Ice Fishing – How to Fish Through the Winter
While we all love to enjoy the wonderfully warm fishing weather the summer months bring, the serious anglers also like to keep their fishing options alive all year round. For many people around the world, this means enduring some seriously cold temperatures in the winter months, and even going as extreme as ice fishing.
For people that live in the far northern (or southern) reaches of the globe, then ice fishing provides a great way to catch some fresh fish to eat during the cold winter months, and also gives you the chance to continue your passion of fishing, while most others will have packed their fishing gear away for the duration of the winter.
‘Hard-water’ fishing is not for everyone, but for those that dare brave the sub-zero temperatures it can be a very rewarding pastime, and of course a great way of getting some fresh protein on your table.
How to stay safe when ice fishing
Before we get into the finer details of ice fishing, I want to cover the most important aspect first, and that is your safety. Going out on the ice to fish carries its own set of potential hazards that you need to be aware of, and it is always good to go with somebody that has experience in fishing on ice.
Take emergency kit with you. This would consist of things like first aid kit, extra clothing, thick socks, warm blankets, candles and matches or a lighter. Keep all of this in a waterproof bag to ensure it stays dry should any of it be required. Basically, be prepared!
Always check the thickness of the ice. You want to be sure that the ice is plenty thick enough to hold you and all of your equipment. Be wary of ice on moving water, as this tends to be a lot weaker than ice that forms on still water. Below is a rough gauge of safe ice thicknesses:
Avoid going out on the ice on your own. It is always best to have at least one other person there with you, so that if anything did happen to either one of you, the other can help, or go and get help. It is always a good idea to prepare a safety plan in case anything does go wrong, and always tell somebody else where you are going fishing and how long you intend to be there.
Ice fishing gear – what equipment should you be using?
You will need a lot of equipment when ice fishing, not just the standard rod and reel, but many other items that are exclusive to this type of fishing.
First of all, you will need an ice auger to drill the holes in the ice. You can use a chisel or an ice saw as well, but these are much slower to use, so an auger is definitely the best tool to use. You can find anything from the simple manual man powered augers through to the mechanical gas or electric ones that will drill the holes a lot quicker.
Once you have decided where you want to fish on the ice, you should clear the snow away from the surface of the ice first, and then you can start to drill your hole in the ice ready for fishing. Don’t forget to measure the thickness of the ice once you have drilled the hole to make sure you are fishing safely.
Tip: Drill some test holes around the area you want to fish, just so you can be assured that the entire area you are fishing on is safe to do so.
Ice fishing shelters
Once you have found your fishing spot on the ice and drilled your hole, you should use an ice shelter to keep the wind off you while you fish. Most of the modern ice fishing shelters are insulated, so you can create quite a pleasant environment within them once your body heat starts to warm them.
A lot of the latest shelters are now pop-up designs, similar to camping tents, so you can erect them very quickly and easily. This is extremely useful, as you really want to be able to get the shelter up as soon as you can once you have found your fishing spot to get you out of the cold wind.
You can get ice fishing huts and shelters in a lot of different sizes to accommodate more people if required. From single person shelters up to six or more is common.
Rod and reel
The type of fishing rod used for ice fishing is generally much shorter than rods you will use in the summer months. Average length is anything from 24 to 34 inches, and you really do not want anything longer than this.
The reason the rods are so short is that you want to be as close to the hole when fishing as possible, and this wouldn’t be possible with the traditional rods that are anything from 2-3 meters long.
Also no casting is required, so you don’t need the extra length of a regular fishing rod to get your bait out to our fishing spot, you simply drop the bait down through the hole in the ice. Plus, you would not want a longer rod if you are squeezed inside a small ice shelter, as your movement will be restricted.
You can use a variety of reels when ice fishing, although the most common type is a spinning reel. But some people will also use others such as center pins or bait casters too.
