How to Start Ice Fishing

By: Nick Sacco & Nyssa Gesch

January 10, 2022

Category: Recreation

Whether you’re looking to start a new hobby this winter or carry your summer angling passion into colder weather, we’re here to help you get started with ice fishing!

Ice fishing has become more of a recreational activity in recent decades, but Dakota and Ojibwe people have been fishing on land now known as Minnesota for centuries.

The tools remain largely the same. All you need is a simple setup of line, hook and bait. (Like with many activities, you can add on to these basic tools as you go.)

Choosing Your Spot on the Ice

No matter what spot you choose, the key to ice fishing, of course, is ice! Getting to know your surroundings is critical for both catching fish and for your safety. Where to fish changes with the fluctuating season, based on how ice freezes across a body of water. Always check ice conditions before heading out.

Check ice thickness by drilling a hole with your auger and using a measuring tape to measure from the bottom of the ice to the surface. You can also call a local bait store for local ice conditions.

New, clear ice is stronger than cloudy ice, but no ice is 100% safe. When ice fishing on foot, you will need a minimum of 4” of clear ice (doubled when the ice is white). The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers additional guidance for how you can make sure you’re safe on the ice whether you are walking or driving out onto ice.

Early season ice – fall and early winter – is best closer to shore, where water freezes faster. In the spring, the opposite is true as shoreline ice deteriorates quicker, so better ice will be closer to the middle of the water body.

Ice safety guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that illustrates the minimum ice thickness for different types of situations. UNDER 4": STAY OFF. 4": Ice fishing or other activities on foot. 5-7": Snowmobile or ATV. 8-12": Car or small pickup. 12-15": Medium truck. Ice safety tips included in the graphic: Double the thickness guidelines for white or snow-covered ice. Carry two large nails to use as ice picks if you fall through. Avoid pressure ridges and areas with current. Warn children about the dangers of thin ice. Don't drive on the ice at night. Avoid alcoholic beverages.

What You’ll Need

General

  • Dress for your comfort for the weather conditions (check out this video on how to dress for cold weather)
  • Ice pick for safety (alternative to an ice pick is a wooden dowel with a long nail driven through it)

Fishing specifics

  • License: If you’re over the age of 15 in Minnesota, you’ll need a fishing license to fish. An annual license is $25. (Licenses for shorter time periods are available.) If you plan to harvest fish, know the regulations for the water body you’re fishing on as different regulations apply. Fishing regulations are available in multiple languages.
  • Rod/reel (rods for ice fishing are shorter than open-water fishing rods) or a tip-up (a device that sits on the ice with the line below that releases a flag when a fish pulls a line, indicating a bite. You then get to run over and pull the line up using your hands.)
  • Bait/lures (live or artificial)
  • Sled to haul gear across the lake
  • Auger
  • Scoop (ladle with holes to help you get ice out of the hole)

A child holds a minnow in a scoop.

As you progress you may want to consider these items that make ice fishing easier or more comfortable:

  • A gas, propane or electric auger (to get through the ice quicker)
  • An ice shelter (to keep you warmer and protect you from the elements)
  • Electronics, often called fish finders (to give you eyes beneath the ice about what kind of fish are swimming nearby)

Where to Ice Fish

With many water bodies in Minnesota, there are plenty of options! Pay attention to where you see other people ice fishing. Don’t be afraid to ask staff at local bait stores or even talk to other anglers on the ice. Generally, people welcome new anglers and are happy to share their knowledge. We’ve also compiled some of our favorite ice fishing spots in Three Rivers.

Three Rivers Recreation Program Specialist Nick Sacco sets up a tip-up at a hole in the ice as a child watches.
Three Rivers Recreation Program Specialist Nick Sacco sets up a tip-up at an ice hole at the 2020 Try It: Ice Fishing event.

When to Ice Fish

Timing of fishing depends on both what kind of fish you want and what kind of fishing conditions you prefer.

Larger game fish, like walleye, bass or northern pike, have special regulations restricting fishing after the last weekend in February, so you’ll want to head out earlier in the winter. Panfish, like sunfish, crappie and perch, can be fished all year round.

Also, think about fish habits. Like many species, humans included, fish slow down in the winter. As daylight lessens, fish become less active. As days become longer, fish become more active in their movement patterns and more aggressive with feeding.

A woman is handed a fish caught from ice fishing.

How to Ice Fish

Once on the ice, try similar techniques from the summer: using a bobber with live bait or try different cadences of jigging. Be patient and don’t be afraid to try different holes or different spots in shallower or deeper water. As opposed to open-water fishing, where you’re casting the line, you’re limited in the area you cover by dropping your line through holes, so trying more than one will help cover more water.

Don’t be afraid to be social. Talk to other anglers about what they’re catching. Ask local bait stores what bait or techniques are working on what lakes.

Once the fish comes to your bait, set the hook by gently tugging the line. Once set, reel it in! If not harvesting, try to release quickly to ensure the fish can live to be caught another day.

Nick Sacco holds up a brook trout caught while ice fishing.
Nick holds up a brook trout caught while ice fishing. Photo courtesy of Nick Sacco.

Learn More

Ready to try it out for yourself? Join us at the Try It: Ice Fishing event on Sunday, January 23, 2022, from 1-5 PM at Silverwood Park. Learn from the pros at various fishing sessions about ice safety, fishing equipment and more. The event is free and pre-registration is recommended though drop-ins are welcome.

About the Authors

A man with a beard in a black jacket and hat smiles.

Nick is a recreation program specialist at Three Rivers. He loves spending his time outdoors. His passions include anything on the water involving fish or paddles. These become even better when he gets to share them with his wife, Emma. His one wish would be for everyone to find their place outside, whether that be a sports field or a pristine corner of the world.

Nyssa Gesch, a brunette woman, leans against a railing and has turned her head to face the camera and smile.

Nyssa Gesch is the web content coordinator at Three Rivers Park District. With a background in journalism, she enjoys writing, editing and collaborating with others to create content. She has an equal passion for the outdoors (especially when it snows) and loves being outside whenever she can, whether running, snowboarding, playing sand volleyball, backpacking or trying a new activity.

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