Ice Fishing for Beginners
It’s February and the icy grip of winter has its hold on most of the United States. Many of us are confined to our tying desks, dreaming of warm spring days, wet wading and rising fish. One of the best ways to escape the winter lull is to accept the frozen waterways as they are and go ice fishing! Whether you’re a beginner just wanting to get out on the water and see what it’s all about or you’re serious about making it your main wintertime pastime, ice fishing is a great way to shake off the winter blues.
This Article Will Cover the Following:
- The basic gear needed to get started and be successful/comfortable on the ice
- The cost of a basic equipment
- Important, but less essential items
- Techniques and strategies, for beginner ice anglers
- Where to find fish
- What to look for when searching for active fish
- Bait and lures common for different species of fish
This article will not only help improve your catch rate and general experience on the water but will help the beginner ice angler make educated decisions when it comes to gear that is not 100% required to catch fish.
Basic Equipment Needed
- Ice Augers
The first and most important piece of equipment an ice angler will need is an auger. This is going to be your way of getting through the ice, to the fish waiting below.
There are three kinds of augers:
- Hand Ice Augers
- Gas-powered Ice Augers
- Electric Ice Augers
Choosing the right auger can be daunting, however, it doesn’t have to be, it’s important to consider a few things when making the decision:
- How serious are you about getting into ice fishing? If you’re fairly serious about it then you may want to consider a gas or electric auger. These augers will allow you to drill many holes much faster than would be possible with a hand auger and with minimal effort. Thus, increasing your time on the water and your chance for success.
- What’s your budget? While gas and electric augers are great for saving time and effort on the ice they can be pricey. Some of the higher-end augers push the $500 range, while hand augers can be found used on eBay for about $45 dollars or bought new for around $60.
A good electric or gas auger is somewhere in the $250 to $300 range. They will undoubtedly make your experience more enjoyable as well as improve your mobility and flexibility while fishing but are not 100% necessary to be successful.
A good hand auger is clearly less expensive and will be reliable/easy to use, but slower and will somewhat limit the amount of water you can cover.
All the augers mentioned herein do the same thing, drill holes, but have advantages and disadvantages in their own respective ways. Choose your auger depending on your unique angling style, preference and of course budget.
Rod and Reel
Once you’ve selected your fishing spot (more on that part later) and drilled your hole there’s not much else to do but start fishing. This is where things start to get a bit more complex. Your setup (the rod and reel you choose) will vary somewhat depending on your situation and targeted fish species along with the kind of fishing you will be doing.
Really invested ice fishermen will often carry 5-10 rods with them on a trip to ensure that they have a rod for every situation. Having a multiple rods is not necessary at all to catch fish. But just like the gas or electric auger—having the flexibility that comes with carrying 2, 3 or even more rods will very likely improve your overall experience and success.
Your two main options for getting your own rod & reel:
- Pre-Made Rod/Reel Combos
This is going to be the easiest and cheapest option when it comes to ice fishing for beginners.
There are a number of reliable pre-made ice fishing reel and rod combos that can be found at the usual big sporting and outdoor supply places like Bass Pro as well as your local tackle supplier, especially during the ice fishing season. While these combos are not on the high end of the spectrum as far as quality goes they do get the job done and are usually reliable for the price.
Ugly Stik makes the GX2 combo which is fairly stout in build quality and for around $30 it is a great way to get started.
The only downside to this rod is its action. It’s only available in a medium heavy which can be a bit overpowered in some situations like when fishing for panfish or trout. However, if you plan on targeting bass and bigger fish like lake trout and pike this will handle them with ease.
If you do end up choosing this combo its best use is for jigging spoons and other slightly heavier lures as well as fishing heavier bait rigs. This does not necessarily mean that you will be limited to just these styles of fishing only that this combo is best suited in those areas mentioned.
These pre-made combos are a great place to start for the beginner ice fisher.
- Putting Your Own Setup Together
This is the best option for ensuring you get exactly what you need for the kind of fishing you plan on doing.
When you buy the rod and reel separately it allows you to fine-tune the action and length of the rod to fit your desired fishing style.
The action you choice should be determined mostly by what fish species you will be targeting and how you will be targeting them.
Here is a general guide for choosing the rod you will need based on fish species and what each rod’s best use is:
- Ultralight- panfish, small trout- best for jigging ultralight ice jigs and micro spoons. (2-4lb line)
- Light or Medium Light- larger trout, bass and small walleye- bigger spoons, jigs and some smaller sized rattle baits. (4-8lb line)
- Medium- bass, medium walleye, small pike, and big trout- medium to large spoons, jigs, and rattle baits (8-12lb line)
- Medium Heavy- lake trout, northern pike, and large walleye- big spoons, soft plastics, and large jigs, big rattle baits and dead baits. (12-20lb line/braid)
- Heavy- trophy-sized lake trout, pike and walleye along with any other large game fish- good for fishing large dead baits and rattle baits, big spoons and soft plastics. (20/40lb braid)
The majority of these rods should be paired with an ice fishing specific reel or 500 sized spinning reel. On the larger and heavier rods small baitcasting reels can be used to handle the larger baits and fish, as well as the heavier line required to deal with bigger fish.
