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Best Time to Ice Fish: Tilt the Odds in Your Favor!

Written by: Pete D
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Winter means that some aspects of fish behavior change dramatically. Some species, like largemouth bass, will cease actively hunting while they experience cold-induced torpor.

But many predictable behaviors remain the same, and among them you can count peak feeding times.

If you want to know the best time during the day to ice fish, we’re here to help.

We’ll discuss the most productive times of day to ice fish in detail, giving you the know-how you need, backed by science.

Related: 

The Best Times of Day to Ice Fish

90 minutes around sunrise

best time to ice fish walleye

Walleye will be actively hunting before sunup.

For most species, peak feeding happens in the 90 minutes around sunrise.

The increase in light enables species as diverse as crappie, trout, perch, and largemouth and smallmouth bass to see their prey. These species are predominantly sight-oriented hunters, and while they can target a meal with the help of just their lateral lines, they’re much more likely to hit a lure, minnow, or wax worm if they can see it.

Plan to hit the hard water before dawn, and be ready over your hole before sunrise. 

Species like pike, walleye, and musky are blessed with excellent low-light vision, and they’ll use this lopsided advantage for everything it’s worth before the sun illuminates the water sufficiently to allow their prey to spot them coming.

It’s not unusual to find these apex predators feeding actively before sunrise - say in the hour or two preceding sun-up - only to have the bite switch over to panfish and bass once underwater visibility is good.

90 minutes around sundown

ice fishing around sundown

As the sun sets, the fishing will get hot.

The morning’s reliable pattern is mirrored as the sun sets, only not as powerfully for most species. The exceptions include bluegill, for which the afternoon is prime. 

You can also count on walleye, pike, and musky to turn on as the sun sets, especially as visibility gets worse. Just as at dawn, they’ll take advantage of their awesome low-light vision to hunt prey in near invisibility.

Especially on overcast, dark days, the walleye bite may continue throughout the day. They’ll also be driven to feed actively when the snow is deep over the ice, disrupting light levels in the water below.

As veteran anglers will tell you, the walleye bite will often continue well into the evening, as their eyes are simply amazing tools for hunting in the dark.

Ice fishing at night

ice fishing at night time

Ice fishing at night is a secret veteran anglers share.

Ice fishing at night is poorly understood by some hard-water anglers.

While it’s true that most species of panfish will be less aggressive after dark, that’s not true for trout, for instance. As avid fly fishermen can attest, trout can really turn on at night, rising from the depth to hit lures with fury they don’t display while the sun’s out.

The trick to this is light. The trout’s eyes are oriented to watch the surface above them, and they hunt from below, ambushing their prey with dramatic ascents in the water column.

If you work waxworms or micro-baits through the ice for trout, make sure they’re back lit by a light source, or that your lures are glow-in-the dark to attract attention. Fish higher in the water column than you normally would to target trout, and don’t be surprised when the brookies or rainbows start hitting!

Crappie are also ferocious night hunters, and similar to trout, they tend to hunt the water column above them. Unlike trout, however, you need to fish them in near total darkness.

Experienced slab hunters use electronics to locate a school precisely and then work a lure or bait above it. The scent of a wax worm or minnow, and the tiniest flash of your lure will be more than enough for the crappie to key-in in the darkness.

And of course, walleye, pike, and musky are night hunters that will continue biting from sundown to sunup. Cut the light, start jigging over the edge of a lie weed bed in 15 to 25 feet of water near a steep drop off, and watch what happens!

Ice fishing and the moon: improve your odds!

ideal time to ice fish

This looks like an ideal time to catch walleye!

If there’s a single element of night fishing that can improve your success over the ice, it’s watching the moon’s position.

For reasons that are not entirely understood, but are certainly connected to light levels in some cases, predatory fish respond to the moon’s position with surging or falling activity.

The best moon positions for night fishing - and day fishing to some extent - include:

  • Moonrise - Moonrise elevates the light levels in the water just slightly, and with snow cover and thick ice, provide enough light for walleye to hunt effectively while housing them from their prey.
    If you can hit the hard water at dusk, and see the moon rising full after the sun goes down, the walleye fishing is going to be spectacular!
  • Overhead - When a bright moon is directly overhead, crappie and trout will often turn on, as will pike, walleye, and musky. Light levels have something to do with this, but the other factors triggering this increase in activity are still being explored.
  • Under foot - The precise mechanism causing increased activity with a moon that’s directly under foot is not well understood, but scientists and anglers alike can confirm that the night fishing really picks up when this happens.
  • Moonset - Moonset, like dusk, triggers another round of active feeding, especially for walleye, pike, musky, and crappie.

Final Thoughts

The best times to ice fish are predictable, and that’s one aspect of fishing behavior that remains constant year ‘round. And by targeting fish when they’re feeding actively, you really tilt the odds in your favor!

We hope you’ve learned something from this article today, and as always, we’re here to answer any questions you might have.

Please leave a comment below.!

About The Author
Pete D
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.
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