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.

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

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