For fishers in northern locales, ice fishing is an appreciated diversion during the long winter months. Whether you are new to ice fishing or an experienced pro, you may be wondering what baits are available, and which ice fishing bait is best.
Ice fishing baits tend to be the same types of bait a fisher would use during warm water months. The only difference is presentation. Fish under the ice will respond positively in almost every scenario if you get the presentation right. Some baits, though, work better than others.
Each type of bait has a specific purpose in terms of a fish’s feeding cycle. Understanding what to use at different times is the key to being successful when ice fishing. This article discusses which bait is best for which kind of ice fishing.
Some Basics About Ice Fishing
Some aspects of warm water fishing just do not apply to ice fishing. You can rule out any type of bait that works primarily on the surface. With some buoyant baits, however, you can use weights to make sure that the bait stays where you want it to hang from your ice fishing hole. It’s also useful to learn about fish feeding habits.
Fish Feeding Habits
Understanding how fish feed in cold water is key to understanding what baits you will have available to you and what baits you should use. It’s a misnomer that fish hibernate or barely move once “ice-in” takes place. It is true that fish move less and that a fish’s metabolism slows down once the water gets below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
That means fish won’t feed as often. But when an easy bait presents itself, a fish will almost always at least check it out. Gone will be the manic feeding on anything that moves that is normal in July, August and even September in most places. What replaces that frenzy is a fish that is slower, more selective and less prone to reaction strikes.
It’s About Survival
When considering ice fishing bait, keep in mind that survival is the instinct that almost every fish will have, even colder water fish, as the food chain dries up. Things die in winter, especially in the environment fish inhabit. In fact, a winter habitat in a lake, pond or river is hostile to all but the hardiest of fish.
Baitfish and insects die, the thermocline disappears and shrinks, and other sources of food become scarcer. The average fish instinctively wants to use the least amount of effort to secure food because it is scarce and chasing or fighting food expends too much energy. Both of these realities mean that the average fish will do all it can to stay alive, but not much more if it can help it.
That’s not to say the average fish won’t chase down a good meal, if that meal appears to be immobile or barely mobile, injured or sick. That is why once the water temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, slowing any open water fishing down is key to hooking onto fish.
It’s a misconception that larger fish find deep pools and remain motionless until spring. A healthy fish will swim in the same water regardless of whether it is warmer or colder. It will chase bait fish up tributaries when the water warms slightly. It just won’t do so in search of food in cold water as actively as it will in cold water. Think of it as slowing down, not stopping.
Slow Means “Even Slower”
Bait in cold water or an ice fishing setting take “slow” to another level. Baitfish, for example, are struggling to stay alive in the dead of winter and will move only when absolutely necessary. That means movement will not entice most fish in an ice fishing environment.
Moving a bait a twitch every 5 to 10 minutes is not fast when talking about cold water or ice fishing. In some cases, even that will be too much. Some fish will watch bait for any tell-tale movement that indicates it could escape.
One effective way to get to the right presentation speed is to start slow and then cut your speed in half. Periodically, until you start to catch fish, cut the speed you are presenting at in half. When you get a bite, take note of the speed as that is likely the speed you need to be at to keep catching fish. Test this periodically throughout your ice fishing trip.
Also important is appearance, even more so than in warmer water. In warm water, especially if the water is above 70oF, most predatory fish will go after anything that moves as long as it looks edible. That is one reason why in late summer even the most outlandish lures tend to work.
Fish in cold water, while being the same animal, are not in the same mental or physical state. Fish in ice fishing conditions are extremely picky. Many will not even consider bait that looks unfamiliar.
That includes bait that was prevalent just a few months ago. If a bait doesn’t look like something the fish has seen recently, it usually won’t pursue that bait. So, for example, imagine in warmer weather you would use some type of lure that resembles a bug. In winter, that lure will likely not get a response because the fish in question have not seen any bug, much less that type, in months.
Different Bodies Of Water
The type of water you will be ice fishing on also affects the types of bait that are available to you. Much like it makes no sense to use most saltwater baits in freshwater, it makes no sense to use the same bait in all types of water.
When fishing a lake, for example, you should try and use baits that are or resemble the diet of the average fish in that lake. This includes baits that work in variable depths. If a fish has never seen a baitfish at 50 feet, it makes no sense to present one to it and hope for the best. Pick baits that work at various depths and are not entirely new to that lake.
With ponds, the best bait approach is somewhat different. Since most ponds are not very deep and sunlight can come into play, using baits that move around or capture the ambient light work well. Baits that are completely motionless will not usually work in a pond unless that pond has some depth to it.
Rivers present even more things to think about. With any fishing, it’s important to know where the fish are likely to be located, but even more so when ice fishing in a river. River fish tend to be highly mobile and transient, and they tend to try and stay in areas where they can ambush bait going by them.
Another issue with river ice fishing is the current. Finding a backwater is one way of getting around current issues, but if that is not possible, you must use enough weight to keep the bait fixed in one spot. If you do not, your bait will rise with your line and the current until it eventually bumps off the bottom of the ice, a place fish are not usually hanging out.
Another thing to consider before selecting any specific bait is what the state law in the place you are fishing has to say about:
- Types of baitfish you can use
- Rules about live bait
- Types of prohibited bait
- Restricted fishing areas
- Ice-in and Ice-out rules
- Open water versus closed water rules
Another thing to pay close attention to is the expiration date on your fishing license. Some states run for one year from the time of purchase. Other states run for that current year and expire at midnight on January 1. Know the type of expiration date system your state uses and make sure you update your license in accordance with the law.
