Get Hooked on a New Hobby: Learn to Ice Fish
By Matt Horsley, Fisheries Management Biologist
As fall ends and Indiana’s water begins to rapidly cool, many anglers hang up their hats and quit fishing for the year. But some just trade their ball caps for toboggans.
While the thought of sitting on the ice bundled up may not appeal to everyone, many appreciate winter for its angling opportunities. They have found that once the lakes and rivers freeze over, fish will likely bite just as well, and sometimes better, than in summer.
Even though fish metabolisms slow down during the winter, fish still feed, and with the scarcity of forage, they may be more eager to strike at bait. All of this and more makes ice fishing a simple and inexpensive hobby that can be fun for the whole family.
If you go, be sure to put safety first. Whether you are the first one on the lake or are moving to a new area of the water to fish, use extreme caution, especially during early icing. Remember that ice thickness varies around a lake—in many places ice may not be thick enough to walk on. Shorelines, bays, and channels always tend to freeze earlier than other large parts of a lake. Use an ice spud or auger to determine thickness. Four inches of clear, solid ice is the minimum recommended to safely walk on. Below are a few other tips to follow to stay safe on the ice.
- Fish with a partner so that someone can call for help in case of an emergency.
- Carry ice picks to help pull yourself out if you fall through the ice.
- Wear ice cleats to avoid slipping, falling, and hurting yourself.
- Notify others where you will be fishing and when you expect to return.
- Wear a life jacket or flotation device and carry rope in case of an emergency.
Once you have thought through your safety plan, you may wonder what equipment you need. Don’t worry about cost—ice fishing doesn’t have to be expensive. If you want to target panfish like bluegill or crappie, all you need to get started is an ice auger and ice scoop; a short, sensitive fishing rod; jigs; bait; and a bucket or sled to haul everything onto the ice. You can easily drill a hole with a hand-crank auger. For panfish, a 6-inch auger will suffice, and small micro jigs, like teardrops tipped with a wax worm or spike, which you can buy at your local bait and tackle shop, typically work best.
If you want to fish for other species like bass, walleye, or pike, you may need heavier equipment, such as a medium- to heavy-action jigging rod with a larger spoon or a jig tipped with a minnow. But don’t let the tools fool you—catching bigger fish doesn’t have to be complicated. Many anglers stick with the passive technique of using a plastic or wood tip-up, set over a hole, equipped with a signal flag, and tipped with a minnow. When a fish bites and begins to run, it trips the flag. This technique can work in combination with jigging for a successful day.
As you get more familiar with the sport, upgrading your tools can help improve your odds of catching more fish. Check out one of the several brands of sonars and flashers on the market that can sense your bait in the water as well as the fish near it. These devices can help you find fish faster and tell you if there are any structures under your hole in the ice near which fish could be congregating. In general, fish tend to prefer places with weed beds, logs, or breaks, so knowing where these areas are may help increase your catch.
If you aren’t catching fish in one hole, don’t be afraid to move around, keeping safety in mind, of course. You can drill more holes in other areas, starting at depths of 10 to 15 feet of water and adjusting from there. You can even sneak a peek at other anglers near you—their locations may provide a good sense of where fish may be.
Remember to stay toasty between catches. With the proper equipment, ice fishing can be a warm and comfortable experience. You can bring a small heater and use an ice shanty or other easily set-up portable shelter to stay out of the wind, making your ice fishing trip much more enjoyable.
Whether you are working to catch a mess of bluegills or standing around telling stories with your friends or family as you wait for the next flag on your tip-up, ice fishing is an excellent way to spend a winter day.