How To Start Ice Fishing: Beginners Essential Tips, Gear, Bait & Safety

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With people continuing to search for new hobbies during the cold, winter months, ice fishing has become an increasingly popular pastime. 

In the last few years, more and more people and families have tried their hand at catching fish through the ice. The thrill of seeing a bobber go down on a summer evening is something that is not often replicated, but the twitch of an ice fishing rod before a hook set gives it a run for its money. 

In this article, we will be diving into the basics needed, for both the equipment and information side, to begin your ice fishing career. Many people are under the impression that they need to spend an arm and leg to begin their journey, but that is simply not the case anymore.

Why Is Ice Fishing Popular?

Ice fishing is a fun sport with many anglers finding the ice as their retreat from the summer trout and bass fishing. It also has become a social event, many go as friends in a group or family members making it the equivalent of a “fishing” super bowl party!

Until the last few years, the cost and lack of ice fishing gear have prevented people from giving it a try. However, with the amount of information available online, many companies now manufacturing ice fishing equipment, and many ice fishing vacations available, its popularity has skyrocketed. 

Heated and permanent houses have been replaced by incredibly warm clothing and portable houses.  Expensive rods and reels have had their prices lowered due to competition and “secret” family honey holes have been made available by the vast amounts of information on local lakes and regions provided by local DNRs and fishery management groups. 

Ice Fishing Gear Essentials

Ice fishing gear loaded up and ready to move to the prime spots

The key gear for starting ice fishing is very different from other types of fishing. Here are 10 essential items of gear you will need.

  1. Proper Clothing
  2. Ice Fishing Rod and Reel
  3. Best Ice Fishing Line
  4. Tacklebox
  5. Ice Flasher
  6. Ice Shelter
  7. Ice Auger
  8. Ice Sled
  9. Ice Fishing Chair
  10. Ice Fishing Bucket

Proper Ice Fishing Clothing

Staying warm is the biggest factor in truly enjoying ice fishing.  If you or your family are cold, it takes a lot of fun out of the day.  However, one of the many false thoughts people have when wanting to begin ice fishing is that “I need to have an enclosed/heated shelter to not be cold”.  While this is a nice option, it is not a necessity to enjoy and be successful. 

However, having a good set of pants, a waterproof jacket, hat, socks, boots, and gloves are all you truly need to begin.  There are many affordable options, check out my article on the Best Cold Weather Fishing Gear here! that covers everything you need at affordable pricing. Buying decent clothes is far cheaper than purchasing a large shelter or ice house. Yes, you may not be able to fish on some of the coldest days without a shelter, but there are many days during the winter that are pleasant enough if dressed properly. 

The great thing about buying winter clothes is that it’s not just dedicated to fishing use, in my in-depth article I have selected my personal choices, which where possible, can be used for any outdoor winter activities.

Ice Fishing Rod and Reel

The next vital piece of equipment to begin your ice fishing journey is a rod and a reel.  Once your spot is picked out and your hole is drilled, it’s time to begin fishing. 

There are hundreds and rods and reels to choose from and this decision can seem overwhelming.  However, many of the rods and reels operate the same way.  You do not have to spend a fortune finding the perfect option. 

The easiest way to decide on your rod and reel is to figure out which fish species you’ll be chasing.  Most ice anglers focus on panfish (sunfish and crappies), perch, and walleye while there are others who focus mainly on trout and larger predator fish like muskies and northern pike. Researching which species are prevalent in the lakes and reservoirs in your area is an easy way to narrow down your search.

Thankfully, the rods and reels used to catch panfish are oftentimes the same ones used to catch perch and walleye. If you are not planning on going after more specialized species, the choice becomes fairly easy, the Shakespeare Fuel Ice Fishing Reel & Rod Combo (a mid-weight rod with a fast action) is the perfect choice for an ice fishing beginner. 

Best Ice Fishing Line

Most experts simply cannot agree on what is the best ice fishing line. Monofilament, braid, and fluorocarbon all have advantages and disadvantages. All things equal, for beginners it really is not that important. Once you get more experienced and start thinking about those trophy ice fish, then my recommendation is to choose the best quality monofilament you can afford. The Berkley Trilene Micro Ice Monofilament Ice Fishing Line is a great choice. So fill your reel spool with some ice-free line and you’re ready to go!

You will find that ice fishing rods and reels like this make for a full rod bend on even the smallest of fish and leads to laughs and smiles all around!

