4 Things You Didn’t Know About Ice Fishing

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What Is Ice Fishing?

In its most basic definition, ice fishing involves drilling through the ice and lying in wait for a fish to take the bait during cold winter conditions. There are three primary ways to get those fish: you can either use a traditional rod and reel approach, tip down flags, or you can opt for a spear. The spear fishing method is the least common of the three as it takes quite a bit more skill.

For tip down ice fishing, a spool of line is attached to a small pole -often made of wood or plastic-and then fed down the hole with the bait attached. A flag is secured on the same pole, which will tip up or down depending on the style of the tip-up, signifying a fish has taken the bait and is ready for you to hook and bring in.

Those who ice fish have quite an arsenal of methods at their disposal to make the best of winter conditions. This ties in with the historical need for food throughout the winter months when tracking land mammals was much more difficult to do. Ice fishing has a rich history based in survival, but the experience that one is after will vary from one culture to another.

In general, this complex form of fishing is best learned from a seasoned expert who understands the cold conditions associated with the sport. Knowing how to protect yourself from the cold, as well as having knowledge of safe ice depths, is essential to enjoying this historic pastime.

How Does Ice Fishing Work?

By PRESSLAB/Shutterstock

A ‘how to’ for ice fishing begins with a very simple concept: drill through the ice and fish. This is the heart of the sport, but of course there is a lot more to it than just dropping your line down a hole. There are many tools available to you, including an array of specialized augers to assist in drilling through the ice. Some augers are used by hand, but many are motor-powered that help speed up the process immensely.

Once a hole is cut, it’s a matter of deciding on which of the three methods you are pursuing, as mentioned above.

Unlike both rod and reel and tip down methods, spear fishing relies entirely on seeing the fish with your own eyes. When a fish comes within sight, the angler tosses a spear-often with four or five points on the end-attached to a line, aiming to pierce the fish before reeling it up.

As for the other two approaches, you are more or less blind to fish movement beneath the ice. However, watching any kind of ice fishing show will prove just how many tools there are available to you to make up for that lack of visuals.

For example, what is becoming a popular device for modern ice fishing anglers is the use of flashers. Ice fishing guides often use a flasher as, unlike a regular fish finder, your bait is displayed in addition to fish, via sonar technology. This means you can actually see how close a fish is to biting your own bait even if it’s dark: a very handy tool for those who want a little more guidance and better chance for results.

Ice fishing articles often go into great depth on the transportation angle. Since one cannot use a boat on the ice, it is a common practice to bring a sled, snowmobile, or even an ATV to help get to the places you want to be. In some cases where the ice is at least a foot thick, it can be safe to drive vehicles out onto the ice, increasing not only the space you can cover but the amount of gear you can bring out with you. However, a huge amount of caution and expertise is needed before anyone should feel comfortable taking a vehicle out on the ice.

Today’s ice fishing anglers have, for the most part, left behind the method of sitting out in the open on a stool next to the hole. In the United States and Canada, ice shelters are used to block out the cold, often in the form of an ice hut or shanty. Traditionally these shelters have been made of wood or metal, dragged out and planted on a single lake for the season. Holes are dug out inside, and often heaters are brought in, creating a warmer environment for the angler to either jig with a rod and reel, or take part in ice fishing tip down.

Nowadays, technological advances have led to a revolution in portable ice shelters, allowing anglers to try out different lakes throughout the winter, rather than being tied down to one lake. These huts are usually made of tent-like material, either kept in a large bag or built around a sled for easy transportation.

For those looking for an even more high-tech fishing experience, you can try out ice fishing trailers outfitted with bathrooms and televisions and a host of other modern amenities that greatly increase the comfort level.

Where Is Ice Fishing Possible?

By Fuss Sergey/Shutterstock

This type of fishing is practiced in nearly all places where ice is thick enough to support the weight of several humans. The most common ice fishing countries include Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, Poland, Germany, Ukraine and other nations in Europe.

The joys of ice fishing vary from country-to-country. For example, in Finland, ice fishing plans often include nothing more than the gear, a cold weatherproof suit, and a stool or chair. The Finnish find this sport to be one that allows them a great deal of personal reflection and deep thinking, as opposed to the typical North American philosophy, where the sport is more often viewed as a social activity with movement. The North American style therefore fits alongside the style of summer fishing on a boat.

Thanks to portable ice fishing, it is much easier to traverse the Great Lakes that lie between Canada and the United States, an ice fishing hot spot. Both American and Canadian ice fishing branches out into smaller bodies of water as well. Lake ice fishing gives many North Americans a brisk and cold activity that keeps them close to nature.

No matter where in the world one chooses to go, finding the best ice fishing information is going to involve either intense research, good ice fishing reports, or getting shown the ropes from a local veteran of the sport. For those who do not know someone personally they can learn from, there are ice fishing resorts that can help you get acquainted with the sport, while at the same time providing excellent amenities.

Is Ice Fishing Safe?

In short, yes. If you have the right ice fishing information you should be fairly safe, but it is recommended you do not attempt to go out alone if you are new to the sport. Checking the ice depth, and knowing what weight that ice can hold, is the most important piece of knowledge you can have when undertaking this popular pastime. Be sure to chip a small hole before you step out onto the ice to check the depth, otherwise you risk falling through the ice. Even with the right ice fishing info, it is possible to find oneself in a tragic situation, so take precautions and always abide with the local regulations.

As recently as 2009, over 100 anglers found themselves stranded on a plate of ice that broke away on the Great Lakes. They were eventually rescued by the Coast Guard, but not before one of them died in flight to the hospital after falling in. Hypothermia is a real possibility, so always keep in mind the danger of this sport and be aware of all risks you are taking.


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Jack Bollinger
Born in Massachusetts, Jack is an avid fisherman most of his life. He is currently a fishing guide in the bay of California. He has been fishing for more than 40 years and fly-fishing for more than 30. His favorite fish to catch is the rainbow trout and small-mouth bass. He has earned many top places in different lake fishing competitions.

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