If you’re getting ready for winter angling, you’re not alone. We are too! And if you’re anything like us, you’re counting the days until the ice is thick enough to fish. Until then, preparation is key, and as any experienced angler can tell you, the right gear is essential to make the most of your time on the hard water.
It’s time to make sure your tip-ups are in good shape and re-lubricate them if they need it. Be sure to strip that old line off your ice reels and re-spool. You’ll also want to dust-off your snow boots and air the liners well. That’s just a start, and there’s plenty to do to get ready!
We’d like to help, and if there’s any new gear you might need, check our list below where we discuss some of our favorite choices. Be sure to follow any links that catch your eye if you want the full story on anything, and let us know what you think of our selections.
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Ice Fishing Gear
You can’t start fishing until you cut a hole in the ice, and the more you have to drill, the more you’ll appreciate a quality auger. Especially if you plan to run tips-ups while you fish in the comfort of a shelter, you’ll want an auger that makes this hard work easy.
Whether we take to the ice for crappie or pike, we’re looking for augers with sharp, high-quality blades–chippers for dirty ice and shavers for where it’s clean. Equally important features include blistering speed, easy portability, and hassle-free operation. Whether you prefer a manual or a powered option, we’ve got you covered!
Each fuel type offers advantages and disadvantages, and we can make an argument for and against each.
- Manual augers are ultra-portable and super easy to use, but they rely on your fitness.
- Convertible augers are a great option if you have a super-strong drill that’s rated for 700 inches of torque or more, but if you need to buy one of these, it’ll get expensive quickly.
- Electric augers are quiet and emissions-free, but lack the power and speed of gasoline and propane. They’re easy to start and run, though, and they can be used in a shelter or shanty.
- Gasoline augers are powerful and loud. They can be a hassle to refuel without spills, and you can’t use them in a shelter.
- Propane augers are great performers, too, though they can be a tad more finicky than gasoline alternatives. They’re easy to refuel, however, and nearly emissions-free, allowing them to be used indoors.
Which flasher is the best choice can be a contentious topic, and with so many awesome products to choose from, it’s easy to see why everyone has a favorite they’re prepared to defend.
We look for features like long battery life, a bright, easy to read dial, excellent target separation, and a good transducer cone angle that can hit the sweet spot between too wide and not wide enough. While digital options like the Humminbird ICE Helix 5 and MarCum LX-7 Ice Fishing Sonar System have come a long way and offer breathtaking options, we’re not (yet!) convinced that they deliver the bang for the buck of a solid flasher.
Our top picks won’t come as much of a surprise, and we find the top three pretty much in a dead heat. The Humminbird ICE-45 offers a dual transducer with a 9 or 19 degree cone angle. That’s a great feature, and we like the digital depth meter, too. MarCum’s M3 is also a great choice, and with a one-inch target separation and a 20 degree cone angle, you won’t be missing any fish that approach your jig. We also really like MarCum’s arm system for holding the transducer cable.
Finally, the Vexilar FL-18 has the brightest screen of the three and an incredible ½-inch target separation. Featuring a 12 degree transducer cone angle, it’s easy to avoid interference with buddies fishing the same shelter.
When the wind is really howling across the ice, protection from the elements means the difference between pulling crappie after crappie onto the ice or calling it quits even though the fish are biting. Light, easy to set-up, and surprisingly effective, modern portable ice shelters are a must-have for the serious angler.
There are two general styles of portable shelter, flip-overs, and hubs.
- Flip-overs – Flip-overs are plastic sheds with a telescoping frame. By lifting the frame up and over, you expand a windproof shelter with built-in seating. Easy to set-up, their disadvantage is size and weight. They can be difficult to transport to and from the ice, and they take up a fair amount of room when stored.
- Hubs – Hubs are designed to work much like a modern tent. Because they use an internal folding frame, they’re pretty easy to erect. Lightweight and easy to transport, they’re now more popular than flip-overs. But they can be a challenge to set up in windy conditions.
