Ice Fishing with Live Bait, Tips and Techniques

Ice Fishing With Live Bait

This article will thoroughly cover ice fishing with live bait. In cold water, the metabolism of fish slows down dramatically. Most fish do not need to feed as often and do not feed as aggressively. Cold water species such as trout do remain quite active. While artificial lures will catch plenty of fish under the ice, many anglers have more confidence fishing with live bait.

ice fishing with live bait

There are obvious reasons why live bait produces for anglers ice fishing. Why try to duplicate the real thing when you can use the real thing? One of the great advantages of artificial lures is that anglers can cover more water. This really is not an issue when ice fishing. Anglers can not cast over water, since they are fishing through a hole in the ice.

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.

However, one common and very productive technique is to combine both live bait and artificial lures when ice fishing. The most popular ice fishing lure is the jig. Anglers can use a bare jig head to use with live bait. They can also “tip” a jig, spoon, or plug with live bait to increase its effectiveness.

ice fishing with live bait

Tackle and rigging for ice fishing with live bait

The same basic rods and reels that anglers have been using when ice fishing for decades work fine when ice fishing with live bait. Anglers will do best by using the lightest line possible given the situation they are fishing and the species being pursued. Many anglers go as light as 2 pound test line when chasing bluegill and other pan fish under the ice.

Anglers can read more about ice fishing tackle in this article.

ice fishing for crappie

Probably the most popular method of live bait fishing under the ice is using a jig head with live bait. Jig heads combine the hook and weight in one tidy little unit. Most ice fishing jig heads are quite brightly colored, which serves to help attract the fish as well. Anglers can also attach a soft plastic grub body to the jig head and then tip the lure. The same approach will apply to other artificial lures as well.

Anglers can shop Amazon for  ice fishing rod and reel combos

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ice fish finder

Click to shop Amazon for an ice fishing fish finder

There are times when anglers will do best fishing a standard live bait hook. This is generally done when fish are finicky. Sometimes the bait fluttering down into the water column in a natural manner is the presentation required to draw strike. A small selection of hooks, split shot, and floats should be in every ice fishing tackle box.

ice fishing for yellpow perch

Best live baits for ice fishing

Anglers have quite a few choices when it comes to ice fishing with live bait. The top ice fishing baits include wax worms, minnows, nightcrawlers, mealworms, and leeches. While there are some other exotic live baits, these are the most popular ones that are the easiest to obtain and have proven to be productive.


Wax worms are perhaps the most popular live bait for anglers ice fishing. This is particularly true for those pursuing bluegill and other pan fish. However, wax worms will catch just about every species. These are very popular baits and most tackle shops that cater to anglers ice fishing will keep a good supply on hand. They are also available at pet shops and can be purchased online.

ice fishing for crappie

Wax worms are the larval form of a bee moth. They average three quarters of an inch to 1 inch long. They are usually white. Wax worms hold up quite well in cold weather. When not fishing, anglers should store them at room temperature. They can be kept alive for a month or two if handled in this manner. However, they can die if exposed to freezing temperatures for very long.

Shop Amazon for wax worms

Wax worms are not a natural forage for fish. However, for whatever reason, fish cannot resist them! While panfish are usually the main quarry of ice anglers, other species will hit them as well. Larger species such as walleye and trout in particular will fall prey to a well presented wax worm.

ice fishing for bluegill and panfish

Wax worms are most often presented on a tiny jig head. This just seems to be the combination that fish like best. Tiny jigs as light as 1/64 of an ounce with small hooks will fool yellow perch, bluegill, and other pan fish. They can be used to tip a jig and grub combo as well as spoons and other lures. Wax worms can be fished on a bare hook, though this is not done very often.


Nightcrawlers are a terrific and productive freshwater fishing bait for just about every species that swims. They are just as productive for anglers ice fishing as they are when used during the open water. Walleye, trout, bass, pan fish and more will delightfully take a nice lively nightcrawler!

ice fishing for northern pike

Nightcrawlers are easily obtained most bait shops. They can be purchased online as well. In the warmer months, anglers can catch their own. Nightcrawlers will stay alive a long time at room temperature or a little below. They will die if exposed to temperatures that are too cold or too hot. Nightcrawlers are usually kept in a bed of top soil or dirt.

Nightcrawlers can be fished on a live bait hook as well as on a jig. Often times, allowing the nightcrawler to slowly descend through the water column on a hook with no weight or a tiny split shot is the best presentation. Those pursuing walleye will do well to fish them on a jig head right on the bottom, which is where they feed. Anglers chasing tasty pan fish will do best pitching off a small piece of nightcrawler. Anglers do not need to use a very large piece of bait in this situation. Finally, a small piece of nightcrawler can be used to tip artificial lures.


Big fish eat little fish, it is a basic fishing fact. This is true for anglers ice fishing with live bait as well. A helpless minnow that is struggling on the hook will attract a variety of game fish. Minnows are the favored bait of crappie anglers. Northern pike, walleye, lake trout, and bass will also take a well presented live minnow.

northern pike ice fishing

Live minnows are available at most tackle shops that cater to anglers that are ice fishing. Shiners, suckers, and fathead minnows are the most popular. Minnows are a bit more difficult to keep alive then are some of the other live baits. Special bait bucket with aerators will keep them frisky all day. Dead minnows will produce, at times even better than live bait. However, generally speaking, healthy and active live baits are the best choice.

