Beginners and seasoned anglers alike enjoy ice fishing, and it is one of the few things that makes us look forward to the dreaded winter season.
There are tons of gear out there specifically for ice fishing, but not everything is as essential as it seems. While the necessary equipment is a must to avoid feeling handicapped or facing unnecessary difficulties when you go ice fishing, the optional gear exponentially increases the fun. If you have budget constraints, always try to get the necessary items first.
Without a well-defined gear list, we are almost planning to fail at the very first step. Also, this list has been sorted into necessary and optional according to where we feel an item might belong. Your thoughts might be different.
Jigging rods are the best and the most common types of fishing rods for ice fishing. They are relatively small compared to a standard rod, i.e., around 2-3 ft in length, and have an ultralight action. The short length of jigging rods helps anglers keep their position close to the hole.
Ultralight action makes the rod very sensitive and adept at detecting even the lightest bite. When you hook a fish, always reel it in slowly (even if it is a panfish) since you are using an ultralight rod. Also, keep in mind the waterbody you are fishing on and the kind of fishes it has.
For bigger species like pikes and muskies, you'd want to choose a sturdier rod. Any small to mid-size, light to medium action rod is fine. However, long rods are a strict no-no as they are really clumsy to use, especially due to the bend while pulling out your catch through the hole.
When it comes to ice fishing, anglers prefer to use mainly two types of reels. A traditional spinning reel and an inline reel. Which one should you use? It depends on what you wish to achieve. If you are looking for expert performance, ease of use, versatility, medium to large-sized catches, and using live baits, a spinning reel would be a better option for you.
However, you should use an inline reel if you are looking for a deep jigging specialist, small-sized fish, and smooth & continuous performance irrespective of temperature. Spinning reels can also be used for techniques other than jigging and are beginner-friendly.
Live baits like minnows are extremely popular among ice anglers but carrying them in a traditional bucket or container is always a problem. Moreover, live baits cannot stay alive for a long time in freezing temperatures. Since live baits actually help us catch more fish, it is always better to keep them fresh.
The easiest way to do so is to use a specially designed live bait cooler or bucket. This helps you to regularly change the water of the minnows using the ice hole. Fresh water aids in keeping the minnows alive and fresh. Live bait coolers or buckets with aerators are an excellent alternative to regular buckets since they regulate the water temperature.
A 4-to-8 pounds fluorocarbon line is what many ice fishing lovers prefer to use since it is light in weight, almost invisible to the fish's eye, and good enough for small to medium-sized fishes.
Further, it is economical because of the shorter spooling length (we only need around 50 yards of it), and a lot of it can fit on the small rods and reels meant for ice fishing. Another advantage of the fluorocarbon line is that it does not have many twists and curls to encourage ice to build upon our line.
If you plan on fishing larger species, then a braided line with a fluorocarbon leader is an optimal choice. However, for predator fishes with teeth such as muskies, pikes, and walleyes, replace the fluorocarbon leader with a heavier, steel one.
Baits: Live baits like minnows and maggots are an excellent option. Tie them perpendicular to your line with a Clinch Knot. Pinch your bait so that its insides come out a bit. It is an effective way to enhance the natural scent.
Simple Jigs: Use a simple tungsten jig. It sinks faster and would give you a better feel. You can use colored lures like white, pink, orange, and dark green.
Do not forget to carry other terminal tackles like hooks, fish hook removers, leaders, nail clippers, weights, floats, and needle-nose pliers.
Hand augers are useful if you want something light and quiet. Moreover, they have the added benefit of warming you up in cold conditions. Gas or gasoline-powered augers can give you multiple holes within seconds. Go for an auger with a four-stroke engine, which is much smoother and quiet.
However, if your budget allows, choose a true electric auger with a rechargeable battery. It is light, smooth, extremely powerful, near-silent, and uses clean energy. The blade size to drill holes of 6, 8, or 10 inches depends on your local regulations, and thus you should choose an appropriate auger accordingly.
When you drill a hole into the ice, a lot of slush and thick ice remains suspended in the water near the hole. This dramatically affects our fishing ability as it hinders our cast, line, and the actual pulling up action. Thus, make sure you carry an ice scoop so that you clear the water of any ice and slush as soon as you drill a hole.
