Ice fishing is a great way to spend the winter months when open water fishing is not an option. It allows a fisher to continue to enjoy time outdoors, learn more about fish and fishing and use up some downtime before spring fishing kicks in. But ice fishing can be tough for beginners.
4 beginner friendly ice fishing starter kit ideas are:
- Rod, reel and line
- Jigs, spoons, live and plastic bait
For most people, ice fishing is a substitute and not a replacement for open water fishing. Because of that, they assume ice fishing gear is the same as open water fishing gear. While that can work, having the right gear can make all the difference. Below is a rundown of the basics for beginners.
Table of Contents
4 Ice Fishing Starter Kit Ideas
An auger creates the hole(s) through which your line and bait are extended down into the water. Augers can be hand or motor powered.
A hand powered auger requires quite a bit of exertion as the twisting into the ice requires muscles and stamina. Generally, if the ice is very thick, the desired hole is very large, or if the person doing the operation of the auger is not in at least moderately good shape, a hand auger is not recommended.
If, however, the ice fisher can operate one with no worries, starting out with a hand powered ice auger is a good idea. This way, if the new ice angler hates it, they’ve not spent too much money on an auger that will rarely be used.
A motorized auger is powered by electricity in the form of a battery or by a traditional motor that runs on gas. A good, motorized auger costs a few hundred dollars, which makes it a questionable purchase until the fisher has decided they love to ice fish.
The reason for that, as mentioned above, is that most people do not have a pressing need for an auger. For many, ice fishing is the only time a motorized auger will be used and there are better and more useful pieces of ice fishing equipment to spend money on.
2. Rod, Reel And Line
Ice fishing has similar but different equipment requirements in terms of rods, reels and line. Below is what you need to know about each.
Ice fishing rods are shorter than regular rods. An ice fishing rod ranges from 24 to 36 inches in length. They are typically spinning rods as the primary activity an ice fishing rod will be used for, apart from helping to land a fish, is jigging. There is no casting involved.
Ice fishing rods are made of graphite or fiberglass, two materials that are strong but will remain flexible in cold weather. The most useful ice fishing rods tend to be ultra-light as an ultra-light ice fishing rod will show even the slightest bite from a fish. A less sensitive rod can’t feel a bite because fish tend to be less aggressive in colder water.
The exception is if you are fishing for larger fish, like northern pike. In that case, a heavier, less sensitive rod will be a better choice in terms of stability and strength. It should be noted that you can land a large fish on an ultra-light rod, but it is far easier to do it with a rod built for big fish.
There are several types of reels on the market for ice fishing. The best one for durability and versatility is a spinning reel. It is also one of the easiest to use, which is convenient for cold weather use where things can become brittle and stiff, including exposed fingers.
Another option if simplicity is the priority is a fly fishing reel. With a fly fishing reel, a fish on the line can be fed enough line to run without having to mess with drag, which even a spinning reel must contend with.
The drawback is that fly fishing reels often have inherent drag, which can impede bait from getting down deep enough. When this happens, the fisher must hand lower the bait, which if the area being fished is very deep, can be tiresome.
Because ice fishing bait is normally dropped into position, any reel that lets line out at a reasonable pace and is a simple retrieve when bringing the bait in will work. The term “reasonable pace,” however, is important.
That term eliminates baitcasting reels for the most part. If the fisher miscalculates the rate of drop the line can get ahead of the spool of line, which can result in a “bird’s nest” knot. Unraveling a bird’s nest in great weather can be frustrating. Trying to do it with gloves on or with bare hands in the cold can be downright maddening.
The only other consideration for an ice fishing reel is the size. It should be big enough to handle larger fish, but not dwarf the rod. A good way to assess the size is to use the same intuition used when selecting a warm water rod and reel. You may not know when you get the perfect fit, but you sure know when a reel or rod is outsized in comparison.
Just as you assess the reel size in comparison to the rod, your line should reflect your reel size. If you are using an ultra-light reel, you do not want to have 30 lb-test line as it is too thick. The fact that fish are lethargic and ultra-cautious in cold water should also be kept in mind.
Use A Lighter Line
Fish caught in cold water don’t fight nearly as hard as those caught during the height of summer heat. That means the strength of fishing line can be significantly less than what would be normal in warmer water.
If an angler uses 8 or 10 lb-test in warmer water, for example, they can easily get away with line that is 4 or 6 lb-test. In some cases, depending on the target fish, fishers can go lower than that.
Because ice allows anglers to get to wherever they want on a lake (while following the highest safety standards,) they can fish areas that they might not normally be able to access.
