Ice Fishing: 101

By Rick Inzero - December 1, 2006
Here's a few tips I picked up and answers to questions I had after resuming ice fishing after being idle at it for 15 years... just to provide a reference, I usually fish for perch, walleye, northern pike, and pickerel through the ice here in New York State. We are allowed 5 tip-ups and 2 hand lines per person in most waters.

How to locate the fish?

  1. Fish near other ice fishermen!! Chances are they are die-hards or locals who go out frequently, and know where the fish hang out. If you drive by a lake on a Saturday about 2-3 hours after sunrise, everybody should be set up, and you should get a good idea where the fish are. I've found trying to park the car in a legal spot to be a bigger headache than finding the fish.
  2. Fish VERY close to the bottom. Water is most dense at 39.2 degrees F. Sooo... in any lake that is completely frozen, the warmest water in the lake will be 39.2 degrees, and it will be on the bottom of the lake. The water temp in a frozen lake will range from 32 degrees (the water immediately under the ice) to 39.2 degrees (the water at the bottom of the lake). Fish, being cold-blooded, will congregate where it is most comfortable (warmest). NOTE that this near-the-bottom rule is a general rule, and that some fish, notably crappie, frequently "suspend" quite some distance off the bottom for some reason, maybe something to do with oxygen levels or forage. I don't fish for crappie, so I've never looked into this further.
  3. You can bring a portable depth finder out on the ice, and get a good reading right through the ice, without drilling a hole! Just make a slight depression in the ice with the auger, pour in some water, then put the transducer into the puddle, and voila! I also read somewhere that you could attach the transducer to a broom handle, put a plastic bag around the end filled with (non-toxic) antifreeze/water solution, and prick a tiny hole in the bag (this might not be necessary; I haven't tried it), and walk around scanning the depth like you'd use a metal detector! I've never tried this because I've got enough junk to cart out on the ice without a broomhandle/bag. Besides, method #1 above is the usual method of deciding on a location. I've heard that non-toxic antifreeze can be found at RV (Recreational Vehicle) stores.
  4. Try and locate a bend or break in the weedline and fish it. (As opposed to just fishing the deep edge of the weedline.) Unless you're blessed with clear ice with no snow on top, about the only way to know where such a break is is to use a depthfinder or know where it is from summer. One interesting note is that if the water is clear and relatively shallow, you can see down into it quite a distance by doing this: lie down on the ice, and look down the hole, shading the hole with the hood of your parka. At first you won't see anything, but be patient. After a minute or so, your eyes will adjust and focus (following your bait down as you lower it is a big help to focus), and you'll be *amazed* at seeing your bait and the bottom. On the other hand, you could become frozen to the ice like this until spring.

What baits and lures are good?
My favorite jigging lures are the Swedish Pimple, and the Jigging Rapala. The Swedish Pimple is a silver banana-shaped jigging "spoon(?)" about 1.5" long. The Jigging Rapala is a cigar-shaped fake fish, about 1.5-3.5" long, perhaps 1/4" in diameter max. It has a v-shaped clear fin at one end that causes it to dart way out from the vertical when you jig it. I always tip them with either a live mousie grub or perch eye, or a soft white plastic imitation grub (that looks like a mousie). I've also had great luck with the Berkely Power Wigglers; I've been using them instead of live mousies for several years now. You could also use a dead minnow or bait head.

Any other heavy, thin spoon/chunk of metal should work well also. Shiny lures are good, since it can be pretty dark under the ice, expecially if there's a layer of snow on top. Flashy lures can be more easily seen by the fish. There are many local independent tackle manufacturers that have ice jigging lures such as "Jig-em-up"s and others. A popular style is somewhat triangular shaped, but the line ties to the wide (heavy) end, and each time the lure falls, it flips over (heavy side down).

Other people fish with tiny "ice flies"- essentially tiny weighted jigs with rubber legs or hair, tipped with some small hardy grub. With this they use a tiny bobber, and watch for nibbles. This is used for fussy biters, mainly panfish. I've never fished in this manner through the ice.

For northern pike, you can't beat live bait (minnows/shiners/chubs/ suckers, etc.). Smaller live bait is also very good for walleye, bass, perch, crappie. For bass, walleye, pickerel, use 3-4" bait, smaller bait for perch or crappie, larger/much larger bait for pike. When we go fishing, we *always* use live bait. We always use tip-ups, and jig in our free time. Some people just like to jig, and certainly catch enough fish doing so, but I like using tip-ups too.