Put in the scoop, pull out the slush, and throw it to the side. As simple as that. Please buy a metal ice scoop instead of a plastic one, as plastic tends to get really hard and brittle in freezing temperatures.
Need something inexpensive to store, organize, and carry your rods, reels, and other gear? It also keeps your bait fresh and aids you in carrying your catch back at the end of the day. What if we told you that you could also use it as a chair to sit and relax in case you do not have one?
A five-gallon bucket is your best friend! Try and pick one that has an insulated Styrofoam layer to prevent your bait from freezing up.
A cooler is a good way to maintain a consistent temperature. It helps in keeping your fish cold and fresh till you clean them. Put in some chunks of ice along with your fish, and you are good to go. Also, it is an excellent alternative to a bucket since it is insulated and has more capacity. Unlike a bucket, you cannot use it to carry your rods and reels.
The closest layer of clothes to your body is the base layer. Make sure you invest in comfortable underwear and a good pair of lightweight thermals to keep your body warm and the body heat trapped for longer durations. An athletic compression long sleeve under a long cotton sleeve are a good choice for the upper body.
Cover your legs with a good quality thermal layer and top it up with woolen track pants.
We do not recommend wearing just one single, heavy outer clothing item like a coat or jacket. Instead, we suggest piecing together different layers of clothing from inside to the outside. Over your inner layer, wear a long-sleeved woolen t-shirt, a pullover, and a coat or a jacket.
A wind-resistant and water-resistant breaker on top of fleece or water-resistant zip-up should form your next two layers. Apart from the added benefit of trapped air, which acts as an insulator, layering also gives you the flexibility to remove or re-wear a particular piece of clothing at will.
Whether you are ice fishing or doing something else, your body temperature fluctuates according to the kind of action you are involved in. Thus, while doing things like heavy lifting, taking long walks, etc., you might feel a bit warm and would want to remove a piece of clothing or two.
When you wear just one heavy coat or jacket and remove it, your body temperature dips suddenly, which can be dangerous. Wind and water-resistant ice fishing suits are also an option. Wear water-resistant snow bibs with suspenders to cover your legs and lower body.
And lastly, do NOT go ice fishing without a flotation suit. In case you fall into the freezing water due to thin ice, a flotation suit keeps you afloat, prevents water from entering in and drenching your clothes that further makes you heavy and unable to float.
It helps you save energy as you do not need to use your arms and legs to stay afloat and do not get tired in the process. Most importantly, along with the water-resistant layers of clothing, it delays hypothermia as it keeps the ice-cold water away from your body for as long as possible.
Frostbites are extremely painful. Choosing the right gloves is a tricky piece of the puzzle as you need something that keeps your hands warm and enables your fingers to move freely with a certain degree of dexterity. The material should also be waterproof while allowing you to grip things comfortably.
Layering is also a possibility here with wearing open tip mittens over soccer goalkeeper gloves. Another option is to go either for neoprene gloves or thinsulate gloves. But neoprene can develop holes due to damage from the tackle, and thinsulate isn't 100% waterproof. So choose according to your preference.
Apart from being insulated, your boots need to be waterproof and provide a good grip too. Wet, cold feet drain your body heat pretty quickly. Slippery boots can cause serious injuries. Choose a pair of socks that keep your feet dry by sucking up the moisture well.
It is important to keep your feet warm. Mid-height boots are quite sufficient for ice fishing in both no snow and deep-snow areas.
Buy retractable ice picks corded with a rope that you can wrap around your neck or shoulders. If you fall through thin ice, these ice picks will help you climb out of the water. Doing so without ice picks can be really cumbersome as you'd be using a lot more energy with lesser chances of success as the ice can be slippery. Ice picks can literally save your life!
Fur and fleece-lined hats with flaps that also keep your ear warm are a great choice for covering your head and trapping in the warmth. If you can get something with waterproof material for the outer covering, even better. Chilly winds and precipitation can be a dampener, quite literally. To cover your neck, consider a balaclava.
Since the sun sets pretty early during the winter months, it gets dark fast. Thus, a flashlight or a LED headlamp becomes a must. Not only it enhances your safety by giving you a much better view of your surroundings in the dark, but it also makes it possible to carry on fishing before and after sunlight hours.