This often means they can fish in deeper water than they normally would fish. As a result, it is a good idea to use light enough line to provide ample room for the bait to reach the bottom of a body of water and more line to let a fish play it out when hooked.
This serves as another reason to use lighter pound test line. The lighter the line, the more line that can be spooled onto the line spool of a fishing reel.
Use Ice Fishing Line
You want to use line that is made for ice fishing. The reason for this is that ice fishing line is treated to prevent freezing. Regular line will freeze and become very difficult to work with and can even become brittle enough to break. With that said, all ice fishing line can freeze if it is cold enough, so making sure your line can withstand the average temperature where you live is important.
3. Jigs, Spoons, Live And Plastic Bait
Ice fishing generally entails three techniques regarding bait presentation. There are iterations of presentation, but just about every common ice fishing bait presentation comes in the form of one of these three techniques.
Suspending bait is exactly as it sounds. A weighted bait is lowered to the bottom of a body of water, then raised off the bottom anywhere from a few inches to several feet. The bait is left in its position to “hang” and the ice fisher will “twitch” it occasionally.
To twitch the bait, the angler will use a very short jerking motion, using only enough force to slightly move the bait. A good rule of thumb when twitching, whether fishing in warm or cold water, is to move the bait less than one inch in any direction. The purpose of this is to give the bait the appearance of being alive and consciously choosing to remain suspended in the water column.
With fluttering, the bait is lowered the same way as when twitching but is left to free fall from about 10 feet above the bottom. Once it has settled on the bottom, it is raised slowly every minute or so and allowed to drop, fluttering on its way down.
This mimics a dying baitfish, which sport fish are used to seeing. Baitfish usually die off in large numbers when the water gets cold. As the bait fish dies, it attempts to swim away, but usually is not strong enough except for very short bursts of energy.
Sport fish watch these fish and wait for a chance to eat them. When a spoon or jig is fluttered, it resembles those dying fish and often tricks sport fish into biting.
This method entails dropping the bait and letting it sit on the bottom or just above it. The bait is not moved, except very occasionally. It is not uncommon when ice fishing to let an artificial bait soak in the water motionless for five or even ten minutes. This works because in cold water all fish try and conserve energy.
Because of that, fish tend to be very careful of anything that looks like bait and patiently wait and see if the bait appears to be real. If it appears to be authentic, the fish will bite.
These three approaches are those most commonly used by ice fishers. Next, let’s discuss the right kinds of lures to use for ice fishing.
A jig can be any type of artificial bait that has a hook and some sort of attractant attached to the hook. Most jigs are weighted. To fish them, the jig should be suspended and jerked up and down using various tempos. For example, one of the most popular jigs for bass is the swim jig.
A swim jig has a molded metal head that serves as a weight and usually a skirt of plastic or rubberized tassels attached to the shank of the hook. It is used in warmer water by “hopping” it across a bottom or with a slower retrieve that holds the jig at a certain water level but lets the jig fall when the retrieval stops.
Often, a plastic bait like a swimbait or tube is attached to the swim jig. This gives it the added appearance of something that is moving that resembles a swimming animal. Most bass find them irresistible when presented properly.
A swim jig works for just about any fish. It also works in cold water. When suspended and twitched, a swim jig can be very effective under the ice. When a swimbait or tube is added, while the presentation must be much slower, it can be just as effective when used ice fishing.
Apart from the swim jig, there are several other types of jigs. These include jigs that use live bait, feathers, yarn, swimbaits with no skirt, etc.
Choosing Your Jig
The essence of jig selection is to realize that if it is presented in a way fish are attracted to it, a jig can be made of just about any combination of materials. Matching the jig to the fish you are pursuing or, if you are open to catching whatever bites, matching what works locally is key.
Presenting a jig that is completely foreign to the fish in question is a recipe for failure when ice fishing. During peak open water season, hungry fish might go after just about anything. In colder water, however, they stifle their urges and focus their pursuit of bait to what looks familiar and is easy to catch.
Spoons also come in all sorts of sizes, shapes and colors. A spoon is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a metal bait that is shaped like the scoop of a spoon. These are used to suspend and jerk, flutter, and even hop off the bottom. The purpose of a fishing spoon is to resemble a flash of reflected light off the side of a baitfish. Therefore, using the spoon in many ways can be productive.
One effective method is to use the “dying baitfish” strategy and lift a spoon about six inches off the bottom and let it fall back. Do this once every 20 seconds or so. Another effective tactic is to jerk the spoon up and let it fall to a suspended depth repeatedly. Jerk it up about every 30 seconds (adapt the timing to meet the activity of the fish) and let it fall back to its suspended height.