Ice Tacklebox

When first diving into finding the correct ice fishing tackle it can feel a bit overwhelming.  Store shelves are packed with hundreds and hundreds of lures and bobbers which can make even the most knowledgeable ice angler feel a bit overwhelmed. 

However, the process is very similar to selecting your rod and reel.  The main question that needs to be asked is, what species are you fishing for?  Once that is decided upon, you can narrow the selection down and find the correct choice for what you’re chasing.

In just starting out, when chasing panfish and perch the simplest method is using live or artificial wax worms on the end of a jig kit such as the Eagle Claw Glow Ice.  These jigs are also an effective way to catch walleyes as well. If you want to chase after larger walleye as well as northern pike, then my recommendation is to go for the Clam Scepter bomb spoon.

For a great all-around ice fishing spoon, then take a look at the Lindy Rattl’N Flyer Jigging Spoon with its lifelike built-in minnow head makes it one of my personal favorites.  As you learn what works best in your areas, you can get more specialized, but these are fantastic beginner options that will lead to success.

Fish Finder / Ice Flasher  

Another common misconception about getting into ice fishing is the need for a flasher.  Flashers, in their most simple terms, are instruments used to “see” what is below the ice.  It uses sonar to map out the bottom of the lake and “mark” the bottom of the lake as well as fish and other objects (like your lure) suspended throughout the water column.

 While a tool like this does make finding structure and cover on the bottom of the lake (and in turn, fish) easier, it is definitely not necessary for success.

The old-fashioned way of drilling holes and dropping lines searching for fish is still a tried and true method.  It does require drilling quite a few holes, but the search is one of the reasons that makes catching fish through the ice so exciting and at the same time rewarding.

If you are inclined and feel as though a flasher is necessary for your particular area, you do not have to spend crazy amounts of money to do so.  As ice fishing has become more popular, multiple companies have joined in the flasher game and made them quite a bit more affordable. 

One of the best brands is Garmin which has the very popular Echomap UHD 63cv Ice Fishing Bundle, which includes Echomap software for data collection.

However, I own the Deeper PRO+ 2 Sonar Fish Finder, which is a more affordable option that I use for carp fishing. It is also perfect for use from your kayak or boat during non-ice fishing times. Once you are ready for more advanced ice fishing techniques, check it out!

Ice Fishing Shelter – Optional For Beginners

Eskimo Ice shelter in place, guarded by mans best friend!

If you are someone who would rather fish out of a shelter, there are portable ones such as the Eskimo QuickFish Series Pop-Up Portable Ice Fishing Shelter that are extremely cost-effective.  Again, these are not 100% necessary when you start ice fishing but are a good option for being able to fish on even the coldest of days and not break the bank on the fully heated, permanent fish houses. 

Make sure you check that your choice is an insulated one, as some manufacturers have both insulated and non-insulated options.

If you’re new to ice fishing I strongly recommend renting a shanty/shelter before you buy.

These popular fishing locations supply rental houses with pre-drilled holes, heaters, and a ton of other amenities that are ideal for ice fishing beginners. Once you’re seriously hooked, then go out and buy. It’s not even necessary to buy a new shelter, there are many options for second-hand ice fishing shelters for sale at reasonable prices.

Ice Auger – Can Be Shared

Besides being warm and comfortable, the next piece needed for a successful day is an auger.  Augers are the tool used to drill through the ice and begin fishing.

There are multiple different types of augers from battery options and propane and gas-powered to the most affordable basic hand-cranked ones. All of them are effective, work well, and will drill holes in the ice from 6 inches up to 10 inches.

The main factor in considering which type to buy is how cold your area is. The colder areas tend to have thicker ice which makes the hand crank augers only usable in the early season, whereas the more mild climates are perfect for hand augers all season.  Doing a bit of research online about ice thickness in your general area is a good practice before purchasing your auger. 

Ice Fishing Sled – Optional For Beginners

A basic ice fishing sled is perfect for beginners

Sleds are the simplest piece of equipment for ice fishing.  While not absolutely necessary, they are an extremely affordable item that will make your day on the ice much easier and more pleasant. 

While minimal gear is needed to get started, carrying everything across a slippery or snow-covered lake is a great way to exhaust yourself before even starting. A basic sled such as the Shappell Jet Ice Fishing Sled is an excellent affordable and simple way to transport gear, clothing, food, fish, and anything else you bring for a day on the ice from one spot to another with ease.