Small minnows are best for anglers chasing crappie and trout. The minnow should be between one and 2 inches long. Anglers chasing larger game fish can step up the size of the bait. A northern pike will take a minnow as long as 6 inches! It is important to match the hook to the size of the bait as well. A light wire #6 hook is a good choice for anglers crappie fishing.

ice fishing for brook trout

Some anglers will use a float to suspend the live minnow at the desired depth. The resistance of the float can also cause the minnow to swim frantically. This will often times trigger a strike. Anglers can go up in size from there with the size of the bait being used.

Hooking the minnow properly is crucial to success

Many anglers ice fishing with minnows hook them incorrectly. Hooking minnows through the lips works well in open water fishing. However, it will quickly kill the bait when ice fishing. Also, since it is a vertical presentation, the minnow will appear unnatural. The best choice is to hook the minnow in the back halfway between the tail and the dorsal fin. This will keep the bait frisky and alive. It will also cause the bait to swim away, putting out distress signals. This will often trigger a bite.

ice fishing for lake trout

Minnows can also be used in conjunction with an artificial lure. When using a jig, the minnow can be hooked through the back and lowered to the bottom. This can be a productive method to take walleye. Minnows can also be used to tip a spoon as well. Most bait shops have a selection of minnows. Anglers should choose the minnow that matches the area being fished as well as the species being sought. Fat head minnows are best for river mouths. Emerald and golden shiners are usually best for deeper waters in lakes.

Minnows are often the the bait of choice for anglers using tip ups and tip downs. Since this method of fishing does not require the angler to attend to the hole, the bait needs to supply the action. Minnows do that quite well. Also, most anglers using tip ups and tip downs are in pursuit of larger game fish such as pike, walleye, lake trout, and more. A large, live minnow is often the best bait in this application.


Mealworms are another excellent live bait used by anglers ice fishing. They are the larval stage of a darkling beetle. They are generally short and fat, rarely exceeding 1 inch in length. Mealworms are favored especially by pan fish anglers. However, trout will greedily devour them as well. Due to their size, mealworms are perfect for tipping a jig or other artificial lure.

ice fishing for panfish

Mealworms are bit more difficult to keep alive in the cold. For that reason, they tend to be more popular towards the end of the ice fishing season. They are available at local tackle shops and can also be purchased online. Some pet shops also keep them in stock. They should be kept at room temperature and will die if exposed to freezing temperatures.


Leeches are not used very often by anglers ice fishing with live bait. The primary reason for this is that they tend to curl up in a ball in cold water. However, anglers have learned a little trick. By keeping the leeches and a refrigerator for a period of time, they can acclimate to the cold and then be used as live bait under the ice. This does take a little more time and effort, but the results can be worth it.

Other ice fishing baits

There are a few other choices for anglers ice fishing with live bait. These include salmon eggs, cut bait, and commercially prepared baits such as Berkeley power bait and GULP. Salmon eggs are particularly effective on trout and white fish. Anglers can fish them on a weighted hook or and artificial lure. Sometimes color does make a difference, angler should keep experimenting until a productive pattern emerges.

ice fishing for rainbow trout

Cut bait is often overlooked by anglers ice fishing. There are often times when lethargic fish would rather not chase a live bait. In these instances, a freshly dead minnow or fresh piece of cut bait can be much more productive. The best approach is to fish the piece of bait right on the bottom with no action. Artificial lures can be tipped with a piece of cut bait as well.

There are numerous commercially available prepared baits as well. The main advantage of these baits is the convenience. While not technically live bait, they are fish the same way and can be as productive at times. These include the Berkeley power bait, ice nuggets, and more. They can be stored in the tackle box for a very long time.

Ice fishing techniques when using live bait

Ice fishing with live bait is fairly basic. However, as with any other type of fishing, there are nuances that will spell the difference between success and failure. If there is one mistake anglers make when ice fishing with live bait, it is giving the bait too much action. As mentioned above, the metabolism of fish in cold water is very slow. They will not be in a mood to chase down a bait. Also, it is just not natural looking in that cold water.

ice fishing in Michigan

Anglers fishing live bait on a jig head will do well to let the bait slowly float to the bottom with the bail open. If at any point the line stops moving, speeds up or even twitches, the angler should close the bail and quickly reel until tight. If no strike occurs on the fall, the bait should be left to sit on the bottom. Gently tapping the jig head up and down on the bottom will often times draw a walleye or other fish to the bait. Patience can be required as it can take 10 minutes or more for the fish to commit to the bait.

Artificial lures such as spoons and jigs can also be tipped with live bait. The same basic approach applies. Anglers should let the spoon or plug flutter down to the bottom naturally. Suspended fish will often hit the bait on the way down. If anglers are marking fish on a fish finder, it is best to work the lure slightly above the fish. Most fish feed up as opposed to down. A subtle jigging motion will generally be more productive than an aggressive one.

