Saturday, January 21, 2012

On the Hardwater - Ice Fishing Basics Part I

Throughout the country in regions where favorite angling waters ice up to the point that people can no longer cast a lure from shore or a boat, many anglers pack up their fishing gear until next season and suffer what's known as cabin fever.  Other anglers welcome the ice, and look at it as an opportunity to catch fish in places that they can't reach from shore during open water.  In truth, ice fishing is almost cult like in it's following.  Many anglers prefer ice fishing to any other, often turning to other activities after ice out and not fishing the open water!  For most, it's a way to extend your fishing throughout the year, and for many of those, ice fishing becomes a favorite activity.

In this post, I'll discuss basic ice fishing equipment and some tactics.  In my next post, I'll go into more detail about the types of tackle used to catch various types of fish.

All you need to get started fishing the hardwater are a few basic items.  Once addicted though, like most fishing, the passion turns to an obscession, causing you to procure electronics and other gear to increase your catch or improve dealing with the elements, even more feeding the addiction.
Before I go on, if you're interested in giving ice fishing a try, or already are addicted to this awesome sport, make sure that you join and spend some time on  There's a wealth of information on this website.  Make sure that you use the search feature to find what you need.  Not only will you find tons of tips, but after your third post, you'll have access to fishing reports for just about everywhere in the US and Canada.  And, on top of that, you may wind up meeting some people to fish with.  I met a bunch of my fishing friends as a result of this website.  Join, learn, and contribute.

So, what do you need to get started? 
First and foremost, you have to protect yourself from the elements, because without them, you wouldn't have ice to fish on to begin with.  So, if you're going to be out there, it's important to not only be comfortable, but to be safe.  I'm not going to go into much depth on dressing for ice fishing other than to say that it's best to dress in layers with material warm enough to handle extreme temperatures, to keep your head and hands warm, and to have a good warm pair of boots.  Click on this link for more information on how to dress for ice fishing, and browse through the topics to read how ice anglers dress to deal with the elements: Dressing for Ice Fishing Forum.

A simple sled will haul your gear, or you can modify it to
carry just about anything that you want.  It's all up to your
own imagination.
Next, you'll need some equipment.  The founder of posted a quick list of equipment that I've found useful to newbies, you can find the list here: Recommended Equipment List.  Again, I won't go into great detail here, but basically, in addition to dressing for the occasion, you'll need something to cut through the ice (most people use an ice auger), something to scoop out the ice chips from the hole made by your auger, one or more ice fishing rods and reels, light fishing line suitable for cold water, ice cleats to keep you from falling and injuring yourself, something to sit on (a bucket works great and doubles as something to haul your gear or catch), some small ice fishing lures or jigs, and some bait to sweeten your jigs.  Once you accumulate more gear, a sled of some sort to haul your stuff a round will make things even easier for you.

Cutting through the ice:
Leaning against my sled is a hand auger.  Other equipment
shown here include my sled, sonar, fishing rod, a tool
to scoop out ice chips, and my catch.
The most basic piece of equipment is the ice auger.  It's basically like a drill to cut holes in the ice which allow you to present lures or bait to the fish under your feet.  There are gas and electric powered augers that are great when cutting through thick ice, and hand augers for not so thick ice.  In my neck of the woods, the ice doesn't really get all that thick, so a hand auger will suffice most of the time.  Gas powered augers are great for cutting a lot of holes in a hurry, and will save time and energy over a hand auger when the ice is at it's thickest.  In more Northern regions, sometimes you need an extension to be able to cut holes through several feet of ice.  In my region, I rarely see more than fifteen inches of ice.

When the weather is nice, you may opt to go light and bring less equipment.  But, when dealing with harsh weather, additional equipment will keep you comfortable.  And, when you're comfortable, you'll catch more fish.  It's really difficult to concentrate on catching fish when you're cold, shivering and on the brink of hypothermia.  There are times when simply dressing warmly isn't enough.  So, what do ice anglers do?  Fish inside.  The ice shanty is the means to comfort, a shelter to protect you from the elements while still having the ability to catch fish. 

The Permanent Shanty:
In regions where it's legal to leave a protective shelter on the ice, some anglers build their own, often elaborate and innovative contraptions and haul them out on the ice.  They are often left in a favorite area of their favorite lake where they can fish each day within their structure, or use it as a base camp to spread out and find fish, then return to socialize, eat food, and/or fish.  Permanent shanties are used in colder regions where the ice is thick enough to drive on and support a lot of weight.

