Fishing at night can be incredibly productive, and that doesn’t change once the water hardens and the mercury plummets.
But a successful night fishing through the ice takes some preparation and know-how, and it’s that extra bit of knowledge that separates an adventure in the dark from a freezing night spent on the ice with nothing to show for it.
If you want to know more about ice fishing at night, we’ve got you covered, and we’ll discuss our best tips to tilt the odds in your favor after dark.
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Related: Best Time of Day For Ice Fishing
Ice Fishing at Night
We’ve written about ice fishing safety before, and it’s a topic we take very seriously. Please do yourself and your family a favor and review these articles:
Ice Fishing Safety: Tips You Should Never Ignore
Best Ice Safety Picks for Fishing: Essential Equipment for Self-Rescue
Nothing - absolutely nothing - is more important than safety, and at night, the ice can be a dangerous place.
It’s much more difficult to assess the safety of the ice in the dark, so our first tip is to arrive before sun down.
Do everything you can to judge the ice. Look for blue ice with no cracks, keeping in mind the old adage “Thick and Blue, tried and true. White and crispy, way too risky.”
Remember that cracks, especially intersecting cracks, can significantly weaken the ice.
Carry an ice chisel and check the ice before you test it with your weight. That’s especially important if you drive a snow machine, ATV, or vehicle out onto the hard water.
Know how to self-rescue, and wear ice picks to enable you to gain purchase on the ice if you do go through.
And though it’s likely to be bitterly cold, never use an outdoor heater inside a tent or shelter
No matter what anyone tells you, using an outdoor heater inside a shelter will kill.
Don’t even think about it!
Most of the time, it’s going to be even colder at night than it was in the day, and you need to prepare for that to enjoy your time fishing.
You’ll want the best base layer, bibs, coat, and boots you can find, a good chair to keep you up off the ice while you jig, and a reliable indoor-rated heater to keep the chill out of your bones.
I’d also recommend a bringing a few chemical hand warmers with you. Nothing feels better than one of these in each pocket when you've gotten your hands wet and numb handling fish. Just clean up a bit, dry your hands well, and get the sensation back in them in no time.
Skip the booze. It may make you feel warm - temporarily - because it widens your blood vessels and increases blood flow to your skin and extremities. But that’s a recipe for cooling down over the medium- and long-term. Don’t take our word for it: any doctor will tell you the same thing.
Instead, bring along a thermos full of hot coffee, tea, or soup. Getting some warm liquid inside you will help keep you hydrated, and just as importantly, it’ll help maintain your core temperature by heating you right where you need it.
You can't forget a quality ice fishing shelter! Check out our top recommendations here: Best Ice Fishing Shelters Reviewed
Obviously, a good headlamp is an essential tool for night fishing. I like to augment my headlamp with a cool little device that I discovered a few years ago: the Luci lamp.
These little inflatable lamps are solar powered, and hold a charge all night. They pack down to almost nothing, weigh just 6.1 ounces, and provide three levels of illumination, plus a flashing setting. I’ve used these all over the place, and from night fishing on beaches, to camping in the mountains, they’ve never failed or given me a moment's trouble.
Light, small, no batteries to fail: what’s not to like?
Now keep in mind that while you need to be able to see what you’re doing, some species, especially crappie, walleye, musky, and pike, hate the light while they’re hunting. You’ll want near to total darkness to maximize your chances, so keep the light as low as possible.
Have a plan
If you hit the ice for a night’s fishing, and you’re looking for a good place to start your holes, you’re way behind the game.
The time to learn where to fish was much earlier in the season, while the water was still unfrozen. I use the fall to scout out the last live weed beds, really bear down on the bathymetric charts, and locate the best places for early ice and mid-winter fishing.
Show up to the water with a plan, and you’ll be rewarded by pulling a lot of fish through the ice.
An excellent flasher is simply critical at night on the ice, and knowing whether you’re fishing through a hole into empty water, or schools of bait being chased by hungry walleye, makes a huge difference.
Watch the moon
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.
Reconsider your tackle and technique
At night, what’s happening below the ice changes.
While panfish like bluegill will turn off, species like kokanee, walleye, and pike become far more active, especially when the moon is right. These predators abandon the depths, moving higher in the water column to trap fish against the ice in the dark.
The first adjustment to make is to work your jig, live bait, and lures higher in the water column than you would in the day, sometimes just feet below the ice. That sounds crazy, but I’ve seen packs of pike hunting just below the ice, forcing bait fish into a trap they can’t escape. If you kept your lures in that liminal region just below the hard water, you got hit hard and often.
Drop lower, and the bite died off completely.
A second tackle tip for ice fishing at night is to switch to bright colors, a bit more flash, and even glow-in-the-dark options. You want plenty of vibration to alert their lateral lines to a ready meal, and enough color to really stand out to these sight predators.
Ditto for walleye: save the natural colors for day fishing, and switch up to white, chartreuse, and neon colors.
Try swimming - not jigging - a 3-inch YUM grub in chartreuse or white behind a ¼-ounce jig head. Keep the grub moving forward, vibrating that tail and forcing walleye to act fast or miss a meal. They’ll hit that jig with authority and really take your hook because they don’t have time to react and spit it like they can when you’re just jigging.
I also like to work a Strike King KVD Jerkbait in “clown” just below the ice for pike and walleye. Learn to rip it in circles so that it stays in a tight, violent pattern punctuated by starts and stops and just wait for the hit!
I’m also a big fan of the 3 1/2-inch Rapala Jigging Rap for night fishing through the ice. This little monster moves like mad when you twitch it, and the musky, pike, and walleye don’t know how to leave it alone.
A final tip to try is submerged glow lights.
The low light attracts baitfish, which in turn bring predators looking for dinner. Pike, musky, and walleye will hunt the edges of these lights, using the dark to their advantage, or race in, hit a fish, and race out.
Obviously, a well placed lure can attract a lot of attention!
A trick I like a lot for kokanee at night under the ice is to have one rod actively jig a shiny spoon like a Swedish Pimple. Below that flash, suspend a single Kokanee Killer Glo Hook loaded with maggots or wax worms.
The kokanee, drawn in by the light and excitement, will see the flash and orient on it, taking your Glo hook again and again.
With the right preparation and tackle choices, night fishing through the ice can be an amazing adventure.
We hope that you’ve learned something from this article today, and if you have, we’d love to hear from you.
Please leave a comment below!