How to fish with these baits/lures?
If you use live bait (minnows), use tip-ups. The tip-ups I use don't really "tip up"; when open, they look like the x-y-z axes, with a spool of line hanging underwater (to prevent freezing), and a flag attached to a piece of flat spring steel to signal when you get a bite. I own one tip-up that is different than the rest- it's called a "Windlass". Basically, it's fully above the water (so it's difficult to use if it's REAL cold and freezing out), and it jigs the live bait using the wind- there's a metal paddle on it that your line goes through. In the past 5 years I've had this tip-up it has out performed 8 other normal tip-ups that my friend and I use. Some trips, it is the only thing we catch fish on. It costs ~$12, but it's worked so well for me that I feel it's worth buying at least one.

Use a solid braided trolling/icefishing line on the tip-ups, NOT monofilament (you won't be able to see mono/untangle it out on the ice). Tie on a good swivel, then a 3-4' mono leader using a surgeon's knot; the lighter the better (note that the pound test of mono goes UP at cold temps). Put on an appropriate size sharp hook, and the smallest split shot that will keep your bait down. Typical hook sizes are #6-8 for crappie/perch, #4-6 for walleye, 2/0-6/0 for pike (or a treble hook). I've read in the "In-Fisherman" magazine about a "quick strike" rig for pike, using a pair of treble hooks. This eliminates the need for waiting for the pike to stop, turn the bait, and move again before setting the hook. Monofilament seems to work fine on jigging rods/reels since it sheds water a little better than braided line.

Oh yeah, another tip from my grandfather... when using tip-ups, slide a button, threaded through 2 of its holes, onto your tip-up line be- fore you tie on a leader or hook. When you "sound" the bottom, mark it at the water line with the button. Move the button an appro- priate distance to adjust for the reel being under water, plus 6-8" or so extra (the distance of the bait off the bottom). Now, whenever you catch a fish, you don't have to waste time finding the bottom again- just wind the line onto the spool until the button marker, and you are at the exact depth you were at when the fish hit!

For jigging, tie a snap onto the end, and then clip your lure to that. It gives the lure a much more lively action than if you'd tied the line directly to it. Again, jig really close to the bottom.

One tip I've read for walleye is that the schools always (continually?) swim around the lake PARALLEL to the shoreline (following the contours), so, when setting up your tip-ups, set them all in a straight line out perpendicular from the shoreline in order to find out where the fish are. This forms a line of bait that any walleye swimming by within 50-100 yards of shore will have to pass through. When you find a "hot" hole (depth), you can then move the other tip-ups near it.

For northern pike, try setting the minnow only 2-3 feet below the ice (even in relatively deep water). I've heard that Northern's look up, and this technique can be quite successful. Pinching off the top half of the tail of the shiner will cause the bait to wiggle erratically.

This a really great tip...
If it's going to be REALLY cold out while you're fishing, you might want to consider bringing a small hammer or pick out with you in order to break the frozen tip-ups out of the holes... It sure beats kicking the ice with your heel or bashing your ice scoop to pieces.

How to stay warm and dry?
(I won't bother with shelter...) (This is a corollary of "Are you nuts?!", as frequently asked by non-icefishermen.)

Remember that you are on hard *water*, and don't kneel down everytime you want to rig up a new bait or look down the hole- your knees will get wet.

Bring an old hand towel or rag to wipe your hands on... if you keep using your pants, you're going to get pretty wet. Dress in layers. If you get too hot, you can open up or take off a layer or two.

Make sure your neck is well protected with either a turtleneck, dickie or scarf. Wear a hat (or 2 if it's windy)- I usually wear a hardhat liner underneath a ski hat.

Wear long underwear, and a couple sets of socks. A polypropylene liner sock against your feet with a wool outer sock will wick away sweat and keep your feet dry. Polypropylene socks/underwear is available from good sporting goods stores or outdoor mail order houses. Don't wear so many socks that your boots become tight. Tight boots will make your feet cold due to reduced circulation. Bring one heavy set of gloves/mittens for standing around between bites, and bring one set of thin light gloves for fooling around setting up tip-ups. That way you won't get your primary set of gloves wet by handling fish or bait.

Cut off an old pair of socks, and put the ankle-parts over your wrists to warm them from the wind (wrist-warmers). Bring coffee or hot chocolate in a thermos. Bring lunch or snacks. Bring something to sit on, like a wooden box on a sled/skis or a 5 gallon plastic pail- especially if you're going to jig all day. If it's sunny, bring sunglasses unless you like squinting for 6 hours straight, and not being able to see inside the house once you get home. Remember that wool is warm even when wet.

Is there an ideal depth to fish?
YES! Within 6-12" of the bottom, noted above (unless you're fishing for northern pike and the bottom is completely weed choked- then fish just above the weeds. And unless you're fishing for crappie, which can suspend at any depth (here's where that depth finder is gold!).