Permanent shanties, or shacks, offer all the comforts of home.  Not only do they offer comfort inside to fish from, but often serve as base camps for social gatherings on the ice in between fishing time.  Here, my buddies share a meal after a long cold morning on the ice.
The Portable Shanty:
When the ice isn't thick enough to drive on the ice, or, if it's not legal to drive on the ice, ice anglers are not out of luck when it comes to comfort.  There are many products available to the angler to protect them from the elements.  It's not essential to own one of these, but man they sure help.  I personally fish out of a Fish Trap, a portable "flip-over" shelter that serves as my sled, seat, and shelter, made by the Clam Corporation.  Not only am I protected from the elements, but I can fish in comfort and remain mobile to stay on the fish.  They're fast and easy to set up on the ice, and keep me warm and out of the wind. 

An advantage to my Fish Trap over other styles of shanty is that I can stay mobile.  All I need to do is flip the canvas back and move the sled to another spot (usually a hole that I've cut previously), have a seat, and flip the protective canvas back over top of me and I'm in fishing comfort once again.  The Fish Trap is often referred to as the "bass boat on ice".

In this pic you can see a couple permanent shanties along with two flip over style portables.  Here, I'm searching for a new spot, checking holes for fish, while a buddy of mine is cozy inside his Fish Trap.  It was cold, snowing, and the wind was howling that day, expanding the canvas Fish Trap canvas tops to resemble giant blue marshmellows!
Here my buddy George is perched on his Fish Trap Seat, using his flasher to catch panfish.  You can see why people call these portable shanties "bass boats on ice".  All he has to do to escape the elements is to flip the top over his head and he's in total comfort.

On average ice fishing days, the sun and your body warmth will keep you plenty warm inside your portable shanty.  At night, if you're fishing for crappie and other night biters, a propane lantern will not only provide you with ample light, but also generate enough heat to fish inside your portable shanty to the point that you can peel off some layers and fish in a flannel shirt on all but the coldest of days.  For those really cold days, a Mr. Heater Buddy portable propane heater will keep things toasty inside.  Don't worry about these items melting the ice that you're perched upon, they're perfectly safe.

Portable shanties, like these "flip-over" styles, allow you to fish out of the wind and protect you from the elements, keeping you comfortable even on the coldest days.  The only time that you need to venture outside is if you're searching for fish and need to move.
Cozy in my Fish Trap, warm from my lantern and Mr. Heater Buddy heater, electronics to help find and catch panfish like this crappie...what more do you need?  I love it!

Here my cat demonstrates how to properly use the bass boat style seat on my fish trap while I prepare for a trip.

There are other portable shanties available, some are "pop-up" type shanties that set up in a few minutes.  They aren't quite as mobile as the flip over style, but are great when fishing with multiple people or to serve as base camps when fishing a wide area.  These are very popular with tip-up fishermen. 

Here's an example of a "pop-up" style portable shanty, with a permanent shanty in the background.  These are also a bit roomier than the "flip-over" style of shanty if you prefer more elbow room and aren't worried about mobility.  Notice the gas powered auger at the bottom of the picture.
Ice Fishing with Electronics

Probably the most important piece of equipment for me to locate and catch more fish is my sonar unit.  There are many brands and versions out there, all of them good, and all of them serve one purpose, to locate and help you catch more fish.  How does it work?  Basically, you place the transducer down the hole, and you'll see bars on your screen (see picture below).  The thick bars at the bottom of the picture (six o'clock) represent a "false" return, but the bars at about four o'clock represent the bottom.  Not only can you see the bottom and know the depth that you're fishing, but bars that show up at the bottom and "flicker" or that are suspended above the bottom, are fish. 

When you drop your lure down, it will also show up as a bar.  Often, if the fish are active, they'll react to your lure as it falls down to them.  You can see, in real time, every action that you impart on the lure.  As you jig, you can see your lure jump and the fish react.  When a bar, or fish, approaches the bar that represents your lure, take your eyes off the sonar and watch your rod tip.  When you see your rod tip, or sometimes just the line, do anything different, set the hook.  Sometimes the strikes are savage, but most of the time they're very subtle.  Don't forget to take your eyes off the "TV" (sonar) or you may miss that bite.

Do you need sonar to catch fish?  Nope.  But wow does it help.  It often is the difference between getting skunked and catching a ton of fish.  Once you get into ice fishing, this is the first major investment that I'd recommend.