Our pick is the awesome Eskimo Quickfish 3. This hub is big enough for you and a buddy or two, and it’s up in less than a minute. Offering 34 square feet of floor space, it’s snug enough for you to keep warm without sacrificing ‘fishability.’
Quality propane heaters are a safe, efficient way to keep your shelter, shanty, or cabin warm in the coldest weather.
Note: To stay safe, you should never use an outdoor heater inside, even in a vented shelter.
Good propane heaters that are rated for indoor use are a rarity, and Mr. Heater has cornered the market. That’s OK with us because the products they make are loaded with the safety features we demand. A low oxygen sensor will kill these heaters the moment combustion creates unacceptable carbon monoxide levels, and a tip shut-off switch helps prevent accidents.
Our favorite is the Mr. Heater Buddy. With a two-setting knob, it can produce a cozy 4,000 BTUs an hour or be cranked up to a sweltering 9,000, enough to warm 225 square feet! Fueled either by a single disposable cylinder or connected to a 20 pound refillable tank, the Buddy is a safe way to ensure you enjoy your time on the ice.
We like to run a few tip-ups at various depths and with different baits while we jig in the comfort of our shelter, and this is a common system ice anglers use to maximize the chance of landing fish. It’s also great for when you want to fish more than one species at a time, say, bluegill by rod and reel and pike or muskie with the tip-ups.
All tip-ups need to be sensitive, tough, easy to transport and store, and reliable in the wind. There are three common designs, each with advantages and disadvantages.
- Polar or Rail-Style Tip-Ups use a rectangular base. For transportation and storage, the cylinder and flag fold flat, making them easy to carry and store in a bucket. The best models are reliable, lightweight, easy to use, and durable, but they can freeze in really cold temperatures. To combat this nuisance, plenty of folks use something like a ThermaSeat to provide a layer of insulation that protects the water below the tip-up. They can also be hard to spot in deep snow.
- Thermal Tip-ups are round and designed to sit over a hole, shielding it from the weather. Lots of anglers love this design, as it’s easy to transport and use. Like polar tip-ups, however, they can be hard to spot in deep snow, and if you use a 10-inch auger, most thermal tip-ups will drop into the hole and can freeze to the sides.
- Cross-Style Tip-Ups feature a tall, plus-shaped base. They work pretty much like a polar tip-up, but they’re a lot bigger–and a lot heavier. These are best used when the snow is deep, as they provide exceptional visibility, but can be a hassle to transport.
Our favorite general-purpose tip-up is the fantastic HT Enterprises Polar. A strong plastic base makes these tip-ups ultra-light, allowing you to bring more of them to the ice. Smooth spooling and easy to adjust for light strikes or heavy winds, this popular model is a winter staple that delivers season after season.
Out on the ice, warmth and waterproof protection aren’t an option. To stay on the fish this winter, you’ll need to have some pretty tough outerwear on hand. From gloves to bibs to boots, we’ve reviewed the best gear available and clearly explained our selection criteria. Our goal: keeping you warm and dry so you can have fun!
Great gloves keep your hands toasty, and that means no water or wind to turn them to ice. It’s awfully hard to tie knots with frozen hands, and with hooks and knives in the mix, numb fingers are a great way to end up getting hurt. We like lots of insulation, but only if it can still allow us to use our hands.
Some of our favorite gloves include the Glacier Glove Pro Angler and Neo Sport’s Neoprene Wetsuit Gloves. Both will keep your fingers from freezing to the bone and losing the dexterity you need to tie knots, adjust tip-ups, and crank up the drag on your reel.
The best bibs will keep you warm and dry, but that’s not enough. Ice angling demands a lot from your gear, and it’s important to remember that you’ll be punishing your knees every time you kneel on the ice. You’ll also want lots of pockets, super tough shell material, and flotation to help you self-rescue should you break through the ice.
