So You Want To Try Ice Fishing?
By Tom Gruenwald

Ice fishing. It’s becoming increasingly popular each year. In fact, ice fishing could be considered the fastest growing segment of the entire sport fishing world—and for good reason!

Cold air is refreshing and healthy. Spending time with friends searching for fish beneath the ice is unique. Clothing has improved greatly, so anglers can stay warm and comfortable for extended periods of time, and better equipment is now available, providing more tools and options to bring success when facing a variety of situations.

Plus, with a growing contingency of anglers participating, expanding numbers of productive patterns are now emerging, and more information is being assembled than ever before. Put all this new-found knowledge to work on a large, active school at the right time, and aggressive winter fish will provide plenty of excitement, chasing a variety of presentations.

However, while not complicated, ice fishing does feature a diverse mix of specialty equipment and tackle that may seem daunting to a beginner: Safety items. Shelters. Electronics. Drills for cutting holes through the ice. Tip-ups. Ice rods of various lengths, styles, actions and compositions. Rod holders. Lines. Rigs. Lures. Floats, spring bobbers and a myriad of specialty accessories.

If you’re new to the sport, there’s a lot to learn. But rather than try covering everything at once, let’s simply review a checklist of things you should consider and basic items you’ll need to get started.

As with any sport, safety comes first, and ice fishing must be approached with special regard. While it’s a scientific principle that ice floats on water—and when fresh and dry, boasts sturdy tensile strength—ice conditions vary and are never uniform.

Cracks and areas of pack ice can and will develop, so you must do everything possible to make sure the ice you’re walking on is able to support the weight of you and your gear. The following chart provides general guidelines:

Function Ice Thickness Required:
Single Person Walking 2”
Single Person Fishing with Gear 4”
Group Fishing with Gear 6”
Driving Four-wheeler or Snowmobile 8”
Driving Small Vehicle 10”
Driving Large Vehicle 12”

From here, the best bit of advice I can give is, “When in doubt, don’t go out!”

Staying Warm
The next challenge is staying warm, and with today’s knowledge and advanced clothing systems, this really isn’t too difficult. The first rule is to stay hydrated—preferably with water or sports drinks. Avoid caffeine, which is a diuretic ultimately causing water loss; and alcohol, which cools the body. And be sure to eat; keeping your metabolism churning generates heat.

I recommend wearing a warm, dry synthetic base layer comprised of top, bottoms and socks, covered by premium, cold weather jacket and bib suit like the remarkable new Polar Fire System, featuring space-age Polar TX material that maintains body heat while dissipating body cooling moisture, and top that off with a well-insulated pair of boots, mitts and stocking cap.

You’ll stay warm and dry all day.

During exceptionally inclement conditions, portable shacks block out the weather, and assisted by portable propane heaters, keep you comfortable in even the coldest, windiest weather.

Shelters come in a variety of sizes, styles and price points. To choose which is right for you, consider first whether you fish alone or with others so you can determine the correct size and weight. If you’re on a tight budget, normally fish alone and walk onto the ice, smaller, lighter less expensive “pop-up” models such as HT’s Quick Hut or Insta-Shack are great choices.

If fishing with a partner or two, splitting the cost and towing larger cabin or “suitcase” style models makes perfect sense. As the name implies, these models open into roomy cabins but also fold flat within plastic bases that double as sleds for easy transport,

For the really serious ice angler, today’s “flip-over” designs are the modern ice angler’s bass boat. Although relatively heavy and more expensive than other models, most feature deep, heavy-duty plastic sleds fitted with benches or seats, gear storage, ample space and a convertible like, flip-over roof. To fish, just pull or tow the unit to your desired fishing spot, organize your gear and flip the top down. Cool!

Electronics are an invaluable aid for ice anglers wanting to efficiently find fish. It goes without saying that a premium GPS unit with detailed mapping chips will help you find productive locations concealed beneath thick layers of white camouflage. And using a quality sonar unit and/or underwater camera is critical if you wish to confirm depth, determine bottom content, locate structure, cover, forage and fish.