Live bait for ice fishing is as diverse as live bait for warm water fishing. Just about anything that moves or gives off an odor can work. Using insects, worms and baitfish generally found in the area being fished is a good idea so that fish feel they are striking at something familiar.
If you plan on using live bait, the most popular approach is to suspend the bait and let it hold its suspense with little interference. As to what works, larvae seem to work worldwide with smaller fish, like panfish. Minnows are popular for larger fish.
Remember to check with a local bait dealer to get live minnow bait that is legal. Some states have restrictions on what type of fish can be used as live bait. Getting caught violating that rule can result in a hefty fine and possibly a suspended fishing license.
Just about any plastic bait that works in warm water can be used in cold water too. The difference is the speed at which it is retrieved or moved. Fish in cold water tend to watch a lot and only act when they are sure they have an easy meal in front of them.
Popular ice fishing plastic baits are shorter worms, tubes, underwater creatures, swimbaits and insects, and regular 4 and 5-inch worms. There are two ways most ice fishermen use plastic bait.
For worms, underwater creatures and insects: Dead weight them and twitch them at intervals no less than 30 seconds apart.
For tubes and swimbaits: Suspend them and twitch them slightly about every 15 to 20 seconds.
Buying a few of each of these types of baits (minus live bait obviously) will get you on your way to being able to effectively ice fish.
Another key part of a basic ice fishing starter kit is a tip-down. These are not necessary to get started but can be a huge help if you are spending a lot of time on the ice. Here is how they work.
A tip-down functions on the principle of a lever with a signal flag on one end and the line with bait attached to the opposite end. Tip-downs generally work best with live bait, as with artificial baits hand manipulation is needed to be effective.
When a fish takes the bait, the lever is activated, and the flag end of the lever is hoisted. The flag is elevated, and it serves as a signal that something has moved, bitten or swallowed the bait.
Tip-downs are versatile and can be run on their own or, if you have a bunch of holes you are ice fishing through, as a series with one at each hole. The purpose is to allow the ice fisherman to focus on other things while they do the work, including getting into a shelter and out of the cold!
One strategy is to have a couple of holes with tip-downs and work one or two holes by hand, to maximize tactics for attracting fish and spread out the fishing zone. When done effectively with strategically placed holes, a large amount of water can be covered with little effort.
Licensing And Rules Of Ice Fishing
One vital tool when starting out ice fishing is to know the laws and applicable rules. This can not only keep the angler in good legal status, but it can also help them formulate an overall ice fishing strategy.
If, for example, you plan to fish on a restricted body of water, you know that hole placement will play a key role in success or failure. Whereas with most lakes and ponds you can open multiple holes across a broad area, restricted waters often have limits as to how many holes can be fished and how many tip-downs may be used.
In general, all licensing that applies to warm water applies to colder waters too. In addition, some states have rules that regulate:
- The bodies of water that can be ice fished
- The type of fish that can be kept when caught ice fishing
- Laws on tip-downs
- Rules on unmanned ice fishing holes
- Rules for restricted lakes, ponds, rivers and species
Ice fishing laws and rules differ from state to state so it cannot be assumed that what is legal in one is legal in another. In New Hampshire, for example, the following rules apply:
- Generally, each angler is allowed six lines, including holes that are manually fished or fished with tip-downs or any combination thereof
- Trout and salmon lakes and ponds have a limit of two lines per person
- Ice fishing on the NH-Maine border is limited to five lines unless otherwise noted
- Violations can yield a penalty per line in violation (as opposed to total number of lines being run)
- All applicable licensing applies
Being caught in violation of any ice fishing or fishing law or regulation can result in penalties, ranging from less serious to very severe. An angler convicted of a violation, by admission or via court, can have the following imposed:
- A fine
- Loss of fishing license for the remainder of the season (including warm water season)
- Suspension of fishing license privileges (including a lifetime ban for egregious offenders)
- Training requirements
- Criminal charges more than the ice fishing violations
Therefore, purchasing a license if you are a new ice fisher is a key first step to maintaining legal compliance. In addition, most Fish and Game or Natural Resources Departments will have videos or classes on ice fishing rules. These are worth the time investment to complete!
It is important to remember that this list is not all-inclusive. As with any hobby or sport, learning to ice fish means learning what you need as you go along. Start with this list but always have a way of making notes of things you need whenever you are on the water, so you can improve as an ice fisher and have more successful trips!