What Is Ice Fishing – The Ultimate Guide

Back in the day, people used to cut holes into the frozen great lakes in search of food to eat. Early anglers would lie flat on the ice, ready to spear and stab any approaching prey that they find underneath the surface. While their hunting goals were mainly driven by a hungry stomach, modern ice fishing is mainly done as a sport or a hobby; although some anglers do eat what they catch. 

We have come a long way since the spear fishing days. Nowadays, anglers are equipped with high tech gadgets and fancy rods to give them an edge when fishing on ice. So if you’re looking for some information on how you can step up your ice fishing game, you’re in the right place.

In this article, we’ll be covering ice fishing safety, equipment checklists, and tips and tricks to ensure that you will be successful in your ice fishing adventure.

Let’s go ice fishing!

What To Do When Ice Fishing

Before you go out onto the ice, make sure to check with your state’s Department of Natural Resources for information on ice fishing, rules, and regulations. It is your responsibility to follow the regulations set out by local authorities to prevent over fishing and to preserve your local lake’s ecosystems. Now that you’re up to date, it’s time to do some ice fishing – assuming you have your fishing license handy. (if not, jump online and register. It is easy to acquire a license nowadays)

There are 3 different methods you can use to catch fish on top of the ice.

Light-Rod Fishing

In general, ice fishing rods are half the size of your regular fishing rods. Unlike fishing on open waters, you won’t be doing any casting with your fishing rod when it comes to ice fishing. The rods are used for vertical jigging, or gently bouncing the bait in the water to attract fish. Most anglers use live minnows or wax worms for ice fishing.

Tip-Up Fishing

When you get tired of jigging a rod and watching the bobber float around the hole, consider using a tip-up instead. A tip-up is a contraption that sits on top of the hole in the ice, it generally has a flag that flips up when a fish bites the lure suspended underneath it. The best part about using a tip-up is not having to babysit and wait around for a fish to bite. You can gather with friends and family at the hut after setting up the trap and watch out for each other’s flags. In the meantime, feel free to cook some lunch, drink some beer and have great conversations while waiting for someone to yell out those magic words “FLAG UP!”

Spear Fishing

 Ice fishing trips can be as spartan or as fancy as you wish. If you choose to go full spartan, spear fishing can be an extremely rewarding experience. This method of fishing requires a lot of focus and patience. Start by throwing some blended up minnow or other baitfish into the hole to attract passing fish to pop their heads out of the water. This is where you strike by throwing your multi-pronged spear at the unsuspecting fish, be sure to have a string attached to your spear so you can retrieve your spear in case you miss.

How to Choose a Spot to Ice Fish

When it comes to ice fishing, it all begins with cutting holes in the ice. You will be needing an ice saw, an ice chisel, or an auger (either manual/electric/gas powered). As a rule of thumb, a 6-inch hole will be fine for most fishing, 8-inch augers are the most popular choice among anglers, or you can use a 10-inch auger if you’re fishing on a lake that has huge fish in it.

In general, the best depth to fish is about 2 – 4 feet from the bottom of the lake. It is best to try and figure out what lies beneath the surface of the water before it freezes over. Be sure to avoid drilling close to high underwater rocks, stumps or extremely weedy areas as you’ll come up shy in the fish catching department. 

Savvy anglers usually start scouting during the regular fishing season, making notes on maps, gps or in their minds about certain areas they should visit when the water freezes over. Alternatively, you could skip the scouting and use fish finders and portable sonar devices instead if your budget allows it, as they can be quite expensive.

Regardless which way you choose, both ways will work well with the right preparations.

Ice Fishing Essentials

Ice Fishing may seem like a relatively easy hobby to pick up, and its not complicated as long as you have the correct gear. We’re going to break down your essential ice fishing gear plus a few luxury items that you can get if you plan on going frequently, or if your budget allows!

Equipment Checklist for Ice Fishing

Proper Clothing

Beginners to winter sports or activities tend to under dress, especially when it’s a sunny day. The coldest days of the year are typically when the sun is out and there is not cloud cover to keep the head in the atmosphere. Save yourself from catching a cold or worse – Hypothermia. Layer up appropriately and always be aware of the weather forecast and the potential for winter storms.


The reflection of the sun on ice or snow will blind you and cause a higher chance of you tripping or falling on the ice. Protect your eyes with some polarized sun glasses.

Fishing Gloves

With any kind of fishing, your hands are going to get wet at some point whether its bringing in a fish or setting your line. In the winter, its especially important to have gloves that are well insulated and waterproof, as your hands are one of the first things to get frostbite. 

Ice Auger

In order to get a hole in the ice, you’re going to need some kind of an ice auger or saw. If you know the area and lake well and you think you can find a relatively fresh hole without a thick layer of ice, you can bring a shovel and clear out the fresh ice.

Ice Chip Scoop

If you’re on the ice fishing for a long period of time, your hole will start to get slushy and form ice chips. It is important to get rid of these throughout the day as they have the potential to cut your line!

Ice Fishing Gear

Aside from the essentials, you definitely need ice fishing gear or you’re just going to be sitting on a lake drinking beer. The must haves are a proper ice fishing rod, line, and hooks or lures. 

Fishing Bait

This is always a must have if you’re using a hook and not a lure, the most popular kind of bait for ice fishing are minnows and wax worms.

Optional Gear for Ice Fishing

Fishing Hut / Tent

This is a luxury to get protection from the wind and make the ice fishing experience a little more enjoyable. If you have a lake where you can leave the shanty on it year round, these are a great investment for people that ice fish more than just a few times a season. If you like to do weekend trips, these can also be a worthy investment as you can sleep right on the ice!

