To the uninitiated, ice fishing can seem like a masochistic endeavor: Drag a sled full of gear out onto a frozen windswept lake in frostbite temps, auger a hole through the ice, drop a line in the water, and sit on a bucket or in a small shelter and freeze your ass off while waiting for something to bite.
That’s not how hard-water anglers will describe it — not at all. Ice fishing is actually a really accessible and addictively-enjoyable way for all ages to spend long winter weekends.
The camaraderie, time outdoors, and siren song of hooking a potential giant fish — or a mess of perch or crappie — far outweigh the pain of the cold.
While it’s still considered a pretty niche and regional sport, ice fishing has become extremely popular since the pandemic hit. In spite of the masses discovering a new winter pastime, pulling fish through the ice is definitely not a new phenomenon.
Ice Fishing’s Been Around a While
Research tells us that ice fishing dates back more than 2,000 years to native populations in North America. During long, frigid winters indigenous folks discovered — out of necessity — that by breaking ice on frozen lakes, a bounty of fish could be speared, hauled in, and added to their food stores.
The earliest hard-water fishermen used spears to kill fish that swam under their holes, but the waiting game was tedious and cold as hell. So, they constructed a small hut over the hole to protect the angler from the elements and get a better view of fish cruising below.
“Dark house” fishing is the genesis of the portable huts and shanties that dot frozen lakes today. Fishermen would use bone or wood-carved bait imitations to draw fish into view and then spear them: a method that is still popular in the North and Midwest.
In addition to spearing, there are two other ice fishing methods that are popular today: jigging and using tip-ups. Of course, as other methods of catching fish through the ice were developed, the gear got more specialized, too.
The days of hand-crafted huts covered in furs and pine boughs have been replaced with high-speed sled-sheds and Airbnb-caliber tiny homes, complete with composting toilets and recliners.
There are a billion ways to part with your hard-earned cash when you start investing in ice fishing gear, but the reality is that you don’t need to swing for the fences to get a solid start.
Keep it Simple
The tighter your ice fishing kit is dialed, the easier it is to get on the ice and learn the fundamentals. You’ll also be more likely to get out since you’re not packing a traveling-circus amount of gear. Here are the basics to get you started:
An ice auger with teeth and a backbone is worth its weight in gold. Find one that gives you the option of using your cordless drill to power it, or the classic hand crank if the drill batteries shit the bed. Punching through the ice easily and as many times as you need ensures you can spend more time with your lines in the water instead of grinding your way to exhaustion.
Having both tip-ups and jigging rods gives you more options. Tip-ups let you essentially “cover more water” without having to necessarily move locations. Anglers can have multiple tip-ups over multiple holes at the same time. The simple design lets you set a live-baited line that will release a spring-tensioned flag when a fish bites, like an old-school mousetrap. The flag “tips up” and alerts the angler that a fish is on the line. Each tip-up is dropped at a different depth or near different submerged structures, like rocks or old trees where fish tend to hold.
A jigging rod, on the other hand, keeps you at one or two holes, where you slowly jig a lure at whatever depth you’ve located fish. Usually, anglers put wax worms, maggots, or a small minnow on the lure’s hook. A jigging setup gives you something to do while waiting for a school to move in and crush your tip-ups, and lends itself to sitting in an ice shanty out of the elements.
If you’re debating between live bait or lures, conventional wisdom says that live bait is more productive than artificials. Generally, live bait on a tip-up is best suited for fishing at various depths where fish are cruising, but it can also work on jigging rods.
For smaller fish like perch and crappie, use jigs with wax worms (bee moth larva), maggots, spikes (fly larvae), wigglers (mayfly larvae), or small minnows. For bigger fish like walleye, trout, or pike, larger live bait like minnows, smelt, salmon eggs, or spawn bags are the jam.
Fishing bait too deep around structures, like submerged trees, can lead to the bait swimming into the structure and tangling the line. Artificial lures or smaller non-swimming bait on a jigging rod are effective around structure since you are directly controlling how they are fished.
There are exceptions, of course, and trial and error is a great teacher. Again, having even one of each, tip-up and jigging rod, gives you options.
Now that you’ve got the gear to carry, get a sled. Seriously, it’ll make life much easier. A plastic sled is easy to pull on ice or snow even when full of gear. You can stow extra-warm, dry clothing, snacks, hydration, a camp chair, and your pop-up ice shanty if you decide to buy one. There are even sled/ice shanty combos available once you go full-send on the sport. Regardless, your back and shoulders will thank you.
Ice Fishing Safety
The first time out on the ice should be intimidating. Hell, every walk out should have you on your toes. It’s better to have a healthy respect for ice than to barrel out and put yourself or others in danger. A little pucker factor is not a bad thing.
So, for starters, always fish with a partner — especially if you’re headed to a new spot and others aren’t around. Going alone will leave you without immediate help should you need it. Next, understand the general rules of safe ice thickness. You want a minimum of 4 inches to walk out on with a couple of people, 10 inches for a snowmobile, and at least 12 to 15 inches for vehicles.
Dress for Changing Conditions
Dressing for the cold is obviously important. But conditions change, so you need layers. First off, insulated and waterproof boots are a must. You are standing on ice for hours and your feet will feel it. Make sure you have extra dry clothes, gloves, and pocket hand-warmers in your sled. If you happen to get wet somehow, you’ll want those options.
Layering is key. When you are dragging your sled out to your spot, and then drilling your holes, you’re going to sweat, and it can get warm inside a shanty. Wear comfortable mid-layers that allow you to remove heavier, outer layers while you work, then put them back on when you’re done. Having the right clothes can make the difference between a good, long day of fishing, and a short day back at the truck with frozen clothes laid over the defrost vents.
Recommended Ice Fishing Gear
Shappell Jet Sled — $32 to $100
A sled is a necessary piece of ice fishing gear whether you’re on foot or using a snowmobile and they’re available in several different sizes. A durable plastic body sloped front end and a braided nylon leash on this model make it easy to pull over snow and it lets you carry all your gear in one simple, easy-to-haul unit.
Frabill Blackhawk Tip-up — $16.99
There are easily a dozen kinds of tip-ups on the market. Starting with a reliable basic setup, like a rail-style or classic wood tip-up, is a great way to get on the ice and start catching fish without spending an arm and a leg on a lot of bells and whistles.
As you can imagine, jigging rods come in endless options as well. A durable, fiberglass rod with good components that won’t give out on you when it’s bone-chilling cold and you have a good fish on the line is a must. This combo is affordable and reliable.
Nils Master UR600 Ice Auger — $179.99
You can certainly pony up for a gas-powered auger, and it will make your life easier on the ice; but, they’re heavy, expensive and you’ll need to bring fuel for it. Plus, you won’t likely be drilling through several feet of ice. The Nils is more than up for the job and it gives you the option of punching holes with a cordless drill or doing it by hand if the battery dies. It’s a light, easy-to-carry, efficient way to drill one hole or a dozen.
Depending on how often you plan to fish, and in what conditions, an ice shelter is either a small luxury or an absolute necessity. There are plenty of options when it comes to size, construction, and features, but keep its basic purpose in mind: to simply keep the weather off of you and your fishing partner. This hub shelter from Frabill is a good basic pop-up. They work just like a turkey or ground blind.
THKfish Jig Assortment — $14.49
Depending on what body of water you’re fishing, you may have a bunch of species available to you: panfish, perch, bass, walleye, trout, pike. If you’re going to drop jigs, and you know there are small and big fish lurking, it’s good to have an assortment that will work on a range of fish. This kit will cover all your bases until you get your home ice dialed.