Once you get into ice fishing, it’s something most ice anglers rarely leave home without. 

Ice Fishing Chair

While you are out on the ice fishing, you will need something comfortable to sit on for a few hours. Some chairs are just too big to fit in a shelter or they are just too expensive. My choice for the beginner ice fisherman is the Eskimo 69813 Folding Ice Fishing Chair

It is a practical yet affordable option that is lightweight but very durable. Remember moving around will keep you warm, so sitting for hours may make you feel cold eventually.

Ice Fishing Bucket

Hopefully, you are going to catch some ice fish! So you will need a bucket to retain your fish in. My top recommendation for an ice fishing bucket is the Frabill Sit-N-Fish. It has a 10-quart insulated liner that protects your bait and your fish.

The great thing I love about this bucket is it doubles up as a seat option. Its padded cushioned lid does a good job for those that don’t want to carry too much gear around or feel a chair isn’t necessary.

Ice Fishing Tips And Techniques

Now we have covered all the necessary ice fishing gear. So let’s deep dive into the part of actually catching ice fish!………and of course the safety aspects when you are on the ice.

  • Types of Fish
  • Best Bait  
  • Ice Safety
  • Best Places to Ice Fish
  • Ultimate Ice Fishing Destinations

Types Of Fish You Catch When Ice Fishing

Some nice-sized pike and a solitary perch caught during last winter’s Ice fishing

There are many fish to catch ice fishing. The most popular are the following:

  1. Sunfish group, which includes different types of crappies, bluegill, black bass, etc.
  2. Perch species including the yellow perch and the walleye. 
  3. Large predators such as the northern pike, pickerel, and musky. 
  4. Trout such as rainbows, browns, cutthroats, and brookies. 

As with fishing outside of the ice fishing season, certain lakes hold different types of fish. Make sure you do your research if you plan to target a specific species of fish. The best starting point for this is to check your state’s department of natural resources (DNR) fishing information website. Also, make sure you have a valid fishing license for the state you plan to go ice fishing!

Best Bait For Ice Fishing

I almost always choose to use live bait while on the ice. My first bait on the hook will be maggots. One, two, or a bunch will work for different fish, so always experiment.

The benefits of using artificial plastic baits are that they are easy to store and I don’t have to worry about them freezing. The Berkley Gulp! Maggot is a good compromise, with multiple colors you can give more options if the fish are being picky.

Another great natural bait to catch ice fish is the minnow. The golden or common Shiner is my personal favorite ice fishing minnow. I will use them preferable live, but a dead shiner can also catch bass and other species. Shiners around 3” long are perfect for walleye on tip-ups. These minnows are cheap to buy and will last a day out on the ice.

Lastly, I always take nightcrawlers with me on every ice fishing trip. Worms can catch any fish, their versatility alone makes them one of the best natural baits for ice fish. Perch just love worms, and when I’m on the ice yellow perch is one of my favorite fish to catch!

Ice Safety  

Now that we’ve discussed ice fishing basics on the equipment side, we need to discuss the basics on the information side starting with ice safety.  A good rule of thumb is that ice is never 100% safe.  It is always moving, cracking, and adjusting to fluctuating temperatures throughout the winter.  Knowing this allows you to respect the danger and never take unnecessary chances.  No life is worth a fish so if it seems unsafe if you are not sure don’t fish! It’s better to be safe than sorry.  

As a best practice, before you begin your ice fishing adventure, familiarize yourself with this ice thickness chart, but always remember never to walk on the ice unless there are at least 4 inches of ice present.  Drilling several holes on your way out to your preferred fishing spot is a great way to continuously check ice depth.

Checking the color of the ice visually is also a good practice, dark black ice and Light Grey colors indicate the ice has recently melted and possibly weakened.

Lastly, I discourage anyone from ice fishing alone. It is not as much fun, and can be dangerous!

Where to Ice Fish

Selecting where to ice fish is actually one of the easier things to do as most ice-covered lakes hold panfish at the very least.  With this in mind, it can be as simple as going to a frozen lake, drilling a few holes, and dropping down a line.

Another easy way to select a lake and find fish is to drive around your local area and look for lakes that have multiple ice shelters and fishermen on them. The reason is that those ice fishermen are more than likely catching fish.  This may seem simple, but it is a great way to eliminate wasting time on lakes that may not have as many fish, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area or lake.