Clam’s Ice Armor Ascent bibs are our favorite this year, offering durable, tough, waterproof protection and plenty of pockets. We especially like the padded, reinforced knees and peace of mind these bibs provide with a layer of buoyant material.
Like the rest of your outerwear, your boots need to be waterproof and warm. Our top picks are tall, supremely insulated, and sure-footed.
Our choice is Kamik’s Canucks, nearly knee-high boots with an effective snow collar, bungee lacing, and an awesome cold-weather rubber lower. Made from durable materials, these boots will be solid friends to your feet, season after season.
While fishing, you’ll find that from trimming soft baits to cutting minnows, a knife is a must-have. As a general-purpose tool, you’ll find that you reach for a sharp blade far more than you might imagine, and a quality product can save you time–and your fingers!
On the hard water, we’re looking for a knife that has the following features:
- Secure grip – You need to control a sharp blade, especially when your hands are wet and slimy. We like knives that can give us control without acting like sandpaper on our hands and pockets.
- One-handed opening – Ever had one hand occupied with a struggling fish and needed a knife to cut line? Yeah, we all have! One-handed opening isn’t a cool option–it’s essential on a working blade.
- Safe lock – I love slip joints and fixed blades, but let’s be clear: while both have their place in the outdoors, folding knives with a secure lock are easy to carry and safe to use, offering the best of both designs. We like well-made frame and liner locks, as they’re secure and easy to operate.
- Great blade – The blade is the heart of your knife, and you want a few things from it. An excellent blade needs to be easy to sharpen so that you can keep a razor’s edge, and tough enough to resist chipping and breaking when pushed to its limits. That’s as much a result of proper heat treating as it is the steel itself.
- Corrosion resistance – When we use knives around the water, we like to see reasonable corrosion resistance. We don’t need a dive knife, but the blade shouldn’t rust with a minimum of care.
- Easy to clean – Fish slime, scales, and guts can hide in the handle of most knives, creating a stinking mess. We like knives with open, easy to clean handles.
Our favorite general-purpose knife is the awesome Ontario RAT-1. Mine has done everything from cut live bait, pry urchins loose from rocks, gut fish, and slice my lunch–just not in that order! This knife offers a reasonable grip, even when wet, a bomb-proof liner lock, and a sharp 3.5 inch blade of AUS-8 steel. While not a sexy super-alloy, that AUS-8 blade takes a wicked edge very quickly and can stand up to wet, dirty work. Its plastic scales are backed by steel liners, and its open design makes it a snap to keep clean.
Clearing holes of ice is never going to be fun, but you can take a lot of the hassle out of this chore with the right skimmer. Lightweight plastic and aluminum are available, but we recommend strong, solid steel construction if you plan to bash a frozen hole or two.
We’re generally looking for two things in an excellent skimmer:
- Steel – We like to see a steel handle and spoon as this tool’s going to see abuse every winter. Plastic tends to break, and if you try to chip ice with the aluminum models, you just might bend the handle.
- Sturdy – It’s not at all unusual to bash a thin layer of ice with your skimmer, and they need to be able to take the beating.
Count HT Enterprise’s 18-Inch Skimmer among our favorites. Simple, robust, and inexpensive, it works as it should, season after season.
Safety on the ice should be your central concern, and if you break through and end up in the water, you need to be able to self-rescue quickly. Carrying a pair of ice axes onto the hard water isn’t realistic, but self-rescue without picks is very difficult.
The good news is that a new breed of lightweight, wearable ice picks can help keep you safe and provide winter angling peace of mind.
Frabill Deluxe Retractable Ice Picks are our top pick. Featuring a 72-inch cord that’s meant to be worn under your outerwear, the idea behind this product is awesomely simple. While holding the picks, simply put on your coat, leaving a pick ready for each hand. No fuss and no hassle, this simple safety device keeps its sharp tips covered until you drive them into the ice.
As you wait for the ice to harden, you’ve probably checked and re-checked your fishing gear. From shelters to tip-ups, a heater to folding chairs, there’s plenty to carry out onto the ice.
