GuidesIce Fishing

Basics of Ice Fishing for Beginners

Winter is here, and it’s the perfect time to get into ice fishing. Lakes are beginning to freeze over, with trout and bass waiting to be fished. But you can’t just hop onto a lake with a drill and a rod hoping for a big catch!

Basics of ice fishing include safety precautions, equipment, gear, and techniques. Together, these ice fishing basics with the right bait is all you need to successfully catch fish on the ice.

This guide will give you all the ice fishing basics and tips you need to eliminate wasted time and safely have a fun ice fishing experience.

How Thick Should Ice Be for Ice Fishing

beginner ice fishing

Ice fishing is much more difficult than regular fishing. This is mostly due to the extra work, safety equipment, hauling everything out onto the ice, and having to drill through the ice every time you want to move.

Before you head out, you should be positive that the ice is at least 4 inches thick. This thickness of clear, clean ice means it can support the average person’s weight safely.

If you plan on bringing some more items or going fishing in a group of two or more, then thicker ice is required. Here’s a chart showing how thick the ice needs to be depending on your circumstances:

Ice ThicknessHow Many PeopleCan It Support Equipment
3 in Or LessZero- Unsafe IceNo
4 inOne Average PersonPack Lightly
5 inTwo to Three PeopleOne Snowmobile, Rods, Drill, Etc.
10 inFive or SixA Small Car, with full equipment
15 in Or MoreUp to TenA Basic Pickup, with full Equipment

While 4 inches of ice is sufficient for an ice fishing trip, it would be safest to go for a bit thicker if possible. It’s recommended to bring a buddy on your trip for safety, and 5-inch ice means you can fish close to each other without risk.

Just because ice is the proper thickness doesn’t mean it’s completely safe. You should look for clear, fresh ice. The older the ice is, or the cloudier it is, the more structurally compromised the ice has become. This means even thick ice could crack and fall apart underneath you.

Best Bait for Ice Fishing

For ice fishing, it is best to come prepared with a mixture of live and artificial bait. This way if one kind of bait doesn’t seem to be biting you can continue switching based on the conditions you are ice fishing. 

perch ice fishing for beginners

For example, if you want to catch some Big Mouth Bass, then using small live fish can work. Fish that are about the size of a crayfish will work. But if the fish aren’t biting, then swimbaits are a great secondary option. You should come prepared with a variety of options, depending on what’s in your water.

Here’s a list of some things you can use as live bait:

  • Waxworms
  • Wigglers
  • Nightcrawlers
  • Minnows
  • Chum/ Cut bait

Just remember that in some areas, live bait is illegal. You should always pay attention and read up on the laws in your state/county. In the event that live bait is illegal, don’t worry about it. You can get by on lures alone if you need to.

Specific lures are, of course, best for specific fish. Certain fish are attracted to different movement patterns or sizes in the water. Lures are meant to emulate this and attract the right fish.

Here are a few highly rated lures for a variety of fish:

  • Salmo Chubby Darter– Good for Bass
  • Makiplastic Craigi– Good for big Trout
  • CLAM Dave Genz Drop-Kick– Good for Panfish
  • Lindy Quiver Spoon– Good for Pike and Crappie
  • Bay De Noc Lure– Good for Walleye

Best Depth for Ice Fishing

The most common depth to ice fish in is between 5 and 20 feet deep. This is where you’ll find the most commonly sought-after fish in ice fishing.

Rarely will people fish higher than 5 feet.

When it comes to ice fishing, most fish tend to go to deeper waters. Many will travel to depths below 20 feet. For example, you can find trout over 50 feet deep in some lakes. Kokanee salmon is another deep-water fish, going as deep as 80 feet.

Best Time of Day for Ice Fishing

The most common answer of when to fish would be to start just before sunrise and go into the late afternoon. If you only fished during these hours, you would catch plenty of fish, but it would be a wasted opportunity.

Fishing by sundown and overnight fishing are all common times to fish, though not as popular as the sunrise. Different fish tend to be more active during different times of the day. Most fish are active at both sundown and sunrise because that’s when the plankton is active.

Since most fish feed on this plankton, the fish are mobile when the plankton is. When the fish are the most mobile is when you can get the most catches! But certain fish prefer to get their fill at sunset, while others prefer sunrise. This can change depending on:

  • The type of fish
  • The temperature
  • The body of water

Nighttime fishing is unique compared to the other two methods. Some fish, like Walleye, have excellent night vision. They’re mobile after sunset, scouring the waters for food while the competition is thin. Overnight fishing can be very lucrative, albeit with very specific fish, like Walleye or crappie.

So, in the early morning, you’ll find the most common and plentiful fish, but there are options. First thing in the morning is a good go-to time to fish if you’re new to ice fishing. It would be a smart idea to try dusk and overnight fishing, though!

Best Hook Size For Ice Fishing

The hook size you should use in ice fishing is in between the #6 and the 1/0 hooks. This is a range because there’s a range of fish you can catch. You should change the size of your hook depending on which fish you want. The larger the number, the smaller the hook.

Here’s a list of the most common fish in ice fishing and what size hook you should use:

  • Lake Trout – #8
  • Perch – #6
  • Crappie – #4
  • Walleye – #2
  • Pike – 1/0
  • Bass – 1/0

In addition to the right size hook, you need to make sure you have sufficient line as well. Your line should be strong enough to handle the bigger fish you can catch, like Bass and Pike. You should use an 8-pound line, at least, for proper ice fishing.

This ensures you won’t snap a line if a bigger fish happens to latch on when you’re only trying to get a perch or crappie. Most rods can easily handle 8 pounds as well, so it’s a good all-around choice.

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