Ignoring laws or rules that pertain to any of these issues can result in a warning, citation, fines and even, in some cases, criminal charges. Even if you live in the state in which you are fishing, picking up a summary of state fishing laws is never a bad idea.
Finally, as with all things fishing, safety always must play a key role in all you do on the water (in the case of ice fishing, literally on the water.) Always bear the following things in mind before venturing out onto the ice.
Not 100% Safe
Remember that ice is never 100% safe. Fissures, snow piles, and exposure to water after the surface is above freezing can all play a role in turning a seemingly safe ice shelf into a dangerous one. Other fishing activities, including taking motorized vehicles over ice, can also stress weaker spots and turn them into hazards.
Check the ice at the edge of the body of water. If there is no moving water underneath, do not venture onto the ice until it is at least 4” thick. The general rules are as follows:
- Under 4” – Stay off the ice
- 4” – On-foot activities are ok
- 5 – 7” – You can fish with a snowmobile or ATV
- 8 – 12” – You can take a car or small truck onto the ice
- 13” or more – A medium-sized truck can be brought onto the ice.
Once you have verified the ice is 4 or more inches thick, check it every 150 feet to verify that the thickness is consistent. If you hear cracking or feel any shifting of the ice, get off it as soon as you can do so safely.
Also, with major bodies of water, a state’s Fish and Game Department (or Department of Natural Resources, etc) will usually have updates on ice thickness. Local public safety officials will also usually post online or at bodies of water their reports regarding ice thickness and any safety hazards to be aware of.
Available Versus Effective
Existing bait types are pretty much universal. What bait works in what body of water is highly dependent on the characteristics of that body of water and the fish that reside in it. Bass and pickerel (as well as pike) tend to continue to exhibit highly predatory behavior, making flashy, movement-oriented baits effective.
Pickier fish, like trout, become even pickier once the water turns cold, so presentation is a major factor. Panfish, like Bluegills or sunfish will usually eat anything that looks like food that is normally caught in that body of water and is not moving quickly.
There are available forms of just about every form of bait on sale somewhere, especially through the internet. The key is to decide, out of the available bait, what baits will be the most effective for where you are ice fishing. This is particularly true with ice fishing because so many additional aspects are working against a successful fishing trip that are not present with warmer water fishing.
These tend to be hard baits that, when jigged, present movements that mimic a fish as it flutters to the bottom. By jigging it up and down, the flash will remind the target fish of dying baitfish, something they have been feasting on for several months. It’s important to work the jig slowly as any aggressive movement is likely to prompt all but the most aggressive fish to pass the bait by.
These differ from spoons in that they are not always flashy, and plastic is usually part of the presentation, whether it is in the form of a baitfish or a plastic skirt. Jigs also make use of feathers, real and manufactured, to present to the fish a wavy target.
These come plenty of different forms. Worms and minnows are the classic presentation, but crayfish, grubs, spiders, frogs – and even some types of critters that do not exist – are also popular.
The key with plastic baits when ice fishing is to make sure that the bait doesn’t harden when immersed in cold water. Even some plastics that are sold because of their flexibility can become stiff with immersed in freezing water for an extended period of time.
Stick And Crank Baits
Fished properly, stick and crank baits can be effective in ponds and lakes. They don’t work as well when ice fishing on rivers, unless you have a lot of experience doing so. The reason for this is the movement the current of a river causes, as well as the force it exerts on the bait, make it difficult to control through an ice fishing hole.
If you are going to use either type of bait, the most effective way is to make sure the bait is weighted enough to maintain its position.
The rules that apply to bait in general apply to live bait in an ice fishing scenario. Match the bait to something the fish is familiar with or will find irresistible.
Whether you collect these on your own or buy them, grubs are effective on panfish, bass and some trout. Buying them online is popular and you can find a wider selection of grubs than most locations offer.
These grub-like baits are irresistible to most panfish. In a pinch, perch and bass will eat them as well and, occasionally, a trout will give a wax worm a try. The key is in the presentation. Make sure that your wax worm does not look like a piece of meat with a hook stuck through it. That will not matter with panfish, but pickier fish will be reluctant to sample your poor presentation.
In the winter, you can find these in a few fishing oriented stores. You can also order them online. If you use night crawlers throughout the year, one suggestion is to buy a starter night crawler farm kit and grow your own. The farm is relatively low maintenance, and you can have a year-round supply of these fish magnets.
The most popular spike is a maggot. The best approach is to buy these online. There are some good fake live maggot baits on the market as well.
You can buy minnows at any tackle shop. Your state’s Fish & Game Department will probably have a list of retail outlets that sell minnows year-round. Using one on a state sanctioned list will also ensure that you fish within the law. Some types of minnows are prohibited by some states from being used as live bait.
Chunks Of Meat
These types of bait are not alive, but if they give off an odor or any blood, chances are they will work with at least the more voracious fish. As with all live bait, make sure the cold water does not end up freezing the bait to the point that it’s no longer effective.
As with any bait, presentation is key. Asking local fishers for advice on what baits work best on what bodies of water is also a good idea. If you follow this guide and the local advice, you are almost guaranteed to catch some fish.
Hopefully, this will help you select the right type of bait to use during your next ice fishing trip. But more importantly, it will ensure that you can use that bait in the most effective manner.