When we can’t carry all that gear ourselves, we turn to durable sleds. While not fancy or high-tech, they simply get the job done! Whether you drag by hand or tow your sled with a snowmachine, a quality sled is a great investment in ice fishing fun.
Our top pick is the excellent Shappell 54. Tough enough to transport firewood, your ice fishing gear won’t put it to the test. It’s deep, too, so you won’t need to worry about anything falling out. With built-in runners, we find this sled tracks well over snow, and the bottom is more than durable enough for rough ice and a rock or two.
A pro tip: If you tow by hand, why not try slipping a length of old garden hose over the tow rope?
Winter isn’t just cold–it’s dark, too. We like to start fishing early and stay late, and that means reliable light. But if you’ve ever had to prop up a flashlight in the snow or hold one in your mouth so you could see your line to tie a knot, you know why we use headlamps!
We’re looking for four things in a good headlamp:
- Brightness – Measured in lumens, we’re looking for adjustable settings, a very bright high beam, and plenty of light on the low setting.
- Battery life – The cold kills batteries, as do most headlamps set on high. We need plenty of battery life to get the job done, and no one wants to fiddle with changing batteries in the dark if they fail. Ideally, the low setting should supply enough light to work and give more than eight hours of battery life.
- Comfort – If a headlamp gives you a headache, you’ll leave it at home. We want a product that we can wear comfortably and forget about, leaving our hands free to fish.
- Waterproof – A good headlamp will resist rain, snow, and splashing.
Our favorite is BESTSUN’s Zoomable 5 Mode Headlamp. Generating up to 2000 lumens with its LED bulbs set to high, you’ll be able to pierce the darkness and find your tip-ups no matter how dark it is. And with a power-sipping low setting providing more than enough light to work, you can be sure that its rechargeable batteries will keep you fishing all night! Comfortable and water-resistant, you won’t be disappointed.
Ice Fishing Tackle
As any angler can explain, it’s important to match your rod to the species you fish. Too much rod and you’ll never feel light strikes; too little and you’ll never land that monster!
For panfish like bluegill and crappie, an ultralight is ideal. But as you step up to perch, small pike, and muskie, you’ll want to move to a medium-light or medium. And when the fight is on with a massive lake trout or pike, you’ll need the backbone of a heavy power rod to land your trophy.
What we look for in a rod changes as it increases in power, but some common points always apply.
- Quality handles – Purpose-designed handles that are comfortable are essential, and as you move up to heavy power rods, those handles need to get larger so you can get a two handed grip.
- Excellent guides – More guides are generally better, as they help distribute line stress to more points, decreasing the friction at any one. This is especially important on heavier rods, as the forces you demand they withstand can be enormous. Icing is a problem in some conditions, so larger guide diameters can be a plus, too.
- Length – Most winter rods are shorter than their warm-weather alternatives, but as you step-up in power, they tend to get longer to allow for more spring-action strength.
Our top picks span the power range, offering you choices for anything you’re chasing with your hooks. For ultralight fishermen, we recommend the St. Croix Mojo. Backed by a carbon fiber blank, this slender rod can help you feel the most hesitant bites. For medium power, we like the Haat Medium Spinning rod. Nearly a custom, it has every feature a serious angler demands, and is among the finest rods we’ve ever seen. Finally, for the heavy-weights, we chose the JawJacker Ice Rod. With five primary guides, an ultra-strong backbone, and a long, comfortable handle, it’s built to fight the big ones.
Anglers bring a variety of reels onto the ice each winter, and you’re likely to see everything from the tried-and-true Zebcos to baitcasters. That said, closed-face reels are prone to freezing, and baitcasters are really only superior when you need the ultimate in casting performance or super-heavy duty performance.
Instead, spinning reels and straight-line or in-line reels dominate the world of cold water jigging.
- Spinning Reels are fantastic for live bait and deadstick fishing. Offering high-quality drag systems, they’re simple to operate, though they do suffer from line twist while jigging. We like spinning reels that feature drag adjustment knobs on their spools, where the application of their mechanical braking is more or less direct.
