The Essential Ice-Fishing Setup
Ice-fishing gear, tips, techniques, and other essentials you need to enjoy yourself and catch fish.
Some call ice fishing a challenge and serious fun, some call it a peaceful and pleasurable way to spend a day outdoors with the family, and others call it a good time shared with pals who appreciate fish stories. However we describe ice fishing, we all need to know how to make the outing safe and enjoyable. Add a little luck and the right setup, and you might even catch fish! So grab your hat — a warm one! — and let’s go fishing.
WHERE TO FISH
Lakes fished in the spring, summer, and fall are typically the same ones to find fish in the winter. It’s also a good bet that the places to catch fish under ice are the same places to catch fish in open water. Fish prefer to linger near structures like drop-offs, rock piles, and vegetation beds.
You know where to ice fish, but is the ice safe? You will spend all your time on the ice, so knowing its thickness is imperative to your safety. With a spud bar or auger, chop or drill into the ice. You will need a minimum thickness of 4 inches to hold people on new, clear ice. Any less than that, you could be in trouble. If you access the ice with a snowmobile, you will need a minimum of 10 inches. A minimum of 12 inches is a good rule for light vehicles and thicker than 15 inches for heavier vehicles like medium- to full-sized trucks.
Ice and snow are slippery, so you’ll need boots with grip for traction on the ice. You will also need layered clothing, warm socks, gloves, and a hat. For good measure, have handy waterproof clothing and a life jacket.
- Spud Bar/Chisel or Auger: A chisel, or spud bar, takes arm muscle and a bit of sweat to cut through thick ice, but it’s a perfectly good and the most economical option. A gas- or battery-powered auger is a quick way to drill an ice hole.
- Ice Scoop/Skimmer: A device to scoop and skim ice from the hole after it’s chiseled or drilled and to keep the hole clear of ice and snow if needed.
- Sled: A sled is helpful to pull all your gear out onto the ice rather than carrying it.
- Shelter: A shelter is a nicety in freezing temperatures or inclement weather, allowing you and your group to fish comfortably. Portable options include lightweight pop-ups and easy-to-assemble tents specific to ice fishing. They are available in a variety of sizes.
- Portable Heater: Small gas and electric heaters will quickly heat an ice-fishing shelter.
- Small Rod: Fishing through a small hole does not require a long spinning rod, but the rod should provide enough strength to battle the size of your finned target. Chances are, you’ll be seated close to the hole while fishing, which is another good reason for a short rod. Also, fish are generally not as active in the winter, so they may not create much movement when they take a hook. Therefore, ultralight spinning rods are best for ice fishing unless the quarry is large, aggressive fish like northern pike.
- Fishing Line: Most panfish are caught with a 2- to 6-pound monofilament fishing line. Larger species may require a 10- or 12-pound line.
- Lures: Lures are artificial or live bait used with a rod or handline for jigging. Artificial lures are often made of lead, rubber, or feathers and made to look like worms or wounded minnows. Both lures and baits are presented on a weighted hook.
- Spring Bobber: Without a tip-up, a bobber alerts an angler with a visual cue that a fish is on the line.
- Leader: The leader attaches between the line and the bait to help keep the fishing line from getting damaged by sharp ice, which is especially helpful when bringing a fish to the surface. Typically, a leader is Kevlar, titanium, or stainless steel.
- Bait: Mealworms, nightcrawlers, grubs, waxworms, minnows, and corn are typical baits. Use larger baits for bigger fish like northern pike or bass. The smaller baits work for trout and panfish.
- Hooks: Jigs and lures with small #10 to #12 hooks are generally sufficient for most fish species. Larger species require larger hooks.
- Tip-up: A tip-up is a device that lets you know when fish takes the bait. It works by dropping bait to a desired depth and fastening the hand line to the tip-up. When the indicator, often a small flag, tips, that’s a quick clue to leap into action, grab the line, and reel in the fish, hand over hand.
- Cooler: For bait, refreshments, and food.
- Jigging: An ice-fishing technique that uses a lure to “jig” the rod tip vertically up and down, creating a snap-and-pop action that attracts fish to the lure. Drop a bait to the bottom and, when reached, slowly raise it a foot or so off the bottom. Then, slowly jig up and down. When you get bites, vary the speed and types of jigs to hone the winning technique.
- Tip-up: Set the tip-up on the surface above the hole, drop the line until the bait hits bottom, then raise the bait slightly above the lake bottom. Let it settle and watch the line. When a fish takes the bait, the reel turns and releases the line and flag simultaneously. The flag will tip up, which is your clue that it’s “fish on!”
- Tightlining: Simple. With a hold on your spinning reel, release the line and let the bait drop to the lake bottom, then reel up a foot or so. Then wait. When the line tightens, the fight is on.
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