the measurement of the depth of water) is key to identifying productive areas. Bathymetric maps are often available from fish and game agencies or the federal government, depending upon who owns or manages the waterbody. Maps are easy to find for many states where ice fishing is a major annual event. Check out ice fishing forums for tips if the maps are not readily available online, and don’t be afraid to call the local fish and game office if all else fails.
For yellow perch and trout, I look for humps with a base between 10 and 20 feet deep that rise four to eight feet. Yellow perch spend time on top of and around these humps and trout cruise the edges.
Locate saddles between two humps within that same 10 to 20-foot depth range and punch a series of holes across that saddle to fish each depth and location.
Rocky points are a good option as well. Punching holes off of the point from shallow to deep in approximately five-foot depth intervals will help narrow down where the fish are holding or cruising around the point. I always fish abrupt edges like weed lines and sharp drops as well.
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Once you’ve identified where to fish, the next most obvious requirement is making a hole through the ice, and some options are easier than others.
An auger, in my opinion, is a must-have item for efficiency. They range in diameter from four to 12 inches and come in manual, gas, and battery-powered versions. I’ve always used a run-of-the-mill eight-inch manual auger and fished through as much as 16 inches of hard, clear ice. You’ll work for your holes through ice more than about six inches thick, but the auger requires nothing more than sharp blades and elbow grease to operate, and it’s the lightest-weight option, which matters if you have a long hike to your fishing spot.
A ladle comes in handy to remove the slush once the hole is open. You can find these with a small chisel end on top to chip out the bottom of the hole once the auger has punched through. You can do this without a ladle, but keeping your hands warm and dry throughout the day is a no-brainer.
A spud is basically a long rod with a chisel end to stab and chip away at the ice. I’ve fashioned these out of an old pipe by bolting ¼-inch flat steel inside and grinding the edge down to a chisel point. I’ve found the spud most useful for testing the ice thickness. Spuds are also good for chipping out the bottom of holes, making live wells on the ice, and can be used in lieu of an auger, but they are far less efficient for punching holes.
Finally, a small sled is handy for toting your gear to and from the car. A small Jet Sled works well, and I have also built a custom plywood sled with a pair of old skis that works well.
Now, on to the fishing gear. Tip-ups are a traditional and efficient method that allows you to fish multiple lines and areas simultaneously. There are a variety of tip-up designs, some more efficient than others, and I’ve found all equally effective.
I rig my tip-ups with 20- to 30-pound Dacron or another braided running line like fly line backing and 18 to 24 inches of 6-pound fluorocarbon leader. The braided running line is flexible and falls straight in the water rather than coiling like monofilament does when it’s cold.
For a wide range of fish, I recommend rigging #4 (not 4/0) Gamakatsu or Eagle Claw Lazer-Sharp hooks, hooked through the dorsal of small- to medium-sized common shiners or run through a half-nightcrawler with a trailing, wiggling tail.
I typically set my baits 6 to 12 inches off the bottom and fish them for about an hour before I check or move them. An easy way to set your bait depth is to attach a weight to the hook, lower it until it hits bottom, and then pull back those six to 12 inches of line. Tip-ups submerge the spool in the hole, so remember to pull up an extra approximately eight inches of line to account for that, then place a small split-shot on the running line. This will allow you to check baits and land fish without guessing or remeasuring how much line to drop each time you reset the tip-up.
When a flag pops, approach the tip-up carefully. Loud noises and shadows can spook fish. Watch the spool when you approach. If the line is moving, gently remove the tip-up from the hole while stripping out extra line, then feel for resistance on the line and tug to set the hook. If the line is not moving when you approach, watch it for a moment to see if it moves. If the line doesn’t move, pull the tip-up and carefully retrieve the line to feel for the fish. If you feel resistance, set the hook.
Jig rods are a must for ice fishing. No matter how much I enjoy fishing tip-ups, a full day on the ice will have its boring moments. I always set the legal maximum number of tip-ups that allows me one line to jig during the time between flags. Furthermore, jigging can key you into where fish are, what they are doing, and what it takes to entice a strike, which is particularly important if the tip-ups are not producing.
While small, cheap jig rods are available specifically for ice fishing, a regular fishing rod works as well. I recommend 4-pound fluorocarbon line and glow-in-the-dark jigs 1/32nd to 1/64th ounce. I usually tip the jig with a small piece of nightcrawler, meal worm, or spike (maggot). Small artificial lures like spoons, marabou jigs, and even trout flies like nymphs or streamers are effective.
When fishing humps, I fish the base of the hump, then work my way up the side to the top. This means punching a few holes around the hump to work it over properly.
Drop the jig to about six inches off the bottom. You may need to experiment with jigging speed and actions to entice a strike. If no action, slowly work your way up through the water column in the same hole about a half foot at a time to see if you can locate fish at a different depth. If you still haven’t picked up a fish, move to the next hole or a new area.
Don’t be afraid to move around. Exploring with the jig rod while the tip-ups soak is a great way to find fish.
Always exercise caution when ice fishing. Six inches thick is my minimum safe standard for weight-bearing ice, as I weigh in at about 290 pounds these days. Clear, black ice is as pure and strong as it gets. White ice has impurities such as air bubbles and potential debris that can cause weakness.
Always carry a length of rope to toss to someone in the event they fall through. Never try to approach too closely and risk falling through yourself.
I personally wear a Coastguard-approved Arctic survival suit with built-in thermal and floatation layers. I look like a clown but stay comfortably warm, even hot when drilling holes. I also keep a pair of ice picks strapped to my body that I can use to pull myself up onto the ice if I fall through.
A wealth of additional safety information and gear is available online. Fortunately, in all my years of ice fishing, I have yet to see anyone fall through.
Playing the Waiting Game
Patience is key. When fishing tip-ups, put some distance between you and your set. Build a fire, enjoy a tasty beverage, and light up the camp stove. Hot chocolate and brats are hard to beat when waiting out the bite. And when that flag waves high, remember to keep your cool (easier said than done when fishing with kids). Running to the tip-up and yanking it out of the hole can spook fish into dropping the bait and leaving the area.
If you are anything like me, you dread the cabin fever of the winter months ahead, and my athletic talents rebel against skiing. Round up the family, throw the dog in the car, and slip out on the ice (pun intended) for some carefree fishing. By the end of the day, you should have a few tasty fish for the pan and plum-tuckered kids. If all else fails, you will at least enjoy a renewed appreciation for the warm confines of home.