- Straight-Line or In-Line Reels are jigging machines. They use a large, in-line spool to deliver twist-free performance, and they’re mechanically simple, creating fewer problems when the weather is bitterly cold. Unfortunately, their drag systems are somewhat lacking when compared to alternatives and they can be hard to set for ultra-light tackle.
Our favorite in-line reel is the amazing 13 Fishing Black Betty 6061. Holding more line than you’re likely to need, the Black Betty Machined from aluminum, the 6061 is tough and refined at the same time. Smooth enough to drop 1/32 ounce jigs, you won’t be disappointed by this reel. Our choice for a spinning reel is the equally impressive Shimano Sienna SN1000FE. Shimano quality is evident in every aspect of this product, and its excellent, smooth drag is ideal for anglers who regularly fish ultralight line.
Connecting your rod and reel to your lure, proper line is critical gear. Every angler has a favorite, and there’s a lot to say in favor of the most common types.
- Monofilament is castable and low-visibility. It floats, a useful trait with some styles of lure and presentation, and it’s very knot-friendly, which is always a plus. But it does stretch, which can be good or bad depending on what you need it to do. For instance, that elasticity tends to make it less sensitive, which is not ideal for deep jigging.
- Fluorocarbon sinks, a trait that’s ideal for jigs. It’s tough, too, and very abrasion-resistant. It’s also nearly invisible and totally waterproof, both great features. But it also tends to remember the shape it’s forced into, leading to problems jigging with spinning reels in light tests. Not easy to tie, you’ll probably need to adjust your knots to get fluorocarbon to hold.
- Braided line is the strongest of the three, and diameter to diameter, the best choice when you need to muscle a monster. Generally very limp, braided line is less likely to remember the shape of your spool, making it a great choice for jigging. It won’t stretch, making it the most sensitive choice, too–though that can lead to broken line when suddenly shocked. It’s also not very knot-friendly, and it can absorb water, allowing it to freeze.
Sufix Ice Braid is our favorite line for general ice fishing. Available in a huge range of tests, you’ll find the weight you need. And because it’s awesomely limp, the only dance your jig will present is the one you intend. It’s also effectively coated to reduce icing, a feature we really appreciate.
The trend toward smaller jigs continued in 2018, and we really like the natural presentation a tiny lure can provide.
- Color choice – Every angler knows this can mean the difference between no bites and fish after fish. In clearer water, choose natural colors that mimic common prey items. For murky or stained water, bright colors can help attract fish, and glowing lures can be the just the thing at night or when the light is at its weakest.
- Think small – Small movements and small lures are key.
- Swap hooks – Here’s a pro tip: switch the hooks that come standard on your lures for premium quality alternatives like Gamakatsu.
- Sweeten your jigs – We like to add a touch of flavor, scent, and color to our lures, and almost never fish a naked jig head. Why not give Berkley’s PowerBait Power Honey Worm or Strike King’s Rage Twin Tail Menace Grub a try? You might be surprised by the effectiveness of adding a soft bait to your lure or jig head!
Our favorite lures for ice fishing include some your grandfather might have fished, as well as a few high-tech options. Acme’s Kastmaster and Bay de Noc’s Swedish Pimple are old stand-bys that have proven their effectiveness over the years. We also like Celsius’ Panfish Assorted EC5C-5A Jigs, and Eagle Claw’s Glow Ice Kit when we’re talking jig heads. For swimming lures, our favorites include Dynamic Lures’ HD and the ever-popular Rapala Jigging Rap.
Are You Ready to Fish?
Our top gear picks are thoroughly-researched, real-world tested products with the performance you need for the ice. And if you’re looking for something to add to your arsenal, or just need to replace some old equipment, our recommendations should give you a good place to start your search.
What do you think of our choices? Do you think there are better products out there? Did we skip anything that you feel is essential?
Let us know in a comment below!