Ice Fishing - Catching Fish in Winter
Ice fishing is a great way to fill the freezer with filets during the cold winter. Ice fishing can be done with a minimum of tools and gear or can be done with all the latest in ice fishing technology.
You can use an axe to cut the hole or one of the many hole-cutting tools and augers on the market. You can stand in the open air or use any variety of protective structures, some are literal cabins with many comforts like heaters and cooking facilities.
First and foremost, make sure the ice is safe before venturing out. Local agencies generally monitor the thickness of the ice and announce when it is safe. If in doubt, stay off the ice. Wear plenty of warm clothes and shoes that will not slip on the ice.
Where to Fish
Like all other styles of fishing, the key is locating the fish. Once located they can be quite easy to catch. Their food supply is scarce so your offerings can look quite appealing to a hungry fish.
Seek out ice fishing reports for the area you intend to fish. Prior years reports are often archived on websites and local newspaper archives. Prior years reports can give you a good idea when the good fishing should start. It's a good idea to keep your own log tracking dates of the activity.
Once you arrive at your chosen lake, the next step is to determine exactly where to fish. If you know the lake well, you are aware of places that hold fish during the warmer months. Those fish will move to deeper water nearby their summer hang outs. If you don't know the lake, find a good map. Locate deeper water near shallow feeding areas. Often, congregations of ice fisherman tell you everything you need to know. Go around and ask questions about the bait or lures and the depth fish are being caught. Try to duplicate what the other successful anglers are doing. Set up close to the other fisherman yet far enough to respect their space.
During these ice-over conditions all fish look for the warmest water they can find. That's usually where you find the fish and the food sources.
Once you locate a starting area, bore a small hole in the ice, big enough to test through. Be aware of the water depth by measuring the amount of line it takes to reach bottom. Experiment with bait depth. Start by fishing close to the bottom, then working your way up in 3 or 4 foot increments. Once you find the best depth, work it until the fish move or change their activities. If you are not getting action, move to a new test spot.
Once you locate a productive spot, set up your headquarters and try boring additional holes close by.
Each species of fish has it's own preferred depth and cover. Different baits, lures, techniques and depths vary for each species.
Crappie are a schooling fish and will generally be found in 15 to 40 feet of water. You can catch crappie on small jigs and tiny spoons, but there's nothing like a small minnow to tempt a hungry crappie. Minnows in the one to two inch length tend to work the best. On 4 or 6 pound line, use one or more #8 hooks and enough weight to get to the bottom. Don't overdo the weights as it limits the movement of the minnow. Add a bobber to keep the bait at a preferred depth. The bobber should be just big enough to stay afloat so it can be pulled under easily. If the bobber is too big the fish will drop the bait and run when they feel the resistance. A short, flexible ice-fishing pole is ideal for crappies.
Crappie schools tend to migrate around the lake so you may find them one day and they are gone the next. Be prepared to move if the action is slow.
Bluegills and other sunfish tend to run in much smaller schools than crappie and tend to stay in a given area longer. They seldom move unless the food supply is depleted in the area. Use a #10 hook on 4lb line on a short, flexible ice-fishing pole. Small minnows, worms, grubs and salmon eggs all work well for sunfish. Look for these sunfish in 10 to 25 feet of water.
Perch, especially jumbo perch make a tasty fish fry. Like crappies they run in schools and tend to migrate around the lake. The good news is that when you find them, they are relatively easy to catch. The bad news is that they can often be difficult to find. Early in the season look for them on the flats. Later in the season they tend to migrate along channels and move deeper. Expect to find perch in 5 to 50 feet of water with 20 to 25 feet the most common. They typically spend most of their time on the bottom and cover is always a bonus when looking for perch.
Spoons and jigs work well for perch and should be worked very close to the bottom. Vary jigging techniques until you find one they like. Use a medium flex ice-fishing rod.
Trout tend to run deeper than most fish for ice fishing. Be prepared to fish from 20 to 100 feet deep, sometimes deeper for big lake trout. Heavy line is a must depending on the size fish you are likely to catch. Use up to 30 pound line for deep lake trout. The deeper fish tend to be more active during the day and shallower trout are more active early in the day and again late in the day.
Select an ice-fishing rod appropriate for the size trout you expect to catch. Use dead smelt, suckers and ciscoes or live minnows and fish near the bottom.
Walleyes and sauger can be caught by jigging. Jigs, spoons and live minnows work well. Experiment with jigging action until you find the right amount of movement for today. It will probably require a different action tomorrow. Use 6 or 8 pound line with a No. 6 hook and bobber. Look for likely holding areas nearby summer, shallow feeding areas. Walleye can be found from 5 feet deep to more than 50 feet, sometimes suspended but generally near the bottom. Fishing is likely to be better early in the day and again late in the day.
Use tackle slightly heavier than that used for crappie or perch.
These northern pike are predators. They come in all sizes and will take virtually any type of bait you offer. So use heavy line and steel leaders. Their sharp teeth will cut through fishing line with ease. You can find them very near the surface or into the deeper feeding and holding areas.
Tip-ups with 30 to 45 pound line with No. 1 treble hooks baited with suckers, chubs, shad or smelt work well for these big boys. For jigging with jigs, spoons or bait, use a heavier, stiffer ice-fishing rod.
Have fun and stay warm
Come prepared to stay warm. If you get cold and begin to feel ill, it's time to go somewhere and get warm. The cold is very hard on your body. It's always a good idea to fish with a buddy and watch out for one another.
When you depart, leave the area as clean and natural as when you arrived.
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