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Ice Fishing 101: Everything You Need to Know About Winter Fishing

To some there is nothing more relaxing than sitting on a frozen lake for hours, with some close friends, just waiting to get that big catch of the day. Nothing in sight for miles, except for your breath and a frozen lake from shore to shore. While many people try to avoid the cold, these brave fishermen embrace it and take on this challenge from mother nature.

It may seem like a dangerous hobby, but ice fishing is popular in the northern United States and can yield some of the year’s biggest catches. Want to learn more about ice fishing? We’ll walk you through some of the basics of ice fishing.

History of Ice Fishing

Ice fishing has long been a staple in areas with colder winters, but when did people start ice fishing? Native Americans in North America and Canada are believed to have started ice fishing, but no one is certain when they started doing this. We do know, however, that it was an important method of survival for these tribes. They would chip away at the ice and then place hand-carved wooden decoys of fish on the surface, and then when a fish came up to see what it was, they would spear them

Nowadays, ice fishing has evolved from a way of survival to a winter sport. The largest ice fishing tournament, Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza, is held every year before the Super Bowl in Minnesota and can have more than 10,000 contestants. That’s a lot of people on a frozen lake.

Modern technology has helped grow the sport in ways that it couldn’t in the past. For instance, to drill holes in the ice nowadays people use augers, which will help make the perfect size hole in the ice. Instead of having to sit in the cold for hours on end, people put ice shacks over their holes to keep them warm. Some people even use snowmobiles and ATVs to carry their equipment and get to their desired fishing spots.

Ice fishing gear has evolved, as has our knowledge of how to catch fish through the ice. 

How to Ice Fish

First, you want to find the perfect ice fishing lake for you and the fish you will be targeting. Next, you want to make sure you have an auger, so you can drill a hole, or a few, in the ice. The size of your hole is dependent on the size of fish you are going after, so make sure you bring the right size auger for the job.

Many people use ice shacks and bring ice fishing heaters to put inside to keep themselves and their freshly drilled holes from freezing. There are still many anglers out there who prefer to do it the old fashioned way and brave the elements, however.  

There are two primary methods of ice fishing: with a rod or with a trap. Rods are more commonly used for smaller fish. You can’t really cast your line – when ice fishing, you basically drop it in the hole. Many people who use rods don’t even have reels and end up using a homemade jigging stick instead. Rods are mostly used to keep the line floating on top of the water or with live bait.

The more common method for ice fishing, especially when your targeting a bigger catch, is tip up ice fishing. Tip ups, or traps, are set by suspending a bait where you think the fish will be lured to it. Then, when the fish takes hold of the bait, a flag will pop up to indicate you have a fish on the line.

You can set up a trap and let it sit for hours, sometimes only checking on it to change your bait. Most places let you set up to five traps, also known as tip ups.

Ice Fishing Safety

Ice fishing won’t be dangerous if you follow some very important safety guidelines. Make sure you always let others know where you are going and what time you are expected to return. This may sound obvious, but it can help save your life. Someone will be able to call for help or even come and help you if you don’t make it back by your designated time.

Make sure that you are keeping up with your local fishing reports as well, as they can help you find the safest places to fish. It’s also vital that you track the weather and anticipate any bad storms, as well as dress for the cold. 

Another piece of ice fishing safety is to always use the buddy system. Don’t go ice fishing alone. Even the most accomplished ice fishermen bring along someone to watch their backs. You always want to make sure you have someone with you, just in case something bad happens so they can either help you or find help.

Having a buddy with you can help save your life or help save your friend’s life. If you are alone, you have a greater risk of something going wrong. So just make sure you always have someone to watch your back, and bring along a friend.

Always make sure that you bring the proper safety equipment as well. For those who are not inclined to bring an ice shack, make sure you at least have a lifejacket and cell phone. The life jacket will help you from going under and the cell phone is in case you need to call for help.

Also, bring ice picks to help you pull yourself out of the water, if you the worst happens, and you fall in. We’ve talked about ice shacks quite a bit already and they’re a great way to keep warm while you are ice fishing. If you fall in, an ice shack may be a good way to avoid hypothermia or even frostbite.

How thick does the ice have to be to walk on?

Another safety tip is making sure the ice is thick enough to fish on. At the minimum thickness, the ice should be about 4 inches. This is only if you are not using any tools and you are just walking on the ice. Never, ever, go under 4 inches when you are ice fishing. The ice will not be thick enough and you are putting yourself at risk by just going out there.

The more gear that you bring means that the ice should be thicker than 4 inches though. If you are using an ice shack, you should be looking for ice that is at least 7-12 inches thick, and if you have a snowmobile, or ATV, with you make sure the ice is at least 6 inches.

