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Ice Fishing 101

Ice Fishing 101

Looking to get started with ice fishing? Here's the lowdown...

Many people think of ice fishing as a cold way to spend a day sitting on a bucket while waiting for a fish to swim by, but this is a common misconception. Portable ice huts, heaters, electronics, underwater cameras, and in some states what you might consider a “tiny” house can all be towed onto the ice so that you can comfortably ice fish in style. Thanks in part to technology, the sport has grown in popularity over the last decade and you can buy just about any gadget you can think of to enhance your experience. Some of you may be intimidated by ice fishing because you don’t have any experience or know how to get started. However, you truly only need a little bit of knowledge on attire, safety, equipment, tackle and fish behavior to get started and see success!

Ice Fishing Clothing

The first key to having a good ice fishing experience is being dressed appropriately. Layering is important so that you can shed when active or warm, but still have extra insulation when needed. If you hunt, ski, or do any activities in the cold, you probably already have the layers you need:

  • A variety of materials will work as a base layer: long johns, thermals, etc.
  • Feet are usually the first part of the body to get cold so a good pair of wool socks will keep your feet dry and warm.
  • Sweat pants and a sweatshirt or hoodie work well for a second layer
  • The last layer is a shell that should have some water and windproof properties.

Guided Ice Fishing vs. Renting Equipment

Two options to consider when getting into this sport are renting equipment or going on a guided ice fishing trip. A good ice fishing guide will have all of the equipment, put you on fish, and show you how to effectively catch those fish, which can result in a great first experience! Renting is cheaper than a guided trip, but leaves the fish finding and catching up to you. Good places to check out for rentals are bait/tackle stores, marinas and some fishing guide companies. If you can’t find anybody who rents equipment in your area, don’t fret. You can get started for relatively cheap.

Ice Fishing Gear

The following items are merely suggestions and substitutions can be made accordingly. The essentials for getting started include:

  • an ice fishing rod (24-28” medium action is a good all-around rod)
  • a smaller reel that matches
  • a few small spoons and jigs
  • bait
  • five gallon bucket
  • a spud or pry bar
  • an ice scoop or small fish net
  • a few safety items

Ice Fishing Safety

Safety is the number one priority when ice fishing. The majority of the time conditions are “safe” or stable, but conditions can change quickly when you get temperatures over 32 degrees and wind. It’s smart to always carry:

  • 100’ of rope
  • a throwable flotation device or a life vest
  • some life picks (unique tool to help you pull yourself out of the ice)
  • a fish finder
  • a spud bar

Although it’s not mandatory, a fish finder is worth its weight in gold! If you can rent one or borrow one from a friend, it will greatly increase your success (more on this later).

A spud bar serves two purposes. First, you can use it to test the ice as you make your way out to your fishing spot. Second, you can use it to make a hole in the ice. It is fairly effective for ice up to 10.” A manual or power auger is the best tool for ice that exceeds 10” in thickness.

When judging ice thickness, most people would agree that 3.5” of clear, hard ice is “safe” enough to support ice fishing upon it. However, ice thickness can vary as a result of springs, currents, rocks, weeds and a variety of other things so that’s why it is important to test the ice as you go.

Ice fishing with a partner is a good idea. The person who goes first and tests the ice should wear a life vest while the second person tags behind 30-50 yards with the rope and 5 gallon bucket full of gear.


Once you find a good spot to set up, use the spud bar to chip a hole in the ice. A hole roughly 6” in diameter is typically big enough for most applications. The small fish net can be used to clear ice out of your hole (keep the hands warm and dry) and it can aid in landing fish. Once empty, a 5 gallon bucket can be flipped upside down and used as a seat.

Choosing An Ice Fishing Spot

When choosing a lake to target, it is a good idea to go to your local tackle or outdoor shop and get a feel for what local bodies of water have been seeing the best fishing as well as get some advice on what jigs/lures have been working. You don’t need a lot of jigs/lures, just a few of the “right” ones and it’s always good to have a little variety as the local conditions can dictate fish mood and color or size preference. Each species of fish behaves differently and prefers different types of structure.

Another great resource is an underwater topo map. Topo maps haven’t been created for all bodies of water (especially smaller lakes), but if you can find one, it will help you identify several good starting locations before you get to the lake. If you can create a game plan before you get to the water it will help you keep focused and be aggressive enough to find the fish.

As mentioned earlier, a fish finder will greatly increases your odds for success. This tool will reveal several important details, such as if there are fish in the area, how deep they are coming through, and how they are reacting to your presentation. These clues allow you to eliminate “dead” water, get in the “strike zone,” and change presentations until you figure out exactly what the fish want.

If you can’t find access to a fish finder and don’t want to buy one as a beginner, there is a way to “cheat.” Some lakes have clear water where you can see anywhere from 5-20’ deep. If the water is clear, you can lay on the ice and put a coat over your head (or something to cut the glare) to watch your presentation and see what is coming through. An old yoga mat or sleeping pad is great to lay on and helps insulate you from the ice, but is not completely necessary. When there is heavy fish activity, this technique can make it seem as if you are watching an aquarium!

Ice Fishing Shelters

Once you are ready to make an investment in some ice fishing equipment, another way to cut the glare without having to lay on the ice is by using a portable ice hut or ice shanty. These relatively affordable huts can house 1 to 6 people and are typically darker in color to eliminate the glare while keep you out of the elements. Add a heater and there will be times you can fish in a t-shirt while it’s below freezing outside!

More Advanced Ice Fishing Equipment

Ice suits, ice fishing sleds, tip-ups, jigging machines, underwater cameras, gas augers, propane augers, electric augers, Automatic Fishermen, and Jaw Jackers are just some of the options available for the full blown ice fishing addict, but none of those are necessary. In the beginning, simplicity is key and after a few times out on the ice you will see that it is a great sport for almost all ages and experience levels that can provide some incredible views and great fishing action!

Robby Richardson is a fishing and hunting specialist in Colorado who guides his clients on fishing trips and helps them with real estate across the state. To book a fishing adventure with him, visit Sport Fish Colorado.

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