Technological improvements have made ice fishing increasingly popular during the past 15 years. Still, ice fishing can be mystifying for those who haven't ventured out.
There are inherent dangers – ice conditions, traveling safely and propane heater carbon monoxide concerns – so it's best to learn from an experienced ice angler. A smart move is to learn from someone you trust and who knows ice fishing.
Called darkhouse spearing because the activity takes place in a darkened shelter so you can more easily observe underwater activity, spearing large fish through a big hole in the ice is the closest thing to hunting on hard water that you'll find. Find out more in our how-to video on spearing.
I want to catch …
- Use LakeFinder
The DNR's LakeFinder has information on more than 4,500 fishing lakes in Minnesota. It's where you want to start before you venture out the door. You'll find a variety of reports from fish population surveys to water quality and maps that can help guide you.
To learn if the fish species you're seeking is present in the lake you intend to fish, simply type the lake’s name into LakeFInder's “find a lake” search box, click on “fisheries lakes surveys” when the next page appears and then scroll downward to the “Status of the Fishery” summary. This summary will put the lake’s fish population information into perspective.
If you forget to check before you leave home or opt to visit a different lake, you can get the same information on your smartdevice using LakeFinder Mobile.
- Dress in layers
Modern ice fishing typically involves short times of being chilly and much longer times of being toasty warm. That’s because fewer and fewer people fish atop five-gallon buckets outside and more and more people fish inside heated shelters. You’ll want warm clothes for drilling holes, scooping ice from holes and other outside activities yet relatively thin layers when fishing inside a warm shelter.
- Wear warm boots
Cold feet can ruin an ice fishing trip, and cold feet can happen easily because boots often get get wet from standing water, slush or simply the spray from drilling a hole. So, seriously consider waterproof boots. You may also want to buy some disposable toe warmers.
- You can be thrifty
Ice fishing doesn’t require a large initial investment. The small open-faced reels you use for open water fishing can be used for ice fishing. You will want a short rod (since you aren’t casting you don’t need a long rod) but rods are relatively inexpensive. Lures, line and the like are pretty cheap, too. The big ticket items are an auger, shelter and a sonar unit, which you can hold off on buying (if you fish with someone who has these items) until you determine whether ice fishing is for you.
- Rent before you buy
Another good way to get into ice fishing is to simply rent an ice fishing shelter from a resort on a popular fishing lake. Rental houses feature pre-drilled holes, heaters and other amenities that generally take the work out of ice fishing. If you, your family or friends have a good time in a rental house then you can get serious about investing in ice fishing equipment. And you don’t have to buy new. Online vendors offer typically have plenty of ice fishing equipment for sale at reasonable prices.
- Have fishing regulations with you
Minnesota’s fishing regulations are published in a regulation booklet and are also posted on the Minnesota DNR website. You’ll want to be able to access regulations while on the ice to make sure that what you catch and keep is legal. Here are three ways to access the fishing regulations:
- Stay on the move
In the summer, anglers make many casts and move over shorelines or in their boats to “cover the water.” To do the same in the winter, you need to move around and cut many holes. Consider each hole cut like making a cast. Give a spot 5-10 minutes and then move, unless you are strategically sitting on a location where the fish will come to you, like a hump or a breakline as sunset approaches.
- Early and late can be great
Early and late in the day (sunrise and sunset) are great times to fish as the fish are often on the move. Similarly, early and late in the ice season are productive as well as oxygen levels are highest and fish adjust to changing seasons. Just be mindful of ice conditions at ice up and near ice out; remember no ice is ever safe.
- Be quiet
Ice seals lakes and they become very quiet, without boats running around, birds squawking, and waves sloshing. Fish get accustomed to the quiet. The cracks and thuds of driving vehicles and the roar of a gas powered ice auger can scare away the fish temporarily. Be quiet to catch more fish and set up well in advance of sunrise or sunset as a courtesy to fellow anglers in your vicinity.
- Be aware
On occasion you may see tree branches sticking up from the ice. This is visual signal that a large hole was cut in the ice at this location, either for a spearing house or to view fish below in a darkened shelter. Don’t drive over these areas. Use caution when walking near them.
- Hand augers and ice chisels
Modern hand augers are affordable and highly portable. Most come in three sizes: 4.5-inch blades, 6-inch blades or 8-inch blades. The larger the hole diameter the more work it is to drill. Unless you are fishing for very large fish (northern pike or lake trout) a 6-inch auger is more than sufficient. An ice chisel is also a good thing to have when ice fishing. Chisels (sometimes called spud bars) are handy for enlarging holes, opening holes that are slightly frozen and for ensuring ice is safe to walk on by thrusting it into the ice a head of you as you walk. If the chisel breaks through the ice it is not safe to support you.