Also, carry a lantern if you can, as it can come in handy to keep your shelter well-lit when it is dark.
Snow-free and hard ice is very dangerous as it can be slippery at times. A fall will definitely be painful, hurt you for a long time, and can even crack your bones or skull. Make sure you invest in a good pair of metal cleats that you can wear over your boots. They will give you a good grip over the surface at every step and make walking easier.
Ropes can be a lifesaver in situations where you fall through the thin ice into the freezing water. Carry a long and strong rope by tying it around your shoulders wherever you go ice fishing.
In the event of a mishappening, all you need to do is throw in the other end of the rope to a friend or some other angler who can then pull you out of the water onto the hard ice. However, a rope can only work if you have someone else on the other end to catch it and pull.
If you are on clear white ice on any bright day, a lot of sunlight will be reflected and scattered. A part of this sunlight consists of ultraviolet rays, invisible to the naked eye and harmful. To protect your eyes from the UV rays, do carry good quality polarized sunglasses that can reflect off the glare and UV rays.
Failure to do so can result in a lot of pain and damage to your eyes' inner parts like the cornea, pupil, or iris. Further, a good pair will also help you see things clearly if the weather conditions are a bit windy or dusty.
Tip-ups are specifically designed for ice fishing. They mostly consist of a wooden board with a metal rod hanging down a slit. Attached to the rod's end is a spooled fishing line that directly drops into the water below through the hole. The fishing line has some bait, mostly live, hanging with it.
The end of the tip-up board also consists of a flag with a spring base. You need to press the flag down from the top, and the mechanism allows you to hook the middle of the flag pole with a small horizontal bar at the top of the metal rod. Whenever a fish bites the bait and tries to swim away, the spring action allows the flag to pop up, thus alerting you about the strike.
An advantage of tip-ups is that, unlike a conventional rod, you don't need to hold it. It's a set and forget rig and gives you the time to do other stuff. You can catch a lot of big fishes and fish multiple holes at once through tip-ups. Combine the conventional jigging rod-reel method and tip-ups to increase your chances of a catch and soak in all the fun at the same time.
However, don't overdo it and stick to a maximum of 2-3 tip-ups at one time. This way, you wouldn't be in a fix as to what to do and where to run first when a fish is pulling away at a line in your hand, and multiple flags pop up at the same time.
For advanced ice anglers, electronics are a domain worth looking into as they aid you a lot in your ultimate goal, i.e., catch more fish. You don't need to fish a lot of holes before 'luckily' finding one with a lot of activity. These electronics find those sweet spots for you. However, beware that their budget can burn a hole in your pocket.
Fish Flasher: Flashers are simple units with a dial and multicolored digit panel. The use of sonar waves shows you information like fish activity, position, and movement of your jig or lure, light bites, etc. It can also be fine-tuned to give a very detailed view.
However, they are not very intuitive and require a fair bit of practice before you begin to understand what you are doing. Flashers have incredible battery performance due to minimal battery usage. With flashers, you are also forced to use a handheld GPS if you want to find and save new fish hotspots.
Flashers are basically built for ice fishing, i.e., vertical and stationary movement, and do not perform as well for other types of fishing.
Fish Finder: Finders also use sonar, but they have a much more user-friendly interface. Also, its capability to record history by using the RTS window, unlike a flasher, tells you when the fish passed through the sonar cone in case you weren't looking. The battery life of finders is poor due to the LCD screen.
Most fish finders today have inbuilt GPS to mark those sweet spots and save the information. You can use a finder in any season over open waters too.
Handheld GPS: If you plan on using a flasher (or a finder without inbuilt GPS), you'd definitely need a handheld GPS.
They help you identify your location, save the whole position, and guide you back to safety if you are lost. Yes, you can use your mobile phone for the same, but then you'd be dependent on your phone's battery life and good cell reception in case you didn't pre-download the map of the location you are in.
Underwater Cameras: As you'd expect, an underwater camera gives you a clear view of what exactly is going on underwater. Think of it as you actually being underwater without having to get wet or bear the freezing temperature. The setup usually consists of a long cord with a camera attached at the end.
