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Winter Fishing At Night (All The Do’s & Don’ts)

Winter fishing at night through the ice is a fun and exciting adventure, provided it is done correctly. It’s easy and only requires a little bit of forward planning. As with open water fishing, there are some fundamental “do’s and don’ts” that can make or break a winter fishing trip.

The 11 winter fishing at night Do’s and Don’ts are:

Do:

  1. Tell someone where you are going
  2. Scout, test, map and get there early
  3. Use light in and out of the water
  4. Protect yourself
  5. Use bright lures and knockers
  6. Go slow

Don’t:

  1. Be noisy
  2. Ignore the weather
  3. Assume the ice is safe
  4. Be invisible
  5. Take shortcuts home

Winter ice fishing can be challenging, rewarding, frustrating, and fun, all at the same time. Because the environment is unusual, a successful trip often comes down to following some basic rules. Read on to see what those are as well as how to maximize your enjoyment when winter ice fishing.

Night Fishing vs Daytime Fishing

Nighttime ice fishing is unlike any other fishing experience you will ever have. There are similarities to open water nighttime fishing, but the differences are pretty stark. Here are a few questions that you will face when ice fishing at night:

  • Are you adequately equipped to address the environment, including being able to strategically drill holes through the ice?
  • Do you have the correct fishing equipment to maximize your catch chances?
  • Are you dressed warm enough to last a few hours in the freezing cold?
  • Is your path to and from the shore clearly marked before darkness closes in?
  • Do you know how to finesse a lunker up through your ice hole?
  • Have you prepared for emergencies?
  • Are you covered legally in terms of licensing and permissions?

The answer to each of these questions are covered in the Do’s and Don’ts below. Your answers to these questions, however, will make or break your trip.

Some Similarities

While cold water behavior is different from the warmer water feeding frenzy experienced in summer, the basics are the same, no matter the fish. Find the fish and convince it that the bait or lure is a viable meal. That requires the same types of strategies that work in warm water, except they are much more methodical.

Warm and cold water fishing also have an element of danger that, if ignored, can injure or kill an angler. The ice in winter is a new challenge, but the same dangers with water, exposure and fishing equipment exist.

The Same Bait

The baits you use when ice fishing are also along the same lines as warm water fishing, excluding topwater lures and some seasonal animals like frogs or turtles. Jigs, stick and even crank baits all work ice fishing if presented properly.

Presentation is also similar and important. A fish that is not convinced live or artificial bait are real will not bite. Nothing will go after bait that “doesn’t belong” or moves too fast for the cold environment.

These are a few similarities with warm water fishing that help define the list of Do’s and Don’ts. But let’s take a look at them in more detail.

Winter Fishing At Night (All The Do’s & Don’ts)

The Do’s Of Winter Fishing At Night

1. Tell Someone Where You Are Going

Always let someone know where you will be and the direction you may travel if you move, as well as how long you anticipate being gone and when to contact the authorities if you do not touch base.

A good idea is to leave a map with your location clearly marked. This can help authorities quickly narrow the search area if something happens to you.

2. Scout, Test, Map And Get There Early

Scout the area beforehand and test the ice along the path you will take to your fishing location. The testing sequence is to verify the ice is thick enough at the entry point, then again at 20 feet, 40 feet up to 50 feet. After that, test every 150 feet, unless there are indicators the condition of the ice might not be the same.

During the day, on the shore, take note of any ditches, rocks, muddy areas, brush, powerlines, tree branches, etc. These will not be as noticeable at night. Noticing them beforehand can help avoid tripping and falling or becoming entangled on your way in and out.

Finally, if possible, get into place when there is still daylight. That means getting to your spot, setting up, drilling an ice hole, setting up your rig, etc. Getting there when there is still daylight means that you will be in position to enjoy ice fishing when it is time, while avoiding several hazards that are made worse after dark.

3. Use Light In And Out Of The Water

Light can attract fish and help make the site safer. It allows for working with hooks safely, avoiding tripping over equipment and letting anyone around know someone is on the ice. Additionally, handling fish is much easier when you can see what you’re doing.

It is important to note that you don’t have to be lit up like a Christmas tree, but lighting should provide ample light to work without interruption on the surface. Also, using a night lighting system for your bait is a good idea, but make sure it is legal where you live.

4. Protect Yourself

Wear enough layers and top it all off with a parka and thick gloves or mittens. Have handwarmers accessible for when you have to work barehanded. Bring an ice fishing shack or shelter or pitch a winter tent to give yourself the ability to get out of the wind and cold periodically.

Cold weather also makes you use a lot of calories to stay warm. Bring high energy food and drink. Leave the alcohol at home. Take water along with any warmed beverages or food as it is easy to become dehydrated in a cold, dry environment and not notice it. Bring a few energy bars just in case you end up staying longer than you planned.

Make sure you have all the tools necessary to navigate on ice, especially tools that can help you get back up on the ice if you fall through. It’s also a good idea to have a spare set of clothes on hand in case the clothes you are wearing become wet. In addition, make sure you have first aid tools to address punctures, cuts, burns and broken bones.

