Get the answers to your top 5 questions on ice fishing essentials with our Beginners Guide to ice fishing. We’ve invited guest writer and pro angler Jim Root to tell us what every new ice angler needs to know before they venture out onto the ice:
What ice fishing gear is essential?
How do I pick a location?
Where should I drill and how many holes?
What lures / bait should I try and how should I present them?
How long should I fish a hole before trying another one?
With these answers you’ll know what ice fishing equipment your need, which spots to try and how to increase your chances of landing your first catch on the ice.
About Jim Root:
Made the Top 10 at the inaugural iCAST Cup in 2015
National Championship Qualifier
Books / film:
Author or Smallmouth Bass Fishing for Everyone
Featured on the Weather Channel and ESPN
Regular contributor to Bassmaster
Favorite Species: Smallmouth Bass
Your safety out on the ice
Please, be responsible and safe when ice fishing. People die every year because they were careless. So, always use a spike and make sure you check the safety advice along with the ice fishing regulations for your state. As the old saying goes “you never want to be first one on, or the last one off.” Please think safety first!
What ice fishing gear is essential?
Here’s my top 10 list of the essential ice fishing gear you’ll need, in order of importance:
Ice rods are great tools. I have a walleye rod with a small spinning reel attached to it. What I love about this rod is that outside of ice fishing I let my kids use it when they’re old enough to start using spinning gear, so I get to use it all year.
Tip-ups are great for fishing multiple holes at the same time. Just hook on bait (minnows, shiners or fatheads) and let out the line to depth you want. Then the tip up will hold the bait suspended – if you get a strike, the device tips up (hence the name) and a signal (eg. a red flag) is shown.
You use this to be sure there isn’t thin ice in front of you. Always use your spike to make sure you’re walking on thick ice! Plus, make sure you carry a pair of ice picks (sometime called ice claws or spikes) – hang these around your neck and they will help you climb out should the ice break.
Flasher / fishfinder
A flasher is going to help you in two big ways. First, it will show you depth and any vegetation so you can immediately figure out if this spot is worth fishing. Second, it will mark fish and also show if they are interested in your jig. If I’m jigging the flasher is key for me to know if I need to keep lifting or leave the bait alone. I love that my Deeper unit has an ice flasher on it. Because you can use it for shore and kayak fishing too, it’s great if you’re new to ice fishing – you don’t need to invest in a unit that only works for ice fishing.
Many people might disagree and say it’s not necessary to have a shanty. However, I believe to be successful on the ice you need to be comfortable. That’s really hard to do when it’s below freezing and you’re not protected from the wind. Even the most basic shelters on the market today generate warmth from the sun. A good popup shelter on a sled is easy to use and sets up in just a couple of seconds. You’ll be warm in no time.
This is pretty self explanatory – you’ll find it hard to go ice fishing if you can’t drill holes! Get started with a simple auger, though there are also electric and gas power auger options if you’re going to be drilling a lot. Don’t forget if you’re targeting big species you’ll need a bigger hole (say 8”) and for that you’ll need a bigger auger. Likewise, if you’re only targeting pan fish use a smaller auger – it will save you a lot of hard labor.
Live bait. I rarely, or should I say never, go ice fishing without minnows. Keep reading to find out why.
Really warm gear. Another obvious one. I don’t like being cold, and I don’t like relying on heaters. As I said before, being comfortable is really important to having a successful session on the ice.
Ice scoop. Ever tried scooping ice out of a hole all day with your bare hands?
Coffee. Need! Actually, let’s move this baby to number 1.
How do I pick a location?
Here’s my do’s and don’ts list on where to target
Do NOT target:
Lakes with good populations of perch, crappie, and trout
Ponds that are deeper than 10 feet
Places that hold ice fishing tournaments (commonly referred to as “derbys”). You can also ask your local baitshops where guys are having success on the ice.
Lakes or ponds known to be spring fed, as these can have areas of abnormal warmth causing weak ice.
Where should I drill, and how many holes?
So, you’ve got all your essential ice fishing gear together, and you’re out on the ice. Now you need to know where to drill. Here are my 3 steps to success:
Find a spot that looks promising (look out for structure, depth changes or vegetation using your fishfinder.) Set up your shanty in the desired location
Drill a perimeter around your shanty - drill as many holes as you have tip-ups for, generally we start with at least 5 and as many as 10.
Set up your fishfinder and jigging rod in the hole in your shanty. Place your tip-ups in the holes around you – make sure you position them so you can easily see them.
Pro ice fishing tip:
For Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass, you’ll often find them in winter in the same spots you find them in the hottest summer months. So keep a log of where you catch in summer and locate those spots again in winter using a lake map. If you use a Deeper ice flasher, you will have all the ice holes you fish saved on your phone automatically so you can return to the best spots.
How long should I fish a hole?
As a general rule, if I spend an hour in a spot and don’t get any action I’ll move unless I’m waiting on a pressure drop or an upcoming afternoon bite. But it’s hard to say. Using a flasher will help you make well-informed decisions. If you’ve marked fish then maybe you need to switch up your presentation rather than change spot if you’re not catching. If you’ve not marked anything after an hour, it’s probably time to move on.
This is why tip-ups are also handy – they allow you to cover lots of ground by yourself or with a friend. It’s like having 12 rods in the water at once. On good days you can’t keep up, and on bad days you at least stay busy tending baits and jigging.
Stay safe and catch a ton
Please remember to check all the safety suggestions and fishing regulations for the state and location you’re fishing.