There’s something thrilling about the dark. It’s almost as if the coming of night brings back some innate memory of when humans lived in caves and danger lurked just beyond the light of the fire. It tinges even the most mundane of nighttime activities, like taking the dog for a walk, with a certain air of adventure. This is especially true when doing something with the potential for great reward, like landing the fish of a lifetime through the ice.
Ice fishing at night offers anglers chances to catch crepuscular or nocturnal species like walleye and burbot in numbers and sizes that they never knew existed. These species become more active at night, often hunting and feeding with an avidity unseen during the day. This activity can provide anglers willing to brave the freezing darkness with some fantastic fishing opportunities. Yet, just as it was for those ancient hunter gatherers of the past, ice fishing at night brings with it elements of danger and requires changes in strategy for both survival and success.
Night Ice Fishing Safety The number one thing you need to concern yourself with when ice fishing at night is safety. While ice fishing at any time can be dangerous, something as insignificant and even funny during the day as stepping in an open ice hole can become a deadly mistake in the sharp cold of the evening. The complete darkness of a winter’s night makes it harder to see and to be seen, so your first priority on any night fishing trip should be light.
Wearing a headlamp is essential to any night fishing expedition and it should never leave your dome once the sun sets. You’ll want one with a good battery and a high lumen brightness that gives off at least a 150- to 200-degree field of view. The best fishing options will come with a red-light option as well, a color that has less chance of spooking fish but can still be easily seen by the human eye. In addition to the headlamp, you should also carry a powerful flashlight in your pocket or on your belt where you can quickly get at it. Not only will this light help you navigate your way around the ice, it can also be used to signal for help should the worst happen.
At night it’s best to ice fish from a shanty or a pop-up, which provides both shelter from the cold as well as a marker that will let other anglers and nighttime adventurers know you’re around. Your shanty too should have a significant light source too, so that you’ll not only be able to find your way back to it in the dark after running to a tip-up, but also so it doesn’t get plowed into by a snowmobiler in the middle of the night. Long strips of reflector tape stuck to all four walls of the shelter are a great way to prevent this. You can also add a couple small LED light sources to the roof of the shelter itself.
Aside from light, a nocturnal ice angler’s other primary concern is warmth. Northern winter nights often see as much as a 30-degree temperature drop from daylight to darkness, so you’ll want to be prepared. Bring additional layers of warm clothes out onto the ice with you, along with a backup pair of gloves and an extra hat. If you’re planning on spending the night, or even if you aren’t, it’s also good thing to have a zero-degree sleeping bag and a couple emergency blankets along as well. A cot is mandatory for sleeping, and those cheap interlocking foam mats as a floor will keep you warmer and allow less of your gear to get wet.
Additionally, your ice shanty should also have a heat source like a simple propane or battery-powered heater, which will not only help keep you safe but will make all the difference in keeping you out on the ice during frosty evenings instead of hustling back to the truck. If you’re running a heater in your shelter, make sure to leave a vent open. A carbon monoxide detector is also a very, very good idea.
Lastly, staying safe when ice fishing at night means setting up strategically. You don’t want to be out in some unknown area of the lake. At the bare minimum, get out there in the daylight to learn the ice depth, shore access, and ideally find a piece of structure or honey hole to set your shelter above. Find a place where you won’t have to set your tip-ups too far away from your shanty and where, should the worst happen, you’ll be able to be quickly rescued. While I’m sure the fishing is great in heaven, I don’t think there’s too many of us ready to find out yet.
Equipment and Strategies for Night Fishing According to avid nighttime ice angler and MeatEater contributor Ross Robertson, the biggest difference in ice fishing at night versus the day isn’t in the equipment or fishing strategy you use but rather in the additional equipment you must bring.
“Generally, the same lines, baits, and lures you use for an afternoon’s jigging for walleye will work just fine at night,” Ross said. “Some guys like to use bright glow bugs or lights on their baits, which can work really well sometimes, but in high pressured or really clear water I’ve found that these can scare fish away. It’s best to just stick with what works for you in the daytime.”
However, he said other factors besides lure selection can make or break an ice campout.
“The real big difference in night fishing comes from having to use light to see what the heck you’re doing,” Ross said. “I don’t think people realize how much of what they do at night affects fish. Sticking lights down the hole and what not can scare off large predators like walleye. I’ve watched fish absolutely go bye-bye when they see any sort of light. Yet so often light is required just to see your line when it’s down in the hole.”
Ross recommends bringing an assortment of lights that make as little impact as possible such as red-light headlamps and flashlights for tying knots and unhooking fish and lithium power boxes to make sure everything stays charged and functioning in the cold. He also recommends not using more glowing electronics like fish finders and underwater cameras than absolutely necessary. When you’re fishing, he said, keep the lights off in the shanty as often as possible.
“It’s weird but you want your eyes to get used to the dark, so you’ll have the best night vision possible,” Ross said. “Having lanterns lit, flashlights bouncing around, and marking fish on screens can light up the bottom of lake like a damn disco floor even through really thick ice. It will scare fish away, so you want to really think about your footprint on the water and make as little disturbance as you can.”
Bearing this in mind, there are a lot of ways to light your way while night fishing without scaring fish. If you’re using tip-ups, tape a small glowstick to the top of the flag that will make very little disturbance below the surface of the water when compared with a shining spotlight. Place them just outside the window of your shanty so they’ll be easy to see bouncing around in the darkness. Shade the screens of your electronics by positioning them facing up and well away from the hole, or by taping cardboard around edges to block ambient light from the hole. Only turn on lights in the shanty for brief intervals and use red lights or black lights whenever possible. When you’re jigging in the shanty, you’ll want to fish more slowly and methodically, fishing by feel and in tune with the quiet calm of the night. If you’re deadsticking, try using a bite alarm or even a small bell, especially in a toasty warm shanty where you may have dozed off.
Own the Night One of the worst things is having to leave the water just when the bite starts getting hot. During the summer, the sunset and sunrise bring a “magic hour” and this principle holds true during hardwater season. If you’re willing to ice fish at night, you can be in place with your holes drilled and your lines set just when the big boys come out to play—becoming a fish’s worst nightmare.