Ice fishing tips

Ice fishing tips

David Sparks Ph.D.
David Sparks Ph.D.
Ice fishing can be pretty darned simple. Drill a hole, drop a baited hook  and wait for a fish to bite. It really can be that simple if you’re just starting. But like all fishing, there are more ice fishing skills you can learn to catch more fish, and those skills can come from trial-and-error experience, or learning from experts.

If you're brand new to ice fishing and want to learn more, including ice fishing safety, see our ice fishing webpage. 

It should come as no surprise that Idaho Fish and Game fisheries biologists like to fish, and they’re pretty good at it. Fortunately for novice and experienced anglers, they’re also willing to share their knowledge.

Rig your rods and tip-ups while you are still at home. It’s always easier in the warmth of your house rather than on the ice. A five-gallon bucket works well to keep rods/tip-ups organized, and a sled is a great way to transport your gear onto the ice.

Download a boating navigation app with maps of the lake you are fishing. Maps often show bottom contours of the lake (like a topographic map) so you can identify major features like points, humps, ledges or flats where fish might congregate. The map can also give you an estimate of the water depth.

Checking depth with a lead depth finder, or some electronic depth finder and keep your bait within 12 inches of the bottom. When moving to a new location, refresh your bait, or changing jigs.

Keep moving and drilling new holes unless the bite is steady. Fish often concentrate in one area, or move slowly in schools. You may catch a fish within the first few moments of fishing a new hole, and then you won’t catch anything else for a long time. You can return to the already-drilled holes later and try again to see if a new fish or school has moved into the area.

If you’re unfamiliar with where you’re fishing and don’t know where fish are likely to be, start shallow and work your way to deeper water. Drill new holes every 15-20 minutes or so if you don’t get bites and keep going.

Fish tend to bite better at the beginning of low pressure weather systems, so watch winter weather patterns and time your fishing trip with one. Eric Stark, Natural Resource Program Coordinator.

Whether fishing for trout, perch, or other species, try some jigs or hooks with bait, and some with only a jig head. And try different jig types to see if fish key in on a particular style or color. Sometimes the largest fish can be caught on the smallest of micro-jigs.

Fishing with worms is always a good bet, but you only need a small piece (1-2 inches) to catch most panfish and trout. Cutting a worm into usable chunks is much easier with a small pair of scissors.

Put out several tip-up rigs with a chunk of nightcrawler on a hook suspended a few feet under the ice in lakes with trout. It can be incredibly effective way to catch trout, and kids (and kids at heart) love to race for a flag when a fish hits it.

When it comes to terminal tackle, smaller is better. Use small hooks and small baits. Keep in mind that fish are not as active under the ice as they are during open water conditions. They are cold, and everything slows down including appetite. Also, the food available to fish under the ice is often small in winter, so stick to smaller offerings, which can still catch the lunkers.

When you suspect there are fish around you, but don’t see them on the fish finder, try “ringing the dinner bell” by repeatedly dropping a jig into the muddy bottom of the lake to stir up as much mud as you can. It can wake up the fish and get them biting. Learn how to set up a couple of slip bobber set ups with micro jigs.  Even kids can see the subtlest of bites.

When fishing is on fire, it can be hard to manage multiple rods, but there’s no reason not to do it. But when the bite is slow, you can maximize your coverage by maximizing the number of rods you have out. The limit is five per angler.

Use a double-surgeon’s knot to fish multiple hooks. This is a very easy knot to learn and is an easy way to add a second, or third hook  without the need for extra tackle. Cut an 18-inch section off your line, and tie in the double surgeon’s knot. Then tie a jig to the “tag” of the surgeon’s knot that faces the end of the line. Add a second jig to the very end of the line below it. Fishing two smaller jigs on the same line can help reach the bottom quicker, and can help detect light bites by keeping the line a bit tighter. Plus, you can fish different colors, depths, or baits at the same time to figure out what’s working more quickly.

If using multiple rods, actively fish one of them. Fish will often hit the jigged rod more than the stationary sets, but there are also times when a stationary presentation does better. Kevin Meyer, Principal Fisheries Research Biologist

Vary your jigging style from less active to more active, or bigger lifts to smaller lifts, until you find a movement pattern that seems to work best. Sometimes fish like to hit your jig when you are lifting it, so try frequently lifting the jig several feet at a time, then go back to the start and try again.

Vary your depth of jigging; most people jig at or near the bottom, but there are times, especially with trout, when mid-column, or even surface fishing (just under the ice) works better.

If you are fishing multiple rods and can only jig one of them, periodically switch which rod you are jigging, or at least make the rounds to move them all a little bit with a couple jigs of the rod. If one rod isn’t working well with active jigging, switch to actively jigging another rod. Sometimes you will see a bite on a stationary rod that you just jigged a few times and set back down.

Vary the jigs between big and small, flashy, colorful, or drab. Tip these lures with different bait too, such as wax worms on one rod, night crawlers on another rod, then meal worms, power bait, etc.

When attempting to land a big fish, stick your ice fishing rod into the ice hole to prevent the line from breaking off on the sharp ice at the bottom edge of the hole.

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