Wherever the camera moves, you get a view of the same on a screen. Right from the fish species swimming below to their size and color, you have all the information in front of you.
Too much stuff to carry? A bucket can do the job, but it reduces your mobility. An ice sled is your best friend to help you haul crazy amounts of gear from your vehicle to wherever you want. A basic sled will do the trick. However, the more spacious it is, the better it is for ice fishing.
You can just tie your sled behind your snowmobile or ATV and drag it along. Remember to cover it, though, so that your gear isn't lost on the way. You can also customize your sled and build compartments, rod holders, etc., to keep things a lot more organized instead of dumping them all in.
You can always invert a bucket and sit on it, but a comfortable chair has its own feel. These chairs can be foldable, too, with several pockets to hold a few handy things that you might need frequently.
Who told you that it is necessary to sit out in the freezing cold for ice fishing? Go easy and yourself and fish from inside a nice shelter that will protect you against the chilly winds and might even keep you warm. A shelter can be of many types like the hub shelter, the flip shelter, the cabin shelter, etc., and which one you choose totally depends on your budget.
Shelters can be permanent or temporary, and each one of them provides functionalities that can make your ice fishing experience a bit more comfortable. Right from the basic cover, to electricity, heating, TV, mini-kitchen, etc., the list goes on. And the best part is that you don't always have to buy it, many are available for rent too.
Handwarmer pads are pretty cheap but immensely useful. Put them into your gloves and boots to keep them warm for a long time. Of course, you'll need a conventional heater too and thus do not depend solely upon these.
While a shelter protects you from the chilly winds outside and provides some comfort, it can not do a portable heater's job if it has no heating system in place. The normal temperature within the shelter or cabin is too less for you to function normally and avoid hypothermia or fall sick due to cold.
A portable heater not only provides much-needed comfort but also keeps you safe by maintaining a favorable temperature. There are different types of heaters based on their functioning, like liquid propane-based, element-based, fan-based, oil-based, etc., and the cost varies accordingly.
Buy one according to the size of the shelter you'll be staying in. Remember that you should always have a source for ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation. Leave the door ajar if it is safe.
For those who carry their gear on a sled or in a bucket, a tarp strap is an extremely effective way to secure it. Travelling in windy conditions or unfriendly terrain always comes with a risk of some mishap, and you may lose your gear while you are distracted when you are busy trying to save yourself.
Try going for rubber straps and not the nylon or cloth ones. Three to four tarp straps of 2-3 feet in length along with metal s-hooks will do the job well.
A hole cover is a handy tool to prevent accessories and valuables like mobile phones from falling into the ice fishing hole. Also, it prevents snow, dirt, and dust from falling into the hole when you are not using it overnight.
A warm beverage feels heavenly when you are enjoying your favorite leisure activity. However, it can be hard to focus on catching fishes if you are shivering.
An external heater does its job, but what about some internal, natural heating. Compact in size, with great capacity, and easy to carry, an insulated thermos will be on your must have list after the first time you carry it. Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, green tea, or plain water, whatever soothes you, keep those refills coming.
While for the U.S. states, the permission to fish on ice is covered within your standard fishing license regulations, laws might be different in your country. Also, even if you live in the U.S., it is advisable to go through the rules and regulations to update yourself about any changes.
A map and a chart can be your mini journal to mark those spots with an insane amount of fish activity beneath the frozen body of water you are fishing on. This way, the next time, you'll know exactly where you need to be. Charts can help track fish species and activity based on time, day, week, and month.
Also, if and when you are lost, a map will help you get back to safety.
Ice fishing is dangerous, and you need to be prepared for any accident. Of course, the best way out is to prevent an injury by taking the necessary precautions and being alert. Still, if something happens, you need to minimize the effect before it turns into a medical emergency.
Getting medical help quickly can be difficult when you are fishing on the ice, and thus you should always aim at being self-reliant for treating injuries.
Ice fishing is an enjoyable activity, and having the right gear can enhance the fun manifold. While we realize that not everyone can buy everything on the list, make sure you save enough for the necessary gear and the first aid kit. Skipping those items can devoid you of a true and fulfilling experience.
Also, in no way do we consider the list to be complete and absolute. If we have missed something, please let us know, and we will be more than happy to consider your suggestion.