Can regular spinning tackle be used ?
Sure, but it's a little more difficult to handle the rod and control the line/bait with your line going down this one tiny hole. You'd be better off making a short jigging rod from an old rod tip/handle or buying one- you can get inexpensive rod for maybe $6. But if you don't want to invest the time or money, the big rod WILL work... until I procured a second short rod, I used to bring a full size rod with me as my second rod... hey, a long pole is better than no pole!

What's an inexpensive yet effective way to cut holes?
For effective, I'd suggest a gas auger, but they certainly aren't cheap. It's the only way to go if your ice gets 30-40" thick like it does at Lake Champlain here in NY! Another good thing about having a power auger is that you won't be afraid to pull up and move off in search of fish. If you were summer fishing, you wouldn't want to fish in exactly the same spot for 6 hours if you didn't get any indication of fish in the first hour, would you? The effort of drilling several new sets of tip-up holes is daunting if you don't have a power auger.

If you will routinely cut through more than an inch or two of ice, don't get a spud bar. My grandfather and I used one for years, until I bought a screw-type Mora brand auger. I'd say this brace-and-bit type auger is 5-600 percent EASIER than chopping a hole with a spud bar- the difference is unbelievable. A new spud bar will cost you, say $15-20, and for roughly $30 you can get one of these screw augers. There are also less expensive "scoop" type augers, which work ok as well, although I've never used one.

So in order of increasing preference, *I* would pick: spud bar--scoop type auger--name brand screw type auger--name brand power auger. I guess a spud bar would be ok if you had either perpetually thin ice (in which case you shouldn't be out there) or always use somebody else's day-old holes. An auger-type drill has difficulty cutting through the unevenly frozen ice that is in a 1-2 day old frozen hole. If possible, try and use a scoop type and a screw type before you buy one of your own, or ask other anglers if they like theirs. If you went out on a lake and asked, I'm sure someone'd let you drill a few holes for them! :-)

Is this safe??
Well, I think so, provided a healthy dose of common sense and caution is used. Carry a long rope or two, and some type of "ice awls" so that you could pull yourself out if needed. I usually fish in well-known ice fishing areas, and stay off until I see lots of other fishermen out there. If I fish a remote area, I bring LOTS of friends, and wait until I'm SURE there's plenty of ice. I personally wouldn't go out on thin (1-3") ice; I prefer to wait until I've got a good 6-8" or so under me; even so, the flexiblility and other characteristics of the ice can sometimes be unnerving. Once on a small pond, with at least 8" of solid ice all over, I found I could make the water in fishing holes near shore slosh around by going to the middle of the pond and bouncing up and down. The booming and cracking of ice on sunny days also takes some getting used to... you have to consciously override your brain's command that says "RUN!", and realize that the 12" of solid ice beneath your feet is going nowhere.

Some people need first-hand experience to comprehend that solid, thick ice is really safe. I had to take both my wife and a co-worker out on the ice in order for them to understand this; no amount of logic could convince them.

When ice is really thick and solid, some anglers just drive their cars out on the ice. Personally, I think this is nuts, and I'd never do this with MY car (try and explain THIS one to your insurance company!), but I have been out on Lake Champlain and other lakes in cars. (It was either ride out or walk 3 miles to catch up to my partners.) On Champlain, the ice was maybe 38" thick, so I felt pretty secure.

Heard anything new lately?
(not much time for research, but here's info from past years:)

A few years ago, a hot jigging lure for walleye was Jig-a-Whopper's "Rocker Minnow". It's a banana-shaped jigging "spoon". I own one, but I haven't been walleye ice fishing yet to try it, but it won a summer tournament or two a few years ago year.

I personally have had GREAT success on panfish using the Berkely Power Wigglers. They come (dry) in a jar, and are mousie-grub shaped fish attractant. They last much longer on the hook (you can catch more fish per grub) than live mousies. In the summer I used them fishing, and they caught panfish when LIVE WORMS would not! They are hard to find in stores, though. I'm not sure if it's because they are so popular or because they are so UNpopular. All I know is that I'll never use live mousies again, so long as I can get some of these Power Wigglers.

The "Judas" principle was mentioned in the Dec. 1991 In-Fisherman magazine. Basically, use one really LARGE bait in the middle of your other tip ups/jigging holes. The larger vibrations put out by this big bait will attract fish from a greater distance than your normal tiny baits will. On the way in to the source of the large vibration, the fish will encounter your other tip ups/jigs with smaller sized bait. (The large bait is too big for them to eat.) Sounds reasonable; I'll give it a try this year.

Rick Inzero