Protecting yourself also includes having a contingency plan in case something goes wrong. Pre-plan what you will do if you become lost or injured. Have a system for contacting authorities and your home if you have any sort of emergency. Know how you will describe your whereabouts if it comes down to that.

5. Use Bright Lures And Knockers

Almost all fish are generally stationary unless they see easy prey in cold water, so lures that grab attention are a good idea. Too much attention, though, is not necessarily a positive. There are two instances that grabbing attention of a fish is not a good thing:

  • The bait does not look like bait the fish would normally see in a cold environment
  • The bait moves too fast for the cold environment

Coloring is one way of getting attention. Another is to use a knocker setup that will keep the bait slightly off the bed of the water and make noise when you lift the bait up and down. If the place you are fishing has a current, using a rig that will let your lure drift a little bit is a good idea.

6. Go Slow

Everything in cold water is slower from a fish’s perspective. Bait is either barely moving or dying on the bottom. Debris is usually suspended and stationary. The target fish will eye up anything that looks like food for a while before deciding to use energy making a strike.

One strategy to make sure you don’t fish too fast is to think about how slow you fish in spring, right before pre-spawn or even through pre-spawn, depending on where you live. Then cut that speed in half. Leaving a suspended bait untouched for up to 10 minutes is not extreme when night fishing on the ice.

The Don’ts Of Winter Fishing At Night

1. Be Noisy

Noise carries a great distance, especially underwater. Making a lot of noise on the ice will only spook the fish below. Once the hole in the ice is drilled, an emphasis on silence is key. It’s a good idea to wait for at least an hour after the hole is drilled to put any bait down through it.

Waiting gives any fish underneath a chance to forget about any disruptive noise or activity.

2. Ignore The Weather

Winter storms can be very fast-moving, which means they can sneak up on the unwary angler. Check the weather forecast before heading out and frequently check weather radar (if available) while fishing. Also, pay attention to environmental factors such as the wind picking up or rapidly changing direction.

If you are caught in a squall, white out or blizzard-like conditions, the best step to take if you have not started back is to stay put. You don’t want to do this for hours and obviously can only stay as long as you can stay protected from the elements, but moving under low or no visibility conditions on an ice shelf at night is dangerous.

Another area that often gets overlooked with regard to weather is ice integrity. This is more of an issue later in the season, when the sun can start to melt ice on the surface. If your ice verification measurements indicate that the ice is borderline too thin and the daytime weather was warm, strongly consider delaying your trip.

3. Assume Ice Is Safe

No one should ever assume ice is thick enough to support a person. That proposition should always be tested per the formula mentioned under Scout, Test, Map And Get There Early tip. For example, it is tempting to assume ice that was safe at 8am is safe at 3pm when you are setting up for nighttime ice fishing.

A lot can happen in that interval. For instance, warmer weather could have weakened parts of the ice, or snow could have covered areas that were not thick enough to support a person. The ice could have been exposed to pressure from other ice slabs or something could have fallen on the ice to jeopardize its integrity.

Ice should always be tested whenever venturing out onto it.

4. Be Invisible

Ice seems to be an attractant to people at night. On major lakes, it’s common to see a steady stream of snow mobiles and other vehicles as well as ice fishers going back and forth on the ice. Some will use it as an impromptu highway while others will set up an ice fishing station.

Because of the activity on most lakes in winter and the fact it gets dark early, it is critical that everything you take out on the ice is marked with light reflective material. You, your vehicle (if you brought one,) your shelter, ice fishing stations, should all be brightly colored and reflective.

If you can, wear a head torch to help you see in the dark and to help others to see you, and set up set up a stationary light on or near any shelters or equipment. 

You should also have an outer layer of clothes that is reflective. If the clothes themselves are not, then put a couple of strips of fluorescent or reflective tape on your external jacket shell in the following places:

  • Across your back in three rows
  • Down the front side of the arms
  • Across the front in three rows
  • One stipe across the top of gloves or mittens
  • One stripe on the front and back of your hat

5. Take Shortcuts Home

Ice does not freeze uniformly. Wind, snow cover, water currents, age and precipitation can all create weakened or fractured ice (sometimes called rotten ice). The difference between ice that is solid and thick enough to support an individual and ice that is too thin or weak can be mere inches (which is why when testing ice thickness, it is not advised to stick to only one side of the path).

Make sure you walk going back off the ice in the same path you took to get there, or if you are taking a new path, test it per the instructions above, but reversed. Even if you take the same path, retest the ice every 150 feet or so.

It might be tempting if you are cold or if the weather is bad to cut across any areas not tested. Do not do this. Any number of things could have weakened the ice or have pockets that are not thick enough to support a person.

Final Thoughts

The most important Dos and Don’ts for winter fishing at night involve being extra cautious on the ice and, in terms of fishing, to slow your presentation down until it’s almost motionless. Do those two things alone and you will have a safe and productive winter night fishing trip.