Cleats for your boots
To give you the best grip while walking around on the ice, you should always use spikes or cleats. These can easily connect to your boots, and the difference they will make to your moving ability is massive. They are not expensive, and they should always be one of the first things you buy before you go out on an ice fishing trip.
How to keep warm when ice fishing
Keeping warm is going to be one of your main challenges when going ice fishing. Of course the ice shelters will help, but you also need to be wearing appropriate clothing too.
Thermals are a must on your ice fishing trips. They will help a lot in keeping your core warm. Then you want other accessories such as a good pair of gloves and a decent hat to keep your head warm, and you lose most of your heat through your head. You will want full face covering too, for the days that get really cold.
Tip: It is always a good idea to take at least two pairs of gloves with you, as the first pair will get wet at some stage more often than not, and you will not want to be wearing the then!
Bibs - Many ice anglers wear bibs now, which are basically waterproof and windproof leggings with shoulder straps. Most good designs will allow easy integration with boots so they can both be worn together without any hindrance.
Many bibs will also have padding on the knees to give you protection when kneeling on the ice, and they will also come with zip up pockets so you can keep anything that you may need to access easily in them.
Weather proof jacket - You will also need a proper weather proof jacket. You can find many different types these days, but for ice fishing purposes you want to make sure that the jacket is fairly light in weight and allows you to move easily, but without giving up any of the warmth they are designed to provide you with.
Boots - Boots are an extremely important item you need when ice fishing. You should definitely think about getting yourself a decent pair of boots for your fishing trips, as you want to be able to keep your feet warm, comfortable and dry while out on the ice.
You can find a lot of different types of boots that are suitable for ice fishing, and things like Pac boots will offer the kind of protection you need when out on the ice for hours at a time. As soon as your feet get either wet or cold, then you are in trouble. So do not skimp when it comes to your boots!
Heaters - You can also get special heaters to use inside your ice fishing shelters, and this can really help to keep the conditions nice and toasty while you stay inside the shelter.
They have been designed so that the hot part of the heater is well away from the surface of the ice, so it doesn’t melt it, and the heat is directed upwards, away from the ice and towards to when you are sat there fishing. Be sure to get yourself one of these to make your ice fishing experience more enjoyable.
What baits do you use when ice fishing?
The baits that can be used when ice fishing are extremely varied, and of course it will depend largely on what your target species is. But don’t think that there is not much choice, as you will have plenty of options available to you that have proven to be very effective over the years.
If you want to use live bait, then larvae are always a good option. Wax worms (aka “Waxies”) are the larvae of the bee moth, and they are a very effective bait to use when ice fishing. You can catch a wide variety of fish on these, including Perch, Panfish and Trout.
Other larvae such as blowfly maggots are also very effective bait to use, as are things like Goldenrod grubs and rat-tailed maggots.
Tip: Make sure you keep your live bait warm so they wriggle more when they are on your hook. Keep them in a small thermal container, and keep this container in your bib pocket so that it is close to your body, and your body will keep them warm and moving more.
Using minnows as live bait is also good when chasing fish like Pike and Walleye. Sometimes when lures are just not working for these species, then using live minnows will be the things that leads them to bite.
Soft plastics and lures
Soft plastic lures have become increasingly popular due to the very life-like designs available these days. Not only to they look very real, but the action on them is also very similar to that of a live bait.
There are so many different soft plastics available now that it is hard to say which ones would be more effective. But always try and think of what food the fish in the area you will be would usually feed on, and try and find soft plastics that will replicate this.
The beauty of fishing with soft plastics is that you don’t have to keep re-baiting your hook every few casts, and you don’t have to worry about sourcing any live bait before you go fishing.
Saying that, it is always a good idea to have both live bait and soft plastics available, as you will often find the fish will be biting on one more than the other on any given day.
Many ice anglers use hard body lures as well, and these can be very effective for species such as Walleye, Pike and Perch.
Again, there are so many different types of hard body lures, but generally you will find that smaller lures will work just as well for bigger fish when ice fishing. Always test different lures, and mix up the colors that you use to see what works best on the day.
