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Learn How To Ice Fish

Like open water angling, fishing through the ice requires skill and knowledge. But anyone can ice fish successfully if they do their homework. Learning about the water to be fished, the equipment and its capabilities, wearing proper clothing and taking safety precautions are all part of a successful, enjoyable winter ice fishing experience.

Perhaps the best way to get started is to accompany a friend or neighbor on a half-day ice fishing outing. If you are unable to locate someone to go with, the next best alternative is to visit a tackle or bait shop in a popular ice fishing area. The shop owners want you to have a successful and enjoyable trip and can provide you with all the necessary equipment. Ice anglers tend to be a highly social group, eager to share tips, techniques and stories - if you can find one, you can learn a lot.

One of the most important steps to take when ice fishing is to make sure the ice is safe. See the table below for general rules to ice safety.

What to Wear

It is important to dress in layers. Start with a layer of material that can wick (remove) moisture from your skin. Avoid cotton clothing, which loses its insulating ability when wet. Many wind and water-resistant clothing options are available. Gore-Tex® and wool are two good material choices. Bring extra gloves, as they tend to get wet. Wear warm, waterproof boots. Add cleats to your boots to help prevent falls.

Where to Ice Fish

Most ponds and lakes offer ice fishing potential. Their characteristics define the kinds of fish that may be caught. Large, shallower ponds and lakes favor species such as chain pickerel, northern pike, yellow perch and sunfish. Deepwater lakes need to be fished selectively to get good catches of northern pike, walleye or lake trout. Brown trout, rainbow trout and landlocked salmon are frequently caught while fishing just a few feet under the ice, even in deep bodies of water.

The local tackle shop where you purchase your bait should be able to advise you on where fish are currently being caught. Online fishing forums are another good resource for choosing your next fishing destination. Regardless of the fish species that you are seeking, concentrations of anglers or the presence of many old holes will provide an indication of areas where good catches have recently occurred.

View popular ice fishing locations throughout New York State.

Ice Safety

Safe ice should be your number one consideration when ice fishing. A minimum of three to four inches of solid ice is the general rule for safety. Ice thickness, however, is not uniform on any body of water. The guidelines presented here are based on new, clear ice on non-running waters. Since ice thickness can vary on a lake, check the ice periodically to stay safe.

Ice Thickness Table (for new, clear ice only)
Ice Thickness Permissible Load
2 inches or less Stay Off
4 inches Ice fishing or other activities on foot
5 inches Snowmobile or ATV
8-12 inches Car or small pickup
12-15 inches Medium truck

Carry ice safety picks (two handles with spike points) to help you get out of the water should you break through the ice.

Note: This guide is based on new, clear ice on non-running waters. Slush ice is about 50 percent weaker. Clear ice over running water is about 20 percent weaker. Double the recommendations for white ice. Many ice anglers do not like to fish on less than five inches of ice, and do not like to drive a pick-up truck on less than 15 inches of ice. Use common sense!

Be cautious in areas where "bubblers" are used to protect docks. They can produce thin, unsafe ice some distance away. Be especially alert in areas near shore, over moving bodies of water, and where streams enter and exit lakes and ponds.

Remember, use the buddy system while ice fishing - it saves lives.

Cutting the Ice

After you have your gear, bait and a place to fish, you'll need to make a hole in the ice. There are a variety of tools available that make this "essential task" simple.

Perhaps the simplest is an old-fashioned "spud" bar which your grandfather may have used on his ice fishing trips. Spuds are often the cheapest way to cut a hole in the ice and work reasonably well on ice up to about a foot thick. Spud bars are also very useful in testing the thickness and safety of the ice.

Hand-powered augers, which are slightly more expensive than spud bars, are easy to operate and offer the best all-around compromise for moderate ice conditions. Purchase an auger appropriate to the species of fish that you are seeking. Anglers who fish for yellow perch, sunfish and other pan fish frequently favor ice augers 4", 5" or 6" in diameter because of their light weight and the speed that they bore through the ice. Anglers who fish for larger fish, such as trout, lake trout, landlocked salmon and northern pike, frequently prefer an ice auger which will make a larger hole, which helps with the often-tricky landing of these large fish. But remember, cutting an 8" hole requires the removal of almost twice as much ice as a 6" hole, so don't buy an ice auger much bigger than you will need. Some hand augers can be outfitted with an adapter that connects the auger blade to a cordless drill for rechargeable hole drilling.

For the avid ice angler or for thicker, more extreme ice conditions, a more expensive, power auger provides the ultimate in speed and convenience, albeit at a sacrifice in weight and portability and may be restricted on some waters.

Ice Fishing Methods

Ice fishing methods include "jigging" with short, light fishing rods and using tip-ups. There are many kinds of jigging poles and tip-ups.

Jigging involves the use of a jigging rod or hand line and a small jigging spoon or lure which is often "sweetened" with a piece of bait. The jig is designed to dart around in different directions when it is jerked up and down by the angler.

The tip-up is basically a spool on a stick holding a baited line suspended through a hole in the ice. When the bait, usually a minnow, is taken by a fish, the pull on the line releases a signal, usually a red flag.

Lures and Baits

There are many artificial lures made especially for ice fishing, from small ice flies used for panfish (sunfish, perch, and crappie) to large jigging spoons for lake trout. Most lures are tipped with some form of bait, commonly minnows and fly larvae called "spikes" or "mousies." Minnows are most often used with tip-ups and can be hooked through the lips or under the dorsal fin.

Sleds and Shelters

Getting gear to your fishing spot is easier with the use of a sled. A child's plastic sled works well, but there are sleds made specifically for ice fishing, often with compartments for storing gear and sometimes with an attached shelter.

Shelters block the wind, making ice fishing more comfortable. Many types of ice fishing shelters, from simple wind breaks to portable fish houses are available.

For more information on ice fishing please view Chapter 9 in I FISH NY Beginners' Guide to Freshwater Fishing: Introduction to Ice Fishing (PDF)


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