Many anglers associate wax worms and ice fishing with bluegill and other panfish, and for good reason. Wax worms are a terrific bait for all species of panfish through the ice and in open water. However, wax worms are not only limited to these diminutive game fish, but will catch larger species as well.

A wax worm is the larvae of the wax moth, Galleria mellonella. It is an excellent ice fishing bait for several reasons. Wax worms are economical, easy to keep alive, readily available, and productive on a variety of species. This is everything and ice fishing angler is looking for in a live bait.

Presenting wax worms to game fish

Wax worms are most often fished in conjunction with an artificial lure. This is most often a jig, but wax worms can certainly be used with spoons as well. Part of the reason for this is just a matter of convenience; and artificial lure provides weight to get the bait down in the water column along with a hook.

wax worm

A tiny micro jig is a perfect vehicle for presenting a wax worm to panfish and other species. Tiny, brightly colored jigs will attract fish on their own. The addition of a wax worm makes for an outstanding combination. The jig provides the flash, weight, and hook while the wax worm adds scent and taste. Many larger game fish, especially largemouth bass, will take a small offering when ice fishing as their metabolism has slowed way down.

Spoons are also excellent lures to combine with wax worms. Unlike other baits such as nightcrawlers and chunks of cut bait, the smaller wax worms can be added to the spoon without affecting the action of the lure. This can be critical as with spoons it is more about attracting the fish and using the wax worm to close the deal.

Anglers can certainly fish wax worms on a small hook as well. This works best when panfish and other species are located in shallow water. The wax worm can be fished with a tiny split shot to get it down to the desired depth. A float can also be used, especially in water that is 6 feet deep or less.

Purchasing and handling wax worms

Anglers have multiple options when it comes to purchasing wax worms. Bait shops that cater to anglers ice fishing will almost always have a good supply on hand. Larger retailers will also often stock them in the winter. Anglers can even buy them in bulk on Amazon and other online resources.

Wax worms are easy to keep alive. Anglers really only need to keep them away from extreme cold or heat for any length of time and they will be fine. A carton of wax worms will stay alive simply in a coat pocket.

Click to shop Amazon for wax worms

Ice fishing with wax worms

Fishing with wax worms through the ice is fairly uncomplicated. The jig, spoon, or bare hook is adorned with a nice fat wax worm. Anglers often put the worm on inside out to increase the amount of bodily juices that are dispersed in the water. This is then lower down to the desired depth and then the rod tip is worked gentle, subtle twitches until a take occurs.

Panfish will often times be located in school suspended off the bottom. In these instances, the wax worm should be lower down to just above the school. Most fish prefer to feed from below. If no fish are seen on the sonar, letting the lure all the way down to the bottom can be an effective technique. Anglers fishing with spoons will often bounce the spoon a couple of times to create a little mud disturbance on the bottom. This will often attract curious game fish.

Ice fishing with wax worms will produce a variety of species

The list of species that anglers will catch ice fishing with wax worms is long. Just about every fish that swims will take a well presented wax worm. Warm water species such as bluegill, panfish, and bass will require a slow, delicate presentation. Coldwater game fish that feed more actively such as trout will often respond to a more aggressive presentation.

Bluegill and panfish

Bluegill are a highly sought after species by anglers ice fishing with wax worms. They put up a terrific fight for their size and are fantastic eating. One great aspect of bluegill and other panfish is that once a school is located, the action can be fast. Anglers will do best to drill multiple holes and move around until the fish are found. A wax worm on a jig head is the top presentation.


Crappie are more often targeted by anglers using live minnows than wax worms. However, crop he will readily take a wax worm on a jig head or small spoon. As with other panfish species, angler should keep moving until an actively feeding school is found.

Yellow perch

Yellow perch are another favorite species for anglers fishing through the ice. They feed actively in colder water than other species of panfish and will often respond to larger lures and more aggressive retrieves. Both spoons and jigs are very effective when tipped with a wax worm.


Both largemouth bass and smallmouth bass slow way down in the cold water under the ice. Anglers ice fishing with wax worms will catch some of the largest bass on very tiny offerings. These fish simply do not need to feed much this time of year. Micro jigs tipped with wax worms will catch both largemouth bass and smallmouth bass.


All three major trout species, rainbow trout, brook trout, and brown trout, can be caught by anglers ice fishing with wax worms. Trout are another species that thrive in colder water and feed quite actively. Anglers will often find them higher in the water column then other species, even just a few feet below the ice no matter what the depth. A bright flashy spoon tipped with a wax worm is a tough combination to beat.


Walleye are prized by anglers. They grow fairly large, put up a decent fight, and are fantastic eating. While I will take a wide variety of baits and artificial lures. While most anglers specifically targeting walleye will use minnows and pieces of cut bait, they will certainly take a wax worm at times as well. A larger spoon with a wax worm on each prong of the treble hook is a good approach.

In conclusion, this article on ice fishing with live bait should help anglers catch more fish through the hard water!

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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