Making your own combos can be pricey, it’s not uncommon to spend more than $100 on a rod and reel, but it does come with the performance of a higher-end rod and the confidence of knowing you have exactly what you need for your situation.
General Baits and Lures (Used for Common Species of Fish)
Trout: Micro jig heads tipped with wax worms or earthworms, small spoons, and soft plastics.
Pike: Deadbaits, large spoons, and rattle baits, large soft plastics
Perch & Panfish: Micro jig heads tipped with wax worms, small soft plastics.
Walleye: Minnows and live bait, soft plastics, medium spoons, and rattle baits
Bass: Minnows and live bait, soft plastics and Medium-sized jigging spoons and jigs.
Lake trout: Deadbaits, live baits, large spoons, and soft plastics.
This section is to give one an idea of what they need before going out—the general bait and lures above may vary greatly depending on your body of water.
Beginners Equipment Continued…
Equipment You Don’t Need to Find Success, But Will Improve Your Experience & Perhaps Your Success Rate
Flashers are compact sonar systems used specifically for ice fishing. They have a very narrow cone of vision that descends vertically below the angler and allows the angler to know the depth of the water. Moreover, they help the angler determine whether or not there are fish active in the area.
Ice fishing flashers are particularly helpful when fishing a new body of water or when you’re trying to get an idea of the depth/structure, as well locating where the fish are in the water column.
The technology has improved massively in the last few years to the point that you can see your lure along with the fish. This allows the angler to “sight fish”.
The higher-end sonar systems like the $1000 Garmin Panoptix allow the angler to see 40 feet horizontally in every direction, not just what’s below them. Obviously, you don’t need to spend $1k on a new flasher or sonar, but if you are looking to step up your game buying a flasher is one of the best ways to do it.
- Ice Fishing Specific Shelters
Ice fishing has been known to be a fairly cold experience, the best way to get out of the cold is by having an ice fishing shanty.
These shelters are easy to transport and quick to set up. Ice fishing shanties typically have reflective insides that hold heat, which is especially important when a small portable ice fishing heater is used.
If you want comfort while out on the water this is the way to go. Ice fishing shanties can be fairly pricey but are worth the money if you plan on going out often.
Where and How to Find Active Fish
Finding fish while ice fishing can be challenging, the ice renders the water featureless and lakes can often be difficult to decode even without the ice. If you are familiar with a body of water, that can take some of the guesswork out of it—but that in no way makes it easy.
When Looking for Fish It’s Important to Look for a Few Things:
Structure of any kind: When ice fishing your best bet for finding fish is going to be by locating some form of structure.
Look for weed beds, boulders, downed logs, sunken brush or an old tire. Once you find cover you will usually find concentrated numbers of active fish.
A transition from hard bottom to soft: If you are not familiar with the water, then the flasher or sonar really are what make this technique viable. If you don’t have a flasher or sonar this trick only works in areas with clear water, where you can see the bottom and you can visually make out the differences below you.
Depending on your model you can usually use it to determine the composition of the bottom. A transition from hard, rocky bottom to soft sand or mud often means a switch from little to no food (on the hard bottom) to lots of food (on the soft bottom). Fish will cruise this transition looking for something to eat.
A transition of depth: This is any change in depth, usually a defined change from deep water to shallow.
Fish will congregate around this transition, coming up from deeper areas to feed in the shallows. Cruising the transition line and moving into shallower or deeper water as they hunt. You can find these transitions either with your sonar or by using an online Navionics map of your lake.
Depressions in the bottom: These can also be found either with a Navionics map or by drilling multiple holes in a line and testing the depth with a flasher until you find a depression.
Fish will generally congregate in the deepest water in the area so these depressions are a kind of magnet and will often hold large numbers of fish. This is especially true if there’s no obvious structure in the area.
Whether you are just discovering your favorite lake through the ice, or exploring a new hobby, ice fishing is a great way to get out of the house in the winter and shake off that cabin fever. It can be one of the most affordable angling methods to get into and doesn’t necessarily require much previous fishing experience to have success. Moreover, ice fishing can simply be a great way to relax with the family or hang out with friends and catch a few fish while you wait for the spring thaw. If you’re thinking about moving in this direction, we highly encourage it.
If you enjoyed this article, Ice Fishing for Beginners you might also enjoy, Fly Fishing for Beginners, from our friends over at Anchor Fly.