Sonar, like the Vexilar FL18 pictured above, allows you to find fish, but also to see your lure, the fish, and how they react, enabling you to catch more fish.  When fishing for crappie at night, sonar is invaluable in finding suspended fish, and dropping the lure right above them to provoke a strike.
Underwater Video Cameras
Now I don't think that these are essential to ice fish, but let me tell you it's very fun to see what you're fishing for.  And, when the bite is really light, you'll find that using a camera is a great way to catch those light biters that you might miss if you didn't actually see the fish inhale the lure.  Fish often inhale a lure and spit it out so fast that, by the time you see your rod tip jump and react, you'll miss that fish.  And, often, the fish inhaling your lure and spitting it out may not even transmit the bite to your rod tip!  So, with this piece of equipment, you can not only see what you're fishing for, see how they react, but you can actually see them inhale your lure.  In this case, you leave your eyes on the camera and react to what you see on the camera, and set the hook. 

The use of an underwater camera is a great way to fish when you know that you have a lot of fish under you.  They can also be used to find fish and are quite valuable in that respect when searching in shallow water.  Why?  Sonar puts out a cone of waves that are read back to the unit after bouncing off the bottom.  The radius of the cone is much smaller in shallower water, so you're only seeing what is directly under you.  With a camera, in clear water, you can see many feet off to the side in any direction that you point the camera. 

Another great thing about these units is that you can record your underwater fishing moments on a DVR.  I currently use an Aqua-vu, one of the first portable underwater cameras built for ice fishing, but there are several quality brands out there to choose from.

So, in addition to the above facts about using an underwater camera, why do I use them?  I think that they're just plain fun!

Here, my friend Scott uses an underwater camera to find schools of bluegills in just a few feet of water, checking several holes until he locates fish.
Tactics and Strategies 
I'm not going to go into specific tactics with regard to fishing tackle and the various fish species available to you through the ice in this post as I'll save that for future posts.  But instead, I'll touch on some overall strategies that will help you improve your odds and find more fish.  Most ice anglers employ two basic tactics, jigging for fish, or setting up tip-ups.

Jigging simply means that you sit or stand over your hole in the ice, and work your lure with a rod and reel in hand to catch fish.  It really doesn't get any simpler than that.  But, if you think that you can venture out on the ice, cut a hole, and find fish every time, well, it just isn't that simple.  That said, it does happen once in a while, and that's just plain luck.  So, how do you rely on something other than luck and improve your odds at success on the ice?  Cut and check lots of holes, and stay mobile.

I usually start out and find a spot that I want to fish by looking at lake maps, or even on-line satellite imaging, to determine a section of lake that I'd like to fish.  Once I locate and access the area, I begin by cutting about several holes out from where I'd guess the first drop off is out to the creek channel.  Then, I go back and scoop the ice chips out, and drop my sonar transducer down the hole, turn on my sonar, and look for either suspended fish, or the bottom bars flickering and moving. 

Be careful that your transducer is still because that flickering on the bottom could be your transducer moving.  If you're transducer is still, and the bottom bar is flickering, try dropping a jig down to the fish and see if they react.  If what you see is a fish, then this is a hole to remember.  If you see multiple fish or they're reacting to your lure in an aggressive manner, stay and fish it out.

Here my friends Jack and Geoff found a school of panfish using their sonar units, then targeted them using light line, ice fishing rods, and small jigs tipped with maggots (spikes) or waxworms.
You may check all of the holes that you've cut only to not find any fish.  If that happens, move to another section of lake and start over.  Repeat the process until you locate fish.  Don't give up!  And, if you find fish and they stop biting, get up and move, and repeat the process once again.  If you do move, then remember where you've fished and caught fish successfully, because later on you may want to return to that spot.  I've often found that if you catch a crappie during the morning, more than likely if you plan to fish at night, that spot could prove to be a good night time crappie location.

If you've been on fish, make small location changes and look for similar structure.  If they completely shut down or you can't find fish, make major location changes.  That may mean traveling to a different section of the lake that you're on, or even heading off to a different lake.

The only thing that I want to say more about mobility, is that when night fishing for crappie, I've had less success moving to new spots.  I can't say that it won't work to move, but it may not be as easy as finding them in the day.  Be prepared to cut a lot of holes at night to find feeding crappie.  It's hard work, but when you find active ones, you will be rewarded.

