How Ice Fishing Works

Ice Fishing Basics

A man in Norway uses an auger to bore a hole in the ice.
A man in Norway uses an auger to bore a hole in the ice.
Terje Rakke/The Image Bank/Getty Images

You have your fishing license. You've stocked up on all the gear and trudged out to the edge of a frozen lake. Now what? The first thing to do is narrow down where the fish are congregating. If you see other fishermen who seem to be having success, you can head in their direction. But if the lake is empty, a map showing water depths or a depth finder can help you locate the best spots, depending on what types of fish you're looking to catch.

Once you've found a good spot, you'll need to make a hole. The hole should be 6 to 8 inches in diameter. Anything bigger and someone could fall in accidentally. You can drill through the ice with an auger or chip away at it with a spud bar. Once you have a hole, you can widen it with an ice chisel and keep it clear of any ice that accumulates during the day with a skimmer.

Just as you would on any fishing expedition, you'll need a pole with a reel, line and bobber (a small float with bait attached that goes on the end of the line). The ice fishing pole is shorter than one you'd use during the summer because you can't cast into a small hole.

There are two basic types of ice fishing poles:

  • A tip-up pole is made from wood or plastic. It has a long stick with a reel and a trigger device that hangs into the hole. A flag is attached to a spring at the top of the stick. When a fish bites, the spring activates and the flag goes up in the air to let you know you have a catch. With a tip-up pole, you can go get a beverage, use the bathroom or watch a few minutes of a football game without missing a single fish.
  • A jigging rod looks more like a traditional fishing pole, only it's lighter and shorter -- only about 2 feet long. You move these poles up and down every few seconds to bounce the bait and get the fish's attention.

To catch a fish, you need bait. Small fish (like minnows, chubs and shiners) make good lures, as do wax worms, fly larvae, grubs, meat (such as raw beef or fish) and artificial lures. They type of fish you catch varies from lake to lake, but panfish (like bluegill, crappie, yellow perch and sunfish), northern pike, walleye and lake trout are all common.

The nice thing about fishing in the winter is that you don't have to worry about your catch spoiling. You can just leave it on the ice until you're ready to cook it or head home.

But what if you fall though the ice? Find out about the dangers of ice fishing in the next section.