How to get started Ice Fishing, a Beginners Guide

ice fishing for rainbow trout

How to get started Ice Fishing, a Beginners Guide

This article will thoroughly cover how to get started ice fishing. It will cover everything the angler needs to know to take his or her new equipment out on the ice and catch fish! Ice fishing is really not all that different from open water fishing. The main consideration is that anglers only have the opportunity to use a vertical presentation.

Anglers can read all about the ice fishing tackle and gear that they need in this article.

Understanding fish migrations when ice fishing

Anglers ice fishing must first decide where they are going to fish. Those that have a “home Lake” that they fish exclusively have that decision already made for them. Other anglers have a wide choice of bodies of water from which to choose. Fishing reports from local bait shops and online forums are a good resource to use for novice anglers getting started. Bait and tackle bought at local shops is money well spent as the advice you will get from these businesses is invaluable!

Anglers who would like to read more about ice fishing can purchase Capt Jim’s E-book, “A Complete Guide to Ice Fishing” by clicking on the title link.

ice fishing gear

While ice certainly hinders anglers from using boats, it does not at all change the migration patterns of fish below. The winter patterns are very similar to summer, except in reverse. Early in the ice fishing season, which is fall, fish are likely to be found quite shallow. As midwinter approaches, and the water gets even colder, fish will migrate to deeper holes, points, and main lake channels. The pattern will reverse itself as spring approaches.

Drilling ice fishing holes

One good strategy for novice ice anglers is to drill a dozen or so holes 10 feet apart. Ideally, these holes will be in multiple depths over quality, fish holding structure. Points are excellent spots to take this approach. This is especially true if they drop off into the main river channel. Drilling multiple holes like this allows anglers to cover a lot of water. They can also set up tip ups or tip downs in the holes that they are not actively fishing.

Holes will need to be cleaned out occasionally. This is where the skimmer comes into play. This will make fishing easier. One tip veteran ice anglers use is to keep some slush in the hole when fishing shallow. This can make a big difference when the fish are wary.

Ice fishing strategies

Early in the ice fishing season, weed beds and other structure in 10 to 15 feet of water are a good place to start. Anglers should drill the first couple holes there, then work out deeper. This is especially effective on a sloping flat or point. Holes should not be drilled at the same depth. Determining the depth at which fish are feeding at is a crucial aspect of ice fishing!

Successful ice fishing anglers do a lot of the work before the lake freezes. The same spots that produce in late spring and summer will produce in the winter as well. Anglers can use a hand held GPS unit to mark underwater structure such as drop-offs, bends in the channel, rock piles, weed beds, and more. The combination of cover and structure usually results in a productive fishing spot.

GPS units are not only for finding fish. They are important safety equipment as well. This is not really an issue on smaller lakes. However, on large bodies of water it is easy for anglers to get turned around in bad weather. Also, if a medical issue arises, help will know where to go.

Anglers can shop Amazon for  ice fishing rod and reel combos

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Structure is a physical change in the lake or river bottom. These include river channel edges and bends, points, flats, and drop-offs. These are things that pretty much do not change. Fish use structure as underwater roads on which they migrate. Cover consists of things such as fallen timber, rock piles, reefs, and weed beds. Fish use structure to migrate but cover to hide in and ambush prey.

Effects of weather when ice fishing

It surprises many anglers new to ice fishing that fish under the ice respond very similar to fish in open water. Early and late in the day are the best times to fish. Fish have fixed pupils. That means they can’t adjust to changing light conditions. They see best in low light conditions. That is why, generally speaking, fish bite better early, late, and on cloudy days.

Pressure systems greatly affect fish activity as well, just as in open water fishing. Fish will bite best as a cold front approaches. As the pressure starts to drop, fish will feed actively and aggressively. When it drops further, they will slow down. As the front moves through and the pressure rises up high, fish will often shut down. Those “post cold front” trips can be tough!

Wind and weather changes will also affect the current under the ice. This can drastically affect the bite! Only experience will help anglers understand how the wind direction and speed will affect fish habits in each body of water.

Ice fishing techniques

Now that the body of water has been chosen in the holes have been drilled, it is time to go fishing! One nice thing about ice fishing is that the actual fishing gear is really fairly simple. Anglers can choose to fish with live bait, artificial lures, or a combination of the two. This latter choice is often times the best as it combines the best of both worlds; the flash and movement of and artificial lure with the feel and taste of live bait.

ice fishing for yellow perch

Ice fishing with jigs

For most anglers ice fishing, a jig is the best choice when getting started. Quality jig heads are very light, brightly colored, with a very sharp hook. One of the best jigs to use are VMC Neon Moon Eye jig heads. They are manufactured with a very thin shank. They also have a bait holder. These two factors combine to help both live and artificial baits stay on the hook. Live bait will also remain lively for a longer period of time.

ice fishing basics


The VMC Neon Moon Eye jig has a couple other advantages as well. It’s slender design cuts through the water, making it a great choice when fishing in current. Finally, the glowing head helps game fish find the bait. This is especially helpful in low light conditions when fish bite best!

