Some fishermen see winter as an obstacle, something that inhibits their ability to get out on the lake. Others see winter as an opportunity to face inclement weather and enjoy the exhilaration of ice fishing.
Ice fishing is a great way to bond with friends or to escape on your own for a little rest and relaxation. There is also something satisfying about braving blustering winds and cold temperatures to restock your freezer or catch and release.
Some fishers brave the ice for the food, while others are in it for the sport. Regardless, with the right gear and knowledge of ice fishing techniques, anyone can hit the ice and have a good time. Below, you’ll find some ice fishing tips and advice to help you get started, from the type of gear that you need to which fish you can expect to catch. Happy fishing!
Ice fishing is not as simple as throwing on a jacket, cutting a hole in the ice, and dangling a line. Ice fishing requires specific gear that will keep you warm and safe while helping you reach the fish at the bottom of the lake.
Gear for Catching Fish
Some of the typical ice fishing gear that you will need includes:
A tool to make a hole in the ice—People often use an ice chisel, ice saw, or an auger to dig through the ice. Typically, a hole of 8-10 inches is ideal.
Spring bobber—A spring bobber does not freeze as a traditional bobber does, so you will know when you get a bite.
Lure/Bait—The best lure or bait depends on which fish you are trying to catch. If you are going to use live bait, make sure it does not freeze before you can use it.
Line—Even if you use your summer pole for fishing, you will need to use special fishing line. Braided is highly recommended, as it will remain rigid in water. This is important since fish are at the bottom of bodies of water during the winter.
Ice Fishing Boots
You cannot throw on any old pair of boots and hit the ice. When ice fishing, your boot should be comfortable and supportive enough that you can trek to your ice fishing spot. They should also be able to grip slippery surfaces like ice and be warm enough that you don’t have to worry about frostbite on your toes. With the right boots, you’ll be ready for even the longest ice fishing expeditions—and you won’t have to worry about wearing several pairs of socks to stay warm.
Ice Fishing Shelters
While you may not want to set up a shelter if you are going to be out for just a few hours, having an ice fishing house or shelter can keep you safe for day-long or even week-long expeditions. These shelters will protect you from the wind and some can be used with heaters—just be sure not to melt too much ice. Here are some of the most common types of shelters:
Pop-Up Shelters: If you are going out alone, a pop-up ice shelter may be ideal. These are easy to set up and take down, which is perfect when you don’t have anyone to help you.
ATV-Mounted Shelters: These are perfect if you are planning on using an ATV to get to your fishing spot. They are usually built to extend from the ATV itself or to be lifted onto the ATV.
Flip-Up Shelters: These usually have a semi-rigid bottom, which lets you move the shelter across the ice. As an added benefit, you can toss your gear inside while traveling.
When’s the Best Time to Go Ice Fishing?
When you are ice fishing, it is beneficial to be aware of the feeding patterns of the fish you are trying to catch. For example, species like sunfish and pike are more active during the day, while crappie and walleye are more active in the 90 minutes after sunrise and before sunset. Timing your ice fishing outing around the full moon and new moon can also be beneficial, as fish commonly feed more during this time.
Weather is another factor that might affect when you should go ice fishing. Stable weather patterns cause fish to be more active. They may also feed more when the barometric pressure drops, as it signals incoming storms. If you want larger fish, try to time your ice fishing using all these conditions.
In addition to considering the perfect timing to catch certain fish, you should also time your trips according to the thickness of the ice. At minimum, you want ice to be 4-6” thick. This is especially true if you plan on using an ice fishing shanty. If you are using an ATV to reach your location, the ice will need to be 7-12” thick.
Types of Fish You Can Catch While Ice Fishing
As with any other season, the type of fish that you can catch depends on the types of fish that live in the area. As large bodies of saltwater do not typically freeze over, you can expect to catch freshwater fish while ice fishing. Fish in lakes and ponds do not migrate—they simply head to the bottom of the body of water they live in. This is the warmest area for the fish and offers the best chance of survival.
There are some species of fish that choose to burrow down in the mud during the winter, though these are usually species like gobies and koi. Among the most common fish to catch in the winter include catfish, yellow perch, walleye, rainbow trout, and northern pike.
A Few Basic Ice Fishing Tips
Skim Along the Bottom
During the winter, fish go into a state that is similar to hibernation. First, they find the warmest area of the lake or pond. Generally, this is farthest away from the cold surface. The closer to the bottom of the lake that you are, the warmer the water is. While ice fishing, you should slowly lower your line until it sinks to the bottom of the lake or pond. Then, skim along slowly until you get a bite.
Since fish are cold-blooded, they are affected by the chilly temperatures around them. Their metabolism and heartbeat slow down, so they require less oxygen and less food. Fish still eat, but they will not chase after a lure as they would in warmer water. By moving slowly, you increase the chance that fish will take your bait.
Be Prepared for Anything
Even when you check the weather beforehand, winter weather can be unpredictable. You never want to find yourself in a dangerous situation, so be prepared. Take precautions like wearing a life vest and purchase shelter in case of inclement weather. You should also bring along safety items like a whistle, flare, and cell phone in case you get lost or find yourself in danger. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back. Finally, be sure to stay warm! Wearing layers can help with this, as you can add more or take them off as needed to regulate your body temperature.