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Ice fishing 101 | A beginner’s guide to ice fishing

So, you’d love to ice fish, but aren’t quite sure how to do it?

Well, I’m going to cover the basics of ice fishing – an Ice Fishing 101 – so you can get out, safely fish, and share moments on the ice with your family and friends.

  1. Locate an ice fishing spot
  2. Be sure ice is safe
  3. Ice fishing clothing
  4. Ice fishing gear
  5. Drill hole in ice
  6. Bait the jig
  7. Jig the lure

Step 1: Locate your ice fishing spot

man at ice fishing spot
Once you locate a good ice fishing spot, it’s best to fish 50 to 100 yards from shore.

Now, the first step to getting on ice fishing is to find a good place to ice fish. Once you do that, you’re going to want to start to fish in the first 50 to 100 yards from shore.

You’re going to typically target 10 to 15 feet in depth and that will allow you to catch panfish, crappie, bluegill as well as pike and hopefully largemouth bass as well.

If you are ice fishing for the first time in a particular location and don’t know exactly where to fish, a good move is to get started right next to some other shelters. There are great communities out on the ice and everyone is fighting the cold and usually love fishing next to each other.

Step 2: Check for safe ice conditions

man making sure ice is safe for ice fishing
Always be sure the ice you are planning to fish is safe before drilling and ice fishing.

You should always be sure that the ice conditions are safe before attempting to fish a certain location. I highly recommend that you call or stop into your local bait and tackle store and make sure that the lake you picked out has safe ice conditions.

You can typically see where other people are safely fishing as well as sticking to the foot paths that they’ve already created, so you know it’s generally safe ice.

I highly recommend drilling holes (we’ll get to that further down) every 10 to 20 yards to double check the ice thickness.

I don’t recommend going out on any water that has under 5 inches of ice. If you have 5 inches, you’re going to be good, but you want to keep checking to make sure that there’s no variation in thickness.

If you do get to an unsafe spot, get off that lake. Five inches is the minimum.




Step 3: Wear appropriate clothing

man wearing ice fishing clothing
Be sure to layer up in the appropriate clothing: coat, mittens, hat, snow pants and snow boots.

Before you go ice fishing, be sure to gear up with warm winter clothing. It’s a good idea to dress in multiple layers as well as a coat, mittens, hat, snow pants and snow boots.



Safety gear is an essential part of your clothing

Safety spikes and ice cleats and floating bibs are very important components of proper ice fishing clothing.

The cleats help you walk on the ice without slipping and the safety spikes allow you to pull yourself up out of the water in the event that you fall in.

The floating bib has material in it that will allow you to bob back to the surface if you were to fall through the ice.

Now, if you don’t have higher end ice fishing bibs that can float, I highly recommend taking some sort of floatation device with you, most notably, an inflatable life preserver that’s easy to carry and lightweight.

man holding ice fishing safety spikes
Safety spikes are an essential part of your ice fishing safety clothing.
man holding ice cleats
Ice cleats help you walk on the ice without slipping and falling.


Step 4: Ice Fishing Gear Inventory

Once you get your winter clothing taken care of, you need to get your ice gear taken care of.

ice fishing gear and tackle

There are a few pieces of gear that are rudimentary and essential to getting out on the ice to fish.

Sled: First, because you will likely need to drag your ice fishing gear and equipment with you for long distances, you will need a sled.

ice fishing sled
You’ll need an ice fishing sled to hold all your tackle and gear.

Auger: Secondly, you will need an auger. An auger is a drill that will cut through the ice. It goes from 6 inches to 10 inches, and some even go up to 12. If you’re just getting started, I highly recommend just having a 6-inch hand auger.

ice fishing auger
You’ll need an auger to drill a hole in the ice.

Bucket: Another important thing to have is a bucket. This bucket is going to carry all of your tackle, your bait, all in one thing. And it also serves as a stool so you have a place to sit when you’re out on the ice.

ice fishing bucket
Your bucket holds your tackle and also gives you a place to sit.

Scooper: Next, you need a scooper. This is going to allow you to hold the ice out of your hole, clean it up and fish that hole consistently without having the ice interrupt your fishing or the fish coming through the hole.

ice fishing scooper
You’ll need a scooper to clean the ice out of the hole you drilled.