You can get lures that rattle too, and these are sometimes very effective at getting the attention on any fish that are close by.
Tip: If you have both soft plastics and bait with you, and you are not getting the bites on either, then try adding one or two maggots to the hook of your soft plastic to see if that will entice a bite
5 tips to help improve your ice fishing
So now I have given you an overview of ice fishing, and everything that entails, I would also like to give you some tips to help you catch more fish on your ice fishing trips.
Tip 1 - Have multiple rods set up with a different rig on each
It is always a good idea to have two or three different rods set up with varying baits and rigs. That way you can change them up quickly and ensure you are optimizing your chances to catch the fish that are around at any particular time.
Let’s say for example that you had been getting plenty of bites from smaller fish, like yellow perch for example, and then suddenly they stopped biting. It could mean that they have just gone off the bite for a while, or that a bigger predator such as a Walleye or Pike has moved in.
So if this happens you can quickly drop another rig down with a lure on to catch the larger fish. By being prepared like this you can make sure you don’t miss any potential opportunities when they arise.
Tip 2 - Use smaller jigs of the rod when ice fishing
When you fish with lures during the summer months, you will often give the rod a big whack when retrieving the lure to get the action on it you want. But when ice fishing you don’t want to be doing this.
As you are fishing vertically, there is no need to give your lure such a large whip, as you are not actually retrieving it. All you need to do is create a bit of movement of the lure to attract the attention of any fish that are nearby.
Small twitches of the lure are all you need to do. This will also ensure that you do not lose contact of the lure for very long when it is on the drop after twitching it, so you can feel any bites instantaneously.
Tip 3 - Vary the depth that you fish at
You should always make sure that you test different depths to find out where the fish are. Some days the fish may be feeding very close to the bottom, so you will want to drop your bait or lure right down to the bottom, then bring it just off the bottom so any fish feeding on the bottom is still going to see it.
But if you are not getting bites there, then just try bringing the bait up a bit at a time. I would suggest bringing the bait up in increments of around 25cm each time, until you find exactly where the fish are at that particular time.
You should keep doing this throughout the day as well. If the fish suddenly go off the feed, then it may just mean that they have moved off to fish at a different level in the water, so always keep prospecting depths to find the fish.
Tip 4 - Enhance your ice fishing by using electronics
Ok, so this may be overkill for some, but it is becoming very popular now with serious ice anglers to know exactly where they are fishing, the depths they are fishing at, and actually finding the spots where the fish are congregating.
Using fish finders for ice fishing is a very proactive way to improve your fishing sessions, and ensure you don’t waste time dropping your baits in dead spots where there are no fish.
You can actually get very creative when using fish finders while ice fishing, as you are able to see the lure when you drop it in the water, so you can ensure that you are fishing at the right depth.
You can also see on the fish finder when the fish come in to your lure to investigate, so if you can see that fish are noticing your lure but not biting, then you may want to adjust the action of the lure, or even change up the lure completely.
There are a lot of really good fishing finders available now that are great for ice fishing, and you can get some good ones at very reasonable prices too. So it is definitely worth considering adding one to your ice fishing gear list to maximize your opportunities of catching a lot of fish.
Tip 5 - Make sure you keep the tip of your rod ice free
So many time people sit there with the tip of the rod touching the water occasionally and they fail to notice when ice starts to form around the tip and in the top eye will be completely frozen over.
This will have a direct impact on your performance when you hook into a fish, and it can impair your ability to play the fish, and of course it can also damage the line, which could end in the fish snapping you off.
Check the tip of the rod every few minutes to ensure there is no ice build-up there, and just wipe it over with a cloth to make sure there is no water waiting to freeze on it.
I hope this has given you a good overview of ice fishing in general. It certainly can be a lot of fun when you ensure that you are safe, warm and you follow the best methods for catching fishing through the ice.
As always, if you have any questions or comments about anything to do with ice fishing, please add them into the comment box below this article.
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