And since you’re staying in place vertical jigging, it’s easy to use sonar or underwater cameras to watch how fish respond as you experiment with various presentations, adding an exciting and unique dimension to the entire ice fishing experience!

When it comes to cutting holes, you have a choice between two styles of ice drills: Manual or power.

Hand drills are great when the ice isn’t too thick because they’re less expensive and much lighter in weight than power models. Premium modern versions also cut surprisingly fast. They come in various diameters—the narrower, the easier and faster it is to cut holes. Just be sure the diameter you choose properly accommodates the size fish you expect to catch.

Power drills, while more expensive and much heavier, feature electric, propane or gas-operated power heads that make cutting holes an even faster, more efficient process. Some anglers have even been able to compromise the advantages and disadvantages of these systems by using an adapter to connect portable, battery-operated electric drills to hand augers, thereby blending the advantage of a relatively lightweight manual system with the assistance of power operation!

Tip-ups are unique units supporting line filled spools and highly visible “flags” that pop up to indicate strikes.

Although there are many different styles, the principle is the same: A frame straddling the hole supports a mechanism featuring a spool on one end and trip release on the other. Signal flags are positioned on spring-loaded wires attached to the topside of the frame. They’re rigged by spooling with braided Dacron line, adding an appropriate leader and baited hook. The bait is lowered, and the signal flag is set under the trip. When a fish bites, the spool turns, spinning the trip and releasing the flag.

Tip-ups are typically baited with minnows when fishing larger game fish like pike, walleye or lake trout, but can also be used for perch, crappie, bass or stocked trout.

Ice Rods and Combos
Ice rods and combos are essentially miniaturized versions of the ones used for open water fishing. However, since you’re simply vertically jigging through holes in the ice, they’re usually much shorter, averaging 19 to 30 inches in length.

They range from less expensive, but more durable fiberglass models with foam handles and just a guide or two, to lighter, more sensitive, multi-guided, solid carbon cork handled versions. All come in actions ranging from micro and ultralight for panfish to heavy for larger game fish.

Reels may consist of everything from inexpensive, simple 1:1 ratio plastic ice reels to deluxe, single-action fly reels, machine geared, multi-bearing, infinite anti-reverse spinning—even premium baitcasting models that properly match and balance heavy-duty game fish systems.

As with summer fishing, each reel is spooled with suitable line best meeting the desired application. Wispy micro lines, standard nylon monofilaments, braids, superlines, even braided Dacron are all incorporated for various uses, depending on the rod and reel anglers are using, what they’re fishing for, the environment and presentation being fished.

Lures and Rigs
Ice fishing lures and rigs come in a tremendous array of shapes, sizes and colors, each designed with its own unique application in mind.

You may choose from a variety of tiny micro hooks, ice flies, jigs and plastics for panfish; or bigger jigs, spoons, swimming minnows, lipless crankbaits, rattle baits and blade baits for larger game fish.

Rigs are typically comprised of mono or wire leaders fitted with colored beads, spinners and select hooks, and most are designed to be used on tip-ups. The general rule is the larger the bait you’ll be using, the larger the hooks you’ll need.

Ice fishing also has a whole variety of unique accessory items including: portable propane heaters, skimmers for clearing ice chips from drilled holes, lightweight floats and spring bobbers designed for detecting light bites, lights and buzzers that reveal strikes when night fishing.

Not to mention, rod and tip-up cases, rod holders, bucket seats and folding chairs, mouth spreaders, ice cleats to help prevent falls, bait containers, gaffs and tackle boxes.

And lastly, the depth finders, bite indicators, minnow buckets and nets, shelter tow hitches, lights, fans and anchors, sleds and more. All are designed to make your ice fishing more productive and enjoyable than ever.

So if you want to try ice fishing, don’t wait any longer. There’s no better time than now!