Now, for me, being mobile is limited to what I bring on the ice.  This is where the Fish Trap is great because I can haul all of my gear and get out of the wind and weather, and move whenever I need to.  If it's warm out, I may opt to bring my smaller sled and go light, and be even more mobile.  But, in my area, on most of the lakes that I fish it's not legal to drive any vehicle on the ice.  On some larger lakes near me, snowmobiles are allowed, and they increase your mobility.  Of course, in more Northern regions, use of ATVs, snowmobiles, automobiles and trucks can also increase your mobility.

The concept of being mobile and fishing with electronics to locate and find fish quickly was made popular by Dave Genz many years ago.  I'd recommend checking his youtube videos on the subject.  He goes into a lot more detail than I have time for today.

Another tactic that ice anglers use is to cut a bunch of holes in such a way that they cover a structure, or structures, to target a certain species of fish, and set up multiple baited tip-up devices on them.  They can be used to catch any predatory fish, whether it be pike, musky, walleye, pickerel, bass, trout, crappie or perch.  A tip-up is simply a spring loaded device that has a spool of line and sits over a hole, where you set your bait to the depth of your choice, that has a flag that sets itself off and notifies you that you may have a bite.  The number of tip-ups that you are allowed to use depends on the regulations for your state or province that you fish.  Often, several anglers together will set up sets of tip-ups and work them together to increase their odds. 

Here's a nice Northern pike caught on a tip-up on a large shiner.
Basically, when a fish bites, the flag springs into the air, anglers quickly head toward that hole and check to see if it's a fish by first observing the line to see if it's coming off the spool, and then by picking up the line and feeling if the fish is there.  Once the angler determines that a fish is indeed on the other end of the line, the angler sets the hook and brings the fish in hand over hand.  If it's a big fish and you need drag, then you simply reverse your hand over hand activity.  Once the fish is at the hole, the trick is to maneuver the fishes head into the hole, then grab it and haul it onto the ice.  Sometimes it's necessary to use a small gaff for large toothy fish.

So, what about mobility and tip-up use?  You may not be quite as mobile as the jigging/moving tactics described earlier, but you can still use the same principles.  You can use sonar to find likely spots and even fish.  You can change locations if you aren't getting any action, or simply cut more holes in a productive area and anticipate where the fish may be based on your recent activity.

Tip-ups are very effective for catching large predatory fish.  Most of the time bait is used, but some tip-ups have built in features that impart a jigging action, which allows for the use of lures which can be effective.

Safety on the ice:
Folks that don't know much about ice fishing, particularly in warmer regions like mine, often question my sanity for going out on the ice.  Is it dangerous?  Yes, it can be, if you don't take precautions and know a few things about ice and ice conditions. 

In a nutshell, I follow several basic rules that I learned from my mentor, Jeff Redinger.  In early and late season, when ice is the most questionable, approach from the Southern shorelines, or areas that get a lot of shade.  Northern exposures receive the most sun, and therefore are the warmest and first to melt. 

Do some research ahead of time to determine if there are springs on the lake.  Springs often generate warmer water and/or currents that can erode ice and make it unsafe.  Avoid those areas.

Stay away from narrow points, bridges, creek mouths, or any other areas where current occurs.  Current can erode ice and make it unsafe.  In addition, very windy areas can erode ice too, so be aware of that.

Avoid wood sticking out of the ice.  Wood absorbs heat, which can thin the ice around the wood.

Sunny rocky areas or boat ramps at the ice edge can be tricky, if it's shady, you may be OK, but be careful when you access.  If the edges look soft or there's open water nearby, be suspicious and check it before walking out on it.

Use a spud bar to travel across the ice a step or two at a time, testing the ice with a spud bar to check the ice ahead of you.  If the spud bar goes through the ice or significantly cracks it, the ice could be too thin to move ahead.  Back away and move in a different direction.  Also, every now and then when moving, cut test holes and check the thickness.

Wear ice cleats, studded boots, or creepers when walking on slick ice.  I'd say that most ice fishing injuries are a result of someone falling down on the ice.  Let me tell you from experience folks, it hurts.  Not only can you give yourself a concussion, but you can break a limb too.

Carry safety equipment with you when the ice is iffy.  Wear ice picks or carry Phillips head screwdrivers to use to help pull yourself out if you unfortunately fall through.  It's a good idea to pack a forty foot length of rope with you too.

Be aware of the changing weather conditions around you.  Wind, rain, and warm weather can combine to erode ice quickly and change "safe" ice to dangerous ice in a hurry.  A good sign that this is happening is running water on top of the ice, swirling around in your hole.  When that happens, check the ice thickness often.  If the ice is sufficiently thick, you should be OK, but if not maybe it's best to try another area.  This can be difficult especially on a good bite.

