Go ahead and banish that VHS memory of “Grumpy Old Men.” Forget what you’ve heard about shanty beer can piles and lazy, lost days hiding from responsibility. Boredom is a choice on the ice or off. As the old saying goes, if you’re bored, you’re boring.
I wasn’t always interested in ice fishing, likely due to those same clichés. I didn’t get a chance to try it until late in high school, since lakes don’t freeze frequently where I was raised in northwest Washington. That first time, following a steelhead trip to the east side of the state and lacking a more appropriate rig, I used a 9-foot steelhead rod to jig for perch. I’ve come a long way and so can you.
Ice fishing is only boring if you let it be, and it’s only cold if you come ill-prepared or stop moving. My experience suggests that I exercise a lot more when I ice fish than when I cover the same waters out of my boat in the summer or spring. Open water fishing rarely involves dragging a heavy sled and sprinting after tripped rigs. Open water fishing also provides the luxury of covering water horizontally by casting or trolling across it. Ice fishing only happens vertically, so each column of the water you want to fish requires a new drill and drop. There is efficiency to be found in that process, though.
Like most hunting and angling opportunities, ice fishing can be as cheap or pricey as you want it to be. I know folks who get out and get fish with a sub-$100 investment, and I know others who don’t leave the shore without $5,000 in electronics alone. It’s smart to invest incrementally and you can get well on your way for next to nothing, especially if you’re willing to ask some existing friends or make some new ones. Perhaps the best thing about ice fishing is the camaraderie an empty, frozen lake creates.
The Basic Clothes for Ice Fishing There was a brief period in college when my friends and I would put on nice suits and ties and generally way over-dress for final exams, often tossing around the tongue-in-cheek maxim: “You have to dress for success.” Adolescent clowning aside, the gear you wear has an outsized impact on any outdoors adventures, and that’s never truer than with ice fishing. Dress for success and you may find it.
While there will be those glorious days when you can strip down to a T-shirt out on the ice, don’t count on it. Far more often it’s snowing, blowing, or life-suckingly cold. But it would be far too reductive just to tell you to bundle up.
If you don’t get a little hot and bothered dragging a heavy sled across snow and ice, congrats on being a paragon of human fitness. If you’re not gasping for breath after chasing down a tip-up flag, you simply don’t want it bad enough. Suffice it to say that dressing for ice fishing requires more nuance than many beginners expect.
Like most outdoor pursuits, there’s enormous value to dressing in layers. Yes, you do want to bring your heaviest coat, but maybe leave it in the sled for once you get out there and get comfortable. Wicking baselayers are a great idea because wetness equals coldness and cotton kills. I’m very fond of Merino wool for these purposes but synthetic fabrics work as well.
Midlayers follow a similar track. You want to bring clothes that both insulate and breathe. I like to wear a sweater, puffy, or softshell that will keep me pretty cozy on its own but won’t be too much if I need to put the heavy jacket over the top.
Speaking of heavy jackets, if you live in an area where ice fishing is available, chances are you already have a sturdy winter coat for sitting in the treestand, football stadium, or community hockey rink. Overkill is not a problem here unless you wear it while dragging the sled or other exertive activities. Bring something comfortable and very warm because that’s what will keep you in the action longer when the temps plummet.
What you wear on your legs is a slightly different consideration. Ice fishing requires a lot of kneeling on ice, snow, slush, or surface water, so pants with some degree of water resistance are quite helpful. I’ll get into some of the more advanced gear further down, but for the sake of getting started, a pair of long johns underneath a pair of sturdy, insulated hunting or hiking pants will do you well, along with some waterproof shell pants in the backpack just in case. Lots of folks wear the same pants or bibs they have for skiing, snowmobiling, or other winter sports.
I identify with the maximalist ethos of packing for hunting and fishing trips, in that I’d rather have something and not need it than the other way around. Even if I don’t need it personally, someone else in the group might have forgotten their gloves or beanie and need a loan. For those reasons, I wouldn’t be caught dead on a frozen lake without at least three pairs of gloves. One fingerless pair will serve for tying knots, setting lines, and running around, while the second mid-weight pair will go on once I post up to jig. The third pair, heavy-duty and thick, will serve for rescuing numb fingers or enduring nasty conditions.
Think of headwear in similar terms. You might not want a massive fur hat for every activity, but you’ll look and feel great with it later when you need to ride out the cold. Buffs, balaclavas, masks, and other face coverings are likewise valuable inclusions. Bring more than you expect to need and you’ll stay cozy when it gets colder than you expected.
My colleague Garrett Long once completed a big backcountry ice fishing expedition with me wearing just running shoes (not on purpose). Don’t be Garrett. Toes are usually the first extremity to go in cold weather. Wear a good pair of thick wool socks underneath insulated rubber boots, snow boots, or pac boots. Waterproofness is helpful for many situations but not entirely mandatory, especially when it’s really cold. Insulation however is mandatory since your feet are the point of contact between your body and the vast expanse of frozen water.
Ice Fishing Safety Gear Since I assume everyone reading this wants to be fashionable out on the ice, you should know that no ice angler worth her or his salt would be seen in public without their stylish, identifying necklace. That’s ice picks for the uninitiated—sharp metal spikes with handles meant for clawing your way out of the water if you should fall through the ice. Your fingernails will not suffice. You can get a really nice retractable pair for $10 or make your own with paracord and some giant nails. Run them around your neck or out both sleeves for convenience, just don’t leave them in the sled where they are useless to you in an emergency.
If the ice you’re going out on is smooth and not covered in snow, it’s highly advantageous to wear Yak Traks, cleats, or slip-on ice spikes on your boots to keep from falling on your ass. And that’s not just for saving face; as anyone (like me) who tried ice skating once in middle school can tell you, it hurts like hell to go down hard on that concrete-like surface. Breaking your tailbone or wrist is more than likely if you do it wrong. Some good traction on your feet will also set you up better to reach a spinning tip-up before your buddies do.