Ice Fishing Rod: When you’re ice fishing over a hole that’s right in front of you, you don’t want a long freshwater fishing rod, because it will put you too far away from the hole. You won’t be able to fish with it inside of a shelter. Plus, they have very low sensitivity. I recommend a 28″ ice fishing rod.

man holding bent ice fishing rod catching fish
The size of the ice fishing rod is important. It needs to be small. 28″ is recommended.

Jigs: Next, you need some jigs. The Tailored Tackle Multispecies Ice Combo allows you to jig or deadstick for a multitude of species. It includes micro jigs, tungsten jigs and others that you’re typically going to be using.

tailored tackle jigs
You’ll need jigs to put your bait on for ice fishing.

Bait: Lastly, you’re going to need some bait. Spikes are maggots that are used in ice fishing. You tip two to three of them on your jig and you jig them up and down to catch all sorts of species; primarily panfish, like perch and crappie.

spike maggots for ice fishing
Spike are a great bait for ice fishing that can attract a variety of species to bite.


Step 5: Drill A hole in the ice

Once you arrive at your ice fishing spot, you’ll need to drill a hole in the ice. You will need to take the safety device on top of the bottom of the auger and remove it. Drill down into the ice by moving it clockwise.

man holding ice fishing auger
Make a hole in the ice with your auger by moving it clockwise. Once you have drilled your hole, pump the auger up and down three to four times to remove all of the big bunch of slush out of the hole.

Once you have drilled your hole, remove the excess slush with your boots.

man removing slush from ice fishing hole
Once you have drilled a hole in the ice, kick the sides of the slush off the side. Be sure to cover up the auger blade with the safety guard so that while it’s standing there, nobody trips and falls on it.

Scoop the hole

After drilling the hole, you’ll need to scoop it, using your scooper. Dip the scooper slowly into the hole and pause.

man scooping ice slush out of ice fishing hole
When scooping the hole, wait for all of the ice and slowly lift it up. Don’t do it quickly, or you’ll just push the ice around. Do that until the hole is nice and clean.



Step 6: Bait the jig

Once you have drilled the hole and scooped out all the ice, it’s time to bait the jigs.

a hand holding jig head for ice fishing
A jig head, like these from Tailored Tackle, are great for baiting your hook with spike maggots.
baiting a jig head with spike maggots
Spike maggots are great for ice fishing and can attract a bite from many species of fish.

Once you have baited your jig, lower the lure down into the hole. Open the bale on the reel and let the line out. Fishing one to two feet off the bottom is very effective.

man letting out line ice fishing
Set your drag loosely and pull out your line until your lure is on the bottom. This helps get any kinks out of the line. Then crank the reel a few times so that your lure is one to two feet off the bottom.

Step 7: Jig the lure

man jigging ice fishing lure

The next step after lowering you lure and getting it off the bottom is to jig.

Lift your rod tim up and back down and then pause 2 to 3 seconds. That’s just a basic jig. Lift up. Drop it down. Pause 2 to 3 seconds.

You can even last a couple of seconds longer, maybe 5, 6 seconds for the pause. The bites are going to happen on the pause. So, the jigging is calling in fish and the pause is letting them come up and take a bite.

Another jigging cadence you can try is to softly jiggle it in place or work it upwards in little blips upwards just like that. So mix your jigging cadences. Try different techniques, big swoops, lift-ups, jiggling in place, or just the regular jig. Pause.

man holding bream caught while ice fishing
Wait until you feel that tap, tap, tap. Then, set the hook lightly, by lifting the rod tip up 3 to 4 inches and then reel the fish in.

Now, when a fish comes through and is interested in the bait, you’ll feel a tap, tap, tap.

It will be easier to handle the fish by taking off your mittens and using your bare hands.

When releasing the fish, kneel down and drop it into the hole. Sometimes a bigger fish will need a tail wag in the water and it will be on its way for someone else to catch!

Good luck ice fishing!

Ed Hitchcock of Tailored Tackle
Ed Hitchcock of Tailored Tackle.

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Ed Hitchcock

Ed Hitchock is a passionate fishing educator and owner of Tailored Tackle. He loves to talk tackle and help folks learn to fish for the first time or for a new species. Ed loves to bird hunt and fish the Pacific Northwest with his wife Sydney and his office manager Walter (golden retriever).

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