Never drive a car on the ice unless the ice is at least a foot thick, although we don’t recommend doing this at all. Also make sure that you are looking for any ice that may not be stable enough to walk or set up on. You can tell if the ice isn’t sturdy enough by discoloration, cracks, breaks, holes, water flows, and pressure ridges.

Try and key in on where other people are ice fishing, because that can help you see if the surrounding ice is strong enough, not to mention, where all the fish are.

Where are the Best Places to Ice Fish?

Generally speaking, you can only go ice fishing in locations where the weather is cold enough to freeze over lakes. Some states and lakes are known for great ice fishing. If you’re looking for an ice fishing trip, try these locations.


Minnesota is commonly referred to as “the land of 10,000 lakes” and boy are they right. Some great Minnesota ice fishing spots include Upper Red Lake, The Lake of the Woods, and Lake Vermillion. These are only a few of the beautiful, scenic lakes that Minnesota has to offer. The largest ice fishing competition in the world is held in Brainerd at Gull Lake, right before the super bowl. If you are looking for a great getaway for ice fishing, Minnesota is the perfect state for that.


Michigan touches three of the Great Lakes and experiences very cold winter, naturally making it a great place to ice fish. Lake Michigan and Higgins Lake are world renowned for being some of the best ice fishing spots, but that’s not all Michigan has to offer. You can travel all over the state to find good Michigan ice fishing lakes. The state also offers a wide array of fish to choose what you’re going to try and catch, with over 150 different species of fish.


Wisconsin is great for ice fishing too, because it not only touches Lake Michigan, but it is also home to many other great ice fishing lakes. Lake Winnebago is known all over the world for its sturgeon spearing season, where thousands come and test their luck by catching one of these 100-pound prehistoric-looking fish.

North Dakota

North Dakota is home to one of the best lakes for ice fishing, Devil’s Lake. While the name may sound ominous, when it comes to ice fishing anglers love to hear about Devil’s Lake. It is home to all different types of fish like perch, walleye, northern pike, and white bass. This lake is huge, so there is plenty of space for everyone to fish. There are many other great options for ice fishing in North Dakota as well as South Dakota.


Throughout the Rocky Mountains there are locations that are beautiful, scenic, and great for ice fishing. There are so many great lakes to choose from for Colorado ice fishing, but that’s not all. Colorado is a great vacation destination, so it is a great place for planning a family vacation. While your family is off on the slopes, you could sneak away and get some peace and quiet.

Check out other top ice fishing locations as well:

Type of Fish


Crappie are a schooling panfish that tend to live in shallower waters. Ice fishing for crappie involves a lot of moving around and live bait, but there are also great ice fishing lures for crappie. To find crappie, pay attention to where others are on the ice, because they have already found good spots to fish for crappie. Always make sure that you are looking for green weeds, as they often hide here as well.


Perch are very common when it comes to ice fishing. These are schooling fish so if you find a perch in the ice, you will more than likely find more. Perch seem to be attracted to perch colored bait, because of their cannibalistic tendencies. Ice fishing for perch should start at a depth of about 30 feet as they tend to live a bit further down.


Trout are one of the most common ice fishing targets. They will go after a wide variety of baits and trout lures and can grow to large sizes. Rainbow Trout are very common and very pretty. Trout like to cruise around drop-offs in lake to try and ambush smaller fish. While ice fishing for trout, it is best to try and catch them at a depth of around 10 feet.

Northern Pike

Northern Pike are carnivorous fish that can grow to be 16-22 inches long. This fish can be found throughout the northern United States and Canada. This is one of the largest fish that people encounter when they are ice fishing. Northern pike are aggressive and strong so make sure that you play it safe while trying to catch one. While ice fishing for pike they look for movement, so try and make a little bit of commotion with your bait.


Walleye is another common ice fishing target, found in the United States. The locations for this fish change throughout the season, and they can be one of the more difficult fish to track. Most people use GPS to track them, but sometimes even this doesn’t work. They will change their location within lakes throughout the season, which is what makes them hard to track. It is best to try and catch them at a depth of 10-40 feet, but this changes with many factors throughout the day. Using the right ice fishing lures for walleye will improve your success. 

Learn More About Ice Fishing

While ice fishing may have started as a means of survival, it has changed to sport. Ice fishing may seem like a dangerous hobby, but it can be a relaxing escape from your everyday life. There are also a wide variety of fish that can make this a challenging sport. You can even use ice fishing to take a vacation during the winter months of the year. To some there is nothing more calming than sitting out on the ice for hours, without a care in the world, except for what your going to catch next of course.

Learn more about ice fishing on Fishmasters, or find the best ice fishing gear to make the most of your winter fishing trip!