How Ice Fishing Works

By: Stephanie Watson
Men ice skating outdoors in winter.
Fishing Image Gallery These fishermen on Lake Riley, Minn. know ice fishing is as much about socializing as it is about catching fish. See more fishing pictures.
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It's the middle of winter, and it's far too cold outside to play golf or shoot some hoops. So what do you do? How about grabbing a few buddies, hauling a portable shelter onto the middle of a frozen lake, drilling a hole in the ice and sitting around drinking beer while you wait for the fish to bite?

Ice fishing is as much about camaraderie and getting in a little recreation during the frigid winter months as it is about the sport of fishing. For purists, ice fishing is as basic as making a hole, setting up a line and sitting on a stool waiting for the fish to bite. Those who need a few creature comforts build more robust ice houses (some fully stocked with refrigerators and satellite TVs) to keep them busy until the fish decide to make an appearance.


Ice fishing has come a long way since the time native peoples began cutting holes into the frozen Great Lakes to find food. While their goals were purely sustenance-driven, modern ice fishing is mainly about sport (although many people do eat what they catch).

Ice fishing is popular in northern Europe, as well as across North America (Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, New Hampshire, Ohio, New York and Canada). Some of the most popular North American ice-fishing lakes are Lake Simcoe in Canada (the self-proclaimed "ice-fishing capital" of the east), Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota (where, in a typical winter, some 5,000 shelters crowd the ice), Lake Champlain in New York, Lake Houghton in Michigan and Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

So how do you stay warm when you're fishing on a frozen lake? What equipment will you need? And is ice fishing dangerous? You'll find out in this article.


Ice Fishing Equipment

Sainte-Anne-de-la-Perade River
Ice shelters dot Sainte-Anne-de-la-Perade River in Mauricie County, Quebec.
Yves Marcoux/ First Light/Getty Images

With frigid temperatures and ice several inches thick, ice fishing requires more than a bucket, fishing rod and some bait. Before you embark on an ice fishing expedition, you'll need to bring along a few essentials like a shelter, stool or chair, sled, propane heater, flashlight and compass -- and that's just to help you get out on the ice, stay comfortable and find your way back home. You'll also need your basic fishing gear: a rod, line and reels, as well as bait, lures, buckets and your fishing license (most states won't let you fish without one). Fishing on the ice, however, requires additional gear. A spud bar is a hand tool used to check ice thickness. An auger is a screw-like device that cuts into the ice. A skimmer or scoop ladles slush out of the hole. And a gaff hook pulls fish through the small hole.

The hardiest ice fishermen will sit right out on the ice and wait for a catch. But for those who want a little -- or a lot of -- protection against the elements, several different types of shelters are available.


An ice fishing shelter looks a bit like a small tent. This portable structure has an aluminum frame covered in canvas, with zippered doors on both ends and clear vinyl windows. Some ice fishing shelters fold into a type of suitcase so that they can be easily carried to the lake. Though it isn't solid, an ice shelter can keep you -- and possibly a friend -- out of the wind.

An ice shanty is a small shelter made of wood or plastic. You can make it yourself or rent it from a sport fishing store. It measures about 6 feet by 6 feet, and is tall enough to stand in. Some shanties have a bench inside.

The most elaborate shelter is the ice fishing house, which you can either rent or tow on a trailer and lower down to the ice. Some are as big as 8 by 16 feet and can accommodate four or more people. This permanent structure has aluminum or wood siding, and comes equipped with many of the comforts of home -- propane heat, sleeping bunks, carpeting, lighting, a kitchen and bathrooms with a toilet and shower. The more souped-up models can cost as much as $30,000 U.S. These have luxurious accessories such as hardwood floors, cathedral ceilings and even satellite TV. The television can even be hooked up to an underwater camera to keep tabs on the fish's whereabouts.

During the winter months, lakes in the northern climates turn into frozen villages of ice fishing shelters, shanties and houses. But all of these shelters need to go back to land at the end of the winter; otherwise, they'll end up in the bottom of the lake during the spring thaw.

In the next section, we'll learn the basic steps of ice fishing.


Ice Fishing Basics

Ice fishing in Norway.
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.


The Dangers of Ice Fishing

Ice fishing.
It's important to bundle up while ice fishing.
GeoStock/Photodisc/Getty Images

Ice fishing isn't all fun and satellite TV. It can be dangerous if you don't do it right. If the ice is too thin, you or your vehicle can fall in. Other risks include carbon monoxide poisoning from improperly used heaters and frostbite from exposure to the cold and wind. (For more information on cold survival, click here).

When ice fishing, you should dress in layers. Not only will the layers trap heat, but you can remove one piece at a time if you get warm. Start with a bottom layer made from a material that will keep you dry, such as polypropylene. Add a heavy shirt, pants, and socks. Top them with a wool or fleece sweater. Make sure to cover your extremities, which are the first to get frostbite. Wear lined mittens and a wool hat that covers your ears. And don't forget your waterproof boots (which should be roomy enough to fit an extra pair of socks) and creepers -- spiked shoes that help keep you upright on the ice.


Before you head out, check the ice with an auger, measuring tape or stick. The ice should be at least 3 to 6 inches thick to walk on, at least 7 inches thick to drive on with a car and 10 inches thick to drive on with a truck. As you walk onto the ice, make test holes with an auger or spud at regular intervals to make sure it hasn't thinned out. Avoid areas of cracked ice, and listen for loud booms or cracks, which could indicate that the ice is shifting dangerously. Never fish alone, and bring along a rope, blankets and a first-aid kit in case anyone falls in.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Breining, Greg. "Wintertime, and Fishing is Easy." The New York Times, February 15, 2008.
  • Ellis, Gord. "Electronics on Ice." Ontario Out of Doors, December 2003/January 2004; Vol. 35, Iss. 10; pg. 46.
  • Ice Fishing World. "Ice Fishing Equipment."
  • Kling, Kevin. "Hook, Line & Television." Smithsonian, February 2006, vol. 36, iss. 11, pgs. 78-82.
  • Lamb, Bob. "Ice Fishing Derbies Heat Up." La Crosse Tribune, February 1, 2008.
  • Mulligan, Don. "Practice Your Good Etiquette on the Ice.", December 28, 2007.
  • Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Ice Fishing Guide.
  • Stang, Doug and Kelly. "Fish on Ice." New York State Conservationist; February 2000, pgs. 22-25.
  • Vick, Noel. Fishing on Ice. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000.
  • Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "Everything You Need to Know About Ice Fishing."