Read more about ice fishing with jigs

It is important to match the jig to the species being sought after. Tiny jigs are best used for panfish. Conversely, larger baits will produce walleye and pike. Jigs are very effective and many anglers prefer them over live bait for both the convenience and productivity. The latest grubs are extremely realistic with their 3-D technology.

Fishing the jig

The technique used for fishing a jig under the ice is fairly simple. The angler opens the bail and the jig is allowed to fall through the water column to the bottom. Subtle movements are used to hop the jig very gently up off of the bottom. In this frigid water, the fishes metabolism has slowed.

A fast-moving, erratic action will not produce in most cases. The old saying “if you think you’re moving it slow enough, cut your speed in half, and you’re probably just about right” is a good philosophy.

After the jig has been worked right on the bottom for a fair amount of time, It can be slowly worked up through the water column. Tapping the jig gently on the bottom will help game fish find the lure. This is especially true for anglers seeking walleye.

Many fish will be found suspended in the water column, not just right on the bottom. This is a situation where a fish finder can be invaluable. Anglers can actually see the jig working and then see fish rise up to take. It is kind of like a fishing video game!

ice fish finder

Click to shop Amazon for an ice fishing fish finder

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Ice fishing with spoons and plugs

northern pike ice fishing

The same approach can be used for anglers using other artificial lures as well. Small specially designed hard baits such as the Rapala Jigging Rap will produce fish. Often times these lures will attract larger game fish. Spoons can also be fished in a similar manner. They come in a wide variety of sizes from tiny are designed for panfish to larger spoons which will fool a big walleye or northern pike.

Anglers can read more about ice fishing with lures in this article.

Ice fishing with live bait

Live bait is certainly quite productive when chasing fish under the ice. The most commonly used live baits are wax worms, maggots, grubs, nightcrawlers, and minnows. In areas where ice fishing is popular, these are readily available at local shops. With the exception of minnows, most live bait is easy to store and keep alive.

ice fishing gear

Anglers ice fishing with live bait can fish them on a bare hook or a jig head. As mentioned above, the jig head is a very convenient device for presenting live bait as it has the weight in the hook all in one unit. Anglers can use a hook and a tiny split shot as well. At times a float is used to suspend the live bait at a determined depth.

Commercial baits produce as well

There are also many prepared baits that are available. The main advantage to these baits is the convenience. In some respects, this goes for fishing with artificial lures as well. The GULP line of baits kind of bridges the two. They are artificial lures but are heavily scented as well.

Often times, once a depth that the fish are feeding at is found, that pattern will produce fish and other spots as well. Most fish species tend to school up fairly tightly in the winter. This means that anglers will have to move around quite a bit in search of fish at times. However, once a school of fish is located, the action can be fantastic.

Fish finders are useful ice fishing tools

Fish finders are another excellent tool that anglers can use to increase their success. Often times patient anglers can use the fish finder to determine how a fish wants the lure or bait. By noticing how fish react, anglers can adjust the presentation to draw a strike. This can take a while, so patience is required.

Panfish are often times easy to locate on the fish finder. They will usually be suspended, often times relating to some type of structure, cover, or break line. Larger predators such as pike will show up as larger marks. Walleye can be tricky as they often hug the bottom.

Ice fishing with tip downs

Tip downs are another piece of equipment that anglers can use when ice fishing. These devices allow a rod and reel or line to be fished unattended. Live bait is normally used. When a fish strikes, the device pivots due to the weight of the fish pulling down. The rod tip will usually dip down into the hole that is being fished. Tip downs allow anglers to fish more holes at one time. This can certainly aid in locating fish.

While it may sound boring, fishing with tip downs is actually a lot a fun! It is a great way to introduce youngsters to the sport of ice fishing. They can play in the snow or chase the dog around while waiting for a fish to strike. When the bite is on and multiple tip downs are going off at once, it can be great fun as everyone scurries around trying to be the first one to get to the bent rod!

Ice fishing with tip ups

Tip ups are similar to tip down in that they can be left alone to “fish” themselves. Tip ups come in many different styles. However, there are two main types; round tip ups and wooden tip ups. Round tip ups cover the hole so it does not freeze up. This works great for anglers that want to do less “supervising” of their hole. For the most part, these anglers are seeking larger fish such as northern pike and lake trout.

Wooden tip ups require tending to much more than the round tip ups do. The hole will freeze up. These rigs have larger spools which are best for deeper water. Live bait is used since the rig fishes unattended. The best approach is to hook the bait behind the dorsal fin. It will be more lively and appear to the game fish to be fleeing. This will trigger more strikes.

In conclusion, this article on how to get started ice fishing will help novice anglers be more successful when ice fishing!

Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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