Another great option is to do some research on your local DNR’s website.  Many of them have lake depth charts which allow you to search multiple lakes and find drop-offs and other areas of structure that can hold fish.  

Ultimate Destinations

As you get more comfortable as an ice angler, it is only natural to think about the ultimate ice fishing trips.  Whether going solo, with friends, or bringing the whole family, planning a large-scale ice fishing adventure is an absolute blast.

You can get as detailed as you want, from planning trips targeting certain species to trying your hand at some of the best areas in the world.  Whatever direction you decide to pursue, why not check out my in-depth guide on the Best Ice Fishing Locations in North America and Canada here!

In my opinion and just to spark a little excitement here, some of the best and most popular areas to ice fish are:

  • Lake Michigan in Michigan 
  • Devil’s Lake in North Dakota 
  • Brainerd Lakes Area in Northern Minnesota
  • Lake of the Woods (Minnesota, Ontario, and Manitoba) 
  • Red Lake in Minnesota

Ice Fishing – Frequently Asked Questions

Ice fishing in heavy snowfall but when the sun is out its a great day out!

What Is the Trick to Ice Fishing?

While there isn’t one trick that works for all types of ice fishing, the best thing you can do is use flashy lures. Flashy lures are guaranteed to put you on fish. They love them and are more eager to strike something with quite a bit of color. Since everything under the ice is generally an earth tone, anything that stands out is too much for them to resist. 

How Do You Start Ice Fishing? 

The main things you’re going to need to get you started in ice fishing are an auger as well as a rod and reel. Yes, a fish finder and ice house would be nice, but these aren’t absolutely necessary.

As long as you can get through the ice and get a line in the water, you’re good to go. From here, you can experiment and determine the methods that best fit the style of ice fishing you’re trying to do. It’s not a one size fits all sport! Each angler has their preferences as to what they want. 

What Kind of Bait Do You Use to Ice Fish?

When you’re ice fishing, jigs and live bait are best. Live bait can include wax worms as well as minnows! These are the two primary baits that continually work regardless of where and how you’re fishing. Attach one of these to a jig and bounce it near the bottom. The scent and flashy colors of the jig are enough to entice the fish. 

If you don’t want to use live bait, a spoon or rattle bait will work. These are able to make enough noise to bring fish from nearby to come and take a look. Odds are, they’re going to strike it. 

What Depth of Water Should I Ice Fish?

Fish are known to live in all levels of the water column. Depending on the type of fish you’re targeting, you can be successful in anywhere from 3 to 20 feet of water! Make sure the area you’re fishing has plenty of cover and areas for the fish to hide. This is their main concern. 

What is the Best Time of Day to Go Ice Fishing? 

Choosing the best time of day to go ice fishing isn’t overly complicated. The first few hours after the sun rises and the first few hours after the sun sets are almost always the best times to go ice fishing. Fish follow these feeding times all throughout the year regardless of the weather and conditions. 

I strongly recommend that you do not go ice fishing at night, even if you are an experienced ice angler.

What Is The Best Month To Go Ice Fishing?

March is the best month of the year for most ice fishing locations. But January and February will also yield good results and are also very popular months. Earlier than December and later than March are possible but ice thickness and instability can be a problem in certain states.

What Is The Best Temperature For Ice Fishing?

Without a doubt, the best temperature for ice fishing is between 28 and 35 degrees F (-2 and +2 degrees C) The water in your ice hole will start to freeze over at 20 degrees F, making it difficult to fish. Temperatures above 2 degrees C will start to see the ice gradually melt.

Take a suitable digital thermometer with you to keep a watch for any ice temperature changes hourly. The KIZEN Infrared Thermometer Gun (LaserPro LP300) is a perfect non-contact option as you can use it without taking your gloves off. 

What Is The Best Ice Thickness For Fishing On Ice?

You should be searching for ice that is around 4” thick, this gives the best safety protection from falling through the ice, and is easy for cutting, dropping your rig into, and of course, lifting out your fish.

Icing Over

Ice fishing is one of the fastest-growing activities in the last few years and that is mainly thanks to the variety of information available to all who want to learn. Many of the misconceptions about cost, difficulty, and equipment required have been corrected due to blogs like this and more manufacturers entering the ice fishing world.

I hope this article was informative and gave you a great start in your ice fishing journey, the best part is that it is never too late to learn. 

Daniel Mooers