Ice Shanty Heater

If you’ve made the investment for a ice fishing hut, then getting a heater is almost a given. These will ensure you can fish without feeling cold, and will even be layering down throughout the day as your ice fishing hut warms up. If you plan on sleeping in the hut, these are great as you don’t need heavy duty sleeping bags or gear to prevent you from freezing!

Smart Sonar / Depth Finder

Definitely not a requirement, but if you’re serious about catching fish a depth finder or a sonar can go a long way. Depth finders will allow you to pick the ideal spots on the lake where the depth is the range you know the fish like to hang around at. A Sonar basically takes the guessing game out, as you’ll be able to detect and see fish if they’re swimming by where you have it set up!

Underwater Fishing Camera

If you want to track the fishes movements or simply want a better look at the enviroment you’re about to drop your hook into, these are a super cool gadget that are gaining in popularity in the ice fishing community!

Ice Fishing Safety Tips

Ice fishing can be dangerous if you don’t do it right. Injury reports have shown that ice fishing injuries are generally more severe than regular fishing injuries. Therefore, safety should always be your number 1 priority whenever you’re heading out onto the ice.

When it comes to the dangers of ice fishing, most people have an inner fear of falling through the ice and into the ice cold water below. Contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that over half of all ice fishing injuries are caused by trauma from falling on the slippery ice. According to the Mayo Clinic’s research, there were significantly more cases of broken bones, sprains, bruising and strains from slipping reported than people actually falling through the ice.

Buying a good pair of winter boots combined with ice cleats goes a long way. It can provide the extra traction needed to prevent injuries from falling on the ice.

Surprisingly, burn injuries are just as common as people falling through the ice when it comes to ice fishing. This is largely due to intoxicated accidents combined with irresponsible use of rudimentary heaters. So keep an eye out when using heating systems in the huts and make sure you have good ventilation. A poorly ventilated hut can cause carbon-monoxide poisoning to its users.

We recommend all anglers to go ice fishing with a friend. At the very least, you’ll have good company when fishing. And in the event where you fall through the ice or hurt yourself from falling on the ice, they can throw you a rope and pull you to safety or call 911 during an emergency.

With ice fishing’s rising popularity within the angler community, we must place more focus on safety by raising our awareness of potential dangers and being well-prepared. It is always better to be safe than sorry when things go awry.

Ideal Ice Thickness for Walking/Driving

As a rule of thumb, the clearer the ice, the stronger it is. Keep in mind that the ice will never be 100% safe, as the thickness can change very quickly depending on the situation and where you are on the lake. You should use a depth indicator to measure the ice thickness after drilling as ice fishing requires a great deal of precision for your own safety.

Below is a quick guide on ice thickness and the weight it can hold.

2″ Ice Thickness or Less – Stay off the ice. This is not safe for anyone to walk on and you could be in danger of falling through the ice.

4″ Ice Thickness – Ideal ice conditions for ice fishing and walking.

5″ Ice Thickness – Suitable for snowmobiles or ATV.

8″ – 12″ Ice Thickness – Suitable for driving a car or a small pickup.

12″ – 15″ Ice Thickness – Suitable for a medium truck.

What To Do If You Fall in the Water

In the event where you fall through the ice, knowing the following techniques on self-rescue and having the right equipment handy will greatly increase your chances of survival.

1. Brace Yourself

The water is going to be very cold and your body will go into shock in response. Panicking will only worsen your fate, so try and force yourself to stay calm in this situation and control your breathing as much as you can.

2. Keep Your Head Above Water

You need to stay afloat, so try to remove objects or heavy clothing that are weighing you down to make it easier for yourself.

3. Focus On Getting Out of the Water

The longer you stay in the water, the lower your chances are of survival. Your muscles will feel weaker as time goes on. Your best bet is to head back to the part of the ice you were walking on as the edges will probably be strong enough for you to hold on to and attempt to pull yourself out.

4. Stay Horizontal

After swimming towards the edge of the ice, try to stay as horizontal as you can by getting most of your body out of the water, prop yourself up with your elbows and forearms and let the water drain off for a few seconds to reduce your weight. Afterward, kick as hard as you can to help you get out of the water.

5. Start Rolling Across the Ice

Once you’re out of the ice, do not stand up immediately, just in case you fall through again. Distribute your weight evenly by rolling across the ice towards more solid ground.

6. What If You Can't Get Out?

If you can’t get out on your own after 10 minutes of trying, it is best to stop exhausting yourself at this point and conserve energy. Hypothermia will begin to set in and you won’t be able to use your muscles soon. Conserve your energy by moving as little as you can, keep your legs crossed to conserve your body heat while you wait for help.

Keep a pair of floating ice pick handy at all times. If you fall through the ice, the ice pick will help you stab into the ice, giving you enough leverage to pull yourself out of the water. It would be extremely tragic if you accidentally dropped your ice pick into the water in a panic, so make sure you purchase one that floats, just in case.

Final Thoughts

The best part about ice fishing, is the chance to kick back and enjoy the company of friends and family in the beautiful winter environment. With a bit of financial investment, you can further enhance the experience with all the new technology available today; or just go old-school and do some spear fishing. Regardless of which way you choose, both ways work well with the right preparations and offer a fun experience for kids and adults alike. And if you do it right, chances are, you’ll be catching instead of fishing this winter.