Generally, my rule of thumb is four inches of clear or black ice, or newly formed ice, is OK for me.  Any less than that and I won't go out and fish on it.  It's not worth your life for a few fish.  Clear ice is the strongest ice and is most common early in the season.  If it's cold, and ice is building, it will crack and make booming noises.  Often the cracks will form right between your legs, and sometimes when you walk.  If the ice is sufficiently thick, this is not a problem at all but is kind of scary to ice fishing newbies.  To me, the booming noises are comforting to me, letting me know that ice is building underneath me.  The cracks are due to ice forming, created by the pressure on the ice against the shorelines as it forms.  They're only dangerous on thin ice, so once again, check often by using a spud bar or cutting holes with your auger.

Ice that is eroding has a white appearance, and is very granular when you cut a hole, almost looking like you're cutting through a snow cone.  Even a foot of "honeycomb" ice isn't safe and may not support your weight.  This type of ice occurs later in the season mostly, but can happen any time due to rainy weather conditions.

My friend Glenn jigging on four inches of clear ice.

Fish with a buddy, always a must for safety.

Be careful if a lot of snow is on the ice.  It has to be thick enough to support the weight of the snow and you.  Four inches of clear ice with snow on top isn't too bad, but any less ice than that is very risky.

By the way, I've been ice fishing for a long long time and have never fallen through the ice completely (knock on wood).  I've been fortunate, but that's because I'm extremely skeptical about ice and always check it when I'm moving about.  But I've had friends that have fallen through.  Most of the time it's due to fishing late in the season when the fishing is extremely good, but the ice is most eroded and risky.

Also, be careful around your ice auger blades.  They should be very sharp but also watch out for them.  They can give you a nasty cut if you don't pay attention.

There's a lot more to safety on the ice and I can't cover it all in one blog post.  Please research this topic on your own thoroughly.

For more safety tips, please check the following links:

Catch and Release, or Keep?
I practice catch, photo, and release most of the time when fishing open water.  Rarely do I keep fish except for a few occasions.  But I tend to keep more fish when I ice fish.  I don't know, they just taste great to me.  That said, most of the time I fish for fun and don't feel like coming home late to clean a mess of fish.  So, I release them sometimes.  When catching fish through the ice, if in a shanty, you can simply drop them down the hole.  If you plan on keeping them, they'll be fine as long as they don't freeze.  Fish taste better when they aren't frozen before being cleaned.  They're still edible though, so don't waste them if they freeze.  Just take them home and filet them after they thaw out, and cook them.  It's probably not a good idea to refreeze them.  Often, if it's not too cold, fish on the ice will mark my good holes, and when I bounce from hole to hole, it's important that I remember which holes are productive.

If it's below freezing and a fish is exposed out of the water, it will freeze.  Obviously, if you plan on releasing the fish, don't let this happen and return it to the water as soon as possible.  If you plan on keeping them, don't let them freeze either.  How?  You can keep them in a covered bucket, and even better, throw some snow over top of them to insulate them.  No snow available?  Scoop up your ice chips left behind from cutting your holes.

Why Ice Fish?
So my friends that think that I'm insane often ask me why I ice fish.  Why not just go to the store and purchase my fish?  It's not about the fish.  It's about solving the puzzle, about friendships on the ice, about the experience, about the beauty of winter.

One of the great things that distinguishes fishing the hardwater over fishing the softwater is that you are over the fish, and there is no drift.  This is why you can see your lure so easily on sonar.  This is why, once you find fish, you can often find and catch a lot of them. 

Another great thing about ice fishing is that, combined with joining, is that it's a great social activity.  I've met a lot of nice people on the website and on the ice, and many of them are my friends.  It's a great way to share and learn about ice fishing, but a better way to enjoy life.

My Brother Kyle and my friend Mark, posed over some nice iced crappie.
I'd like to thank my friend and ice fishing mentor, Jeff Redinger, a.k.a. ratsotail on, for teaching me the basics of ice fishing, and other fishing strategies on the hardwater.  He really is a master on the ice.  I owe a lot to you buddy!

In my next post, I'll discuss ice fishing strategies specific to jigging for panfish.

For more info on icefishing, make sure that you join and post on and visit Bass Junky's blog posts.  He recently posted some great ice fishing posts amongst many other great topics.  You can find is blog at

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