Some means for warming yourself back up would certainly count toward safety gear as well. If you’re just dipping your toe into the ice fishing “waters” to see if you like it, some hand-warmers and boot-warmers may be all you need. A Mr. Buddy or personal propane heater is another great option if one is handy. Pop-up shelters are the real gold standard and may be less pricey than you might expect, especially if split between a few fishing companions. You can almost forget you’re way out on a frozen wasteland with a good hut and heater.
The Basic Ice Fishing Tools First of all, you need to get through that ice to find the fish. Specialized ice augers with gas, propane, or electric motors are the best way to do it, but there are alternative and cheaper options. Handheld augers are often available for around $50, and you can also buy ice auger attachments for a standard electric drill. Or, you can go full redneck and cut your holes with a chainsaw or even an axe.
You don’t necessarily need it, but some form of sonar unit makes ice fishing a lot more productive and engaging. These electronics let you know when fish are present and when they’re not, removing a lot of the guesswork. Many companies offer conversion kits to adapt the fish finder on your boat for hardwater purposes. These are among the pricier elements of most ice anglers’ kits, but there is a lot of variety in price. You can get some simple “flashers” for a couple hundred bucks, or get live-action sonar for a couple thousand. I’d make sure you really love ice fishing before making that kind of purchase.
Finally, a little sled is a great tool for dragging all the above gear out onto the lake. Borrow a sledding sled from your kid or buy one with tracks meant for ice fishing. It’s helpful (and a lot of fun) to trick out your sled with bungees, rod holders, dry boxes, and more.
The Basic Ice Fishing Gear Take my word for it: a 9-foot baitcasting rod is not ideal for ice angling. Usually you want to be closer than 9 feet from the hole. However, that’s not to say that all of your existing fishing gear is useless for hardwater.
I doubt I spent more than $20 for each of my first few ice rod and reel combos. They’re notoriously cheap and, frankly, you don’t need a lot of winching power for bluegills. Don’t overthink it too hard for early excursions. However, if you’re already a semi-serious fisherman, you probably get the intangible value of a legit rig. I’d suggest spending more on a good reel than the rod because that’s where failure happens more often and quality construction will get your further. Line it up appropriate to the species you’re targeting but remember that fish are often more line-shy and fight less hard under the ice. I’ve personally seen 7-pound burbot and 9-pound brown trout landed on 2-pound-test mono. Braided line can be helpful for sensitivity but is also more prone to freezing and tangling.
An ultralight or light-power rod is perfect for many introductory ice fishing adventures for panfish and small trout. If something bigger is in the offing, step up to a medium. Again, you can often handle pretty big fish with pretty light gear through the ice—but the right stuff certainly doesn’t hurt. Longer rods provide more cushion for those unexpected, larger fish but can be ungainly inside a shelter. Twenty-four to 28 inches is a good range for a do-it-all stick.
Now, here’s where the stuff already in your tackle bag comes to bear. If you already do some fishing for walleye, panfish, bass, or trout, you likely have a number of small spoons. The world’s most versatile fishing lure holds that title for hardwater angling as well. Less is often more when it comes to lure selection on the ice, so think small to start. Kastmasters, Swedish Pimples, Little Cleos, and the like are some of my favorites.
Likewise, you probably already have a selection of small jigs on hand that can serve a dual purpose. You don’t need to cast or go that deep, so lean toward the lighter side of the spectrum. A 3/8-ouncer is about the biggest you’d go for walleye or lake trout, but a 1/16 or 1/32 jig head will be more appropriate for trout and panfish. Tip that hook with a small plastic tail or some bait.
The third major category of ice lures is newer on the scene but rapidly growing in appreciation: jigging raps and lipless cranks. These slabs provide a lot of wiggle and action, putting out a great deal of vibration in the water that can call fish in from a distance, often with the help of internal rattles. Again, smaller is better unless you know you’re in the midst of some big fish.
The line between bait fishing and lure fishing is a lot blurrier on the ice than the open water. Most expert ice anglers I know tip their lure hooks with something stinky most of the time. Nightcrawlers are tough to beat as ever. Maggots and mealworms are popular hook tippers for smaller species. Leeches are great, if not a little tricky with gloves, and minnow heads are a Midwest classic. Live minnows are somewhat of a gold standard for larger species but can be a lot of work to obtain and keep alive.
A common practice on the hardwater is to set several rods with bait unattended while you jig with a lure. It’s called “dead-sticking” when you set a rod in a holder or stand to soak with some bait. A higher-tech method involves a special mechanism called a “jaw-jacker,” which allows you to set the rod with a bend and the line on the trigger to set the hook for you when a fish takes. Ideally, this prevents gut-hooking.
Finally, the most popular and traditional method for unattended ice fishing is the tip-up. They come in a wide variety of commercial and custom constructions, but the basic idea is a cross brace or plate holding a post that suspends a spool underwater so it doesn’t freeze. With many models, movement of the spool causes a flag to trip and stand up, alerting the anglers to a take. It’s an exceptionally fun way to fish when regulations allow you to set a half-dozen such traps and drive or walk around to check them at intervals.
Ice fishing isn’t for everyone, and even many serious anglers can’t quite kick the bias they developed from pop-culture stereotypes and Grumpy Old Men. But I’m here to tell you hardwater angling is exhilarating, active, and provides better-quality fillets than you’ll find all year. If that sounds boring, well, maybe that’s more of a reflection on you than the sport itself. I know it couldn’t possibly be more boring than staying inside and watching football all day.