Finding Fish Under the Ice: Our Best Ice Fishing Tips and Techniques

The real secret to catching more fish is knowledge! The more you know, the more fish you’ll catch. These ice fishing tips and techniques are proven winners.

Whether you’re ice fishing for Walleye, Northern Pike, Crappie, Perch or any other type of fish it’s important to know as much as you can about the species you’re after.

You’ll find a lot of great general tips below that relate to most species of fish. But every species has its own nature and characteristics so follow these links for specific information:

In many respects, ice angling differs from warm-weather fishing. Dropping a line in a hole you’ve cut in the hard water doesn’t demand much casting skill, and lure selection changes radically, too. And if you want a laugh, bring your winter jigging rig out onto the lake in July!

But one thing holds true no matter the season: if you can’t find the fish, you can’t catch them.

The ice gives you full access to the lake, but it’s not quite as easy as cranking up your outboard or creeping around a point with your trolling motor. Instead, you’ll need to drill hole after hole, plan out a strategy, and know–rather than guess–where the fish are schooling. Frigid temps and low oxygen levels alter fish behavior, and understanding how these factors make a difference separates seasoned pros from average Joes.

In short, it takes more skill, more knowledge, and more savvy to land crappie, perch, muskies, and pike throughout the winter season, and only the best anglers can catch their limit regularly. Want to join their ranks? Study up!

We’ve put together a few of our favorite tips and tricks, and if you keep these in mind, you’re sure to have better luck.

Know your Weeds

As the days grow shorter and the light dims, underwater vegetation starts to die. As it does, its decomposition depletes oxygen, which has a systemic effect on levels across the lake. Not only does that make fish more sluggish, adding to their cold-water induced torpor, but it also affects where they live and feed, too.

As you drill holes in the ice with your auger or snag salad with your lure, take a close look and smell. If what you’ve pulled up is dead and rotting, fish elsewhere. What you want are green, fresh weeds, especially later in the season when fish are starved for oxygen.

Live vegetation is still producing that life-giving gas, and the fish will move closer to healthy weed beds, especially as winter progresses. In fact, much of the lake’s life will move there, including the prey items crappie, sunfish, and bluegill feed on. And where these species go, expect larger predatory fish as well.

That’s why we like to target large, shallow lakes that can support lots of underwater vegetation throughout the winter.

Topography, Structure, and Oxygen

Topography is key, and the best anglers know the bottom of the lake they fish just as well as they know the layout of the furniture in their living rooms. “90 percent of the fish are in 10 percent of the water” isn’t just something experience fishermen say–it’s pretty much spot-on in our experience.

The trick is to find that 10 percent, weekend after weekend, and it’s a lot more intensive than finding the deepest water you can.

Weeds and Drop-offs

Many species like locations immediately adjacent to a steep drop-off, and if there’s a healthy weed bed there too, it’s a prime spot. Weedy areas often supply shelter, good sources of prey and oxygen, and easy access to varying water temperatures. Fish enjoy these weedy liminal zones, and they’re some of our favorite places to drop a line or two.

shallow water weed fishing for walleye

fishing a drop off adjacent to a weed bed

Points and Humps

The underwater landscape of a long, narrow point is very similar to a drop-off, and if you work that point along its sides and tip, there’s a good chance you’ll find the fish you’re looking for.

Humps, hills, and submerged ‘islands’ offer that same topography, and it’s important to learn to read the bottom to know where fish are likely to cluster. Because they combine varying depth with shallow water, where vegetation can get necessary light, fish love to school in these locations.

guys using GPS to locate structure for walleye

Muddy Bottoms

Bluegill and other panfish eat many different invertebrate species throughout the winter, and if you know where to find these prey items, you’ll find what’s feeding on them, too. Muddy, ‘sticky’ bottoms are prime areas for these creatures to make their homes, and you’ll find bluegill and sunfish feeding on them throughout the season.

Brosdahl explains muddy bottoms

Oxygen

Many ice anglers focus their attention on the bottom. But as oxygen levels plummet later in the season, fish may be feeding higher in the water column. Don’t assume the bottom is the place to be. Especially as oxygen levels drop, fish may gather near the surface where the water holds more O2.

That’s especially true in periods of deep snow, which can prevent light from penetrating the water and limit photosynthesis in underwater vegetation.

Test patterns

In the summer, successful anglers will work an area with systematic casts, covering as much water as possible in search of strikes. Experienced ice fisherman use a similar idea adapted for the hard water.

At home with a topo map in hand, they’ll identify the best structure and plan a map of test holes. Starting with a grid as large as a football field, they’ll plot a pattern to cut a sizeable expanse of ice into smaller sections. Moving from hole to hole with a transducer, they’ll refine this pattern by going ever smaller, until they finally have a very good idea where the fish are and where to drill their final, productive holes.

We’re not talking dozens of holes in a 100-foot area–a hole every 75 to 100 feet or so will help you start to make sense of where the fish are congregating.

example of running a test pattern

Move, move, move

You may not be as mobile as you are in a boat while you’re ice fishing, but following the fish is as important in winter as it is summer.

If you’ve been jigging a hole for more than a few minutes with no action, and you’ve switched lures and presentations, it’s time to move on. Those test holes you’ve drilled through the ice will pay off now, as you know more than one good spot.

Twirl your Transducer

This is a tip that can revolutionize where you fish.

Most anglers lower their transducers under the ice and rely on the cone angle to detect fish. But if you take an extra step, you can know whether you’re on a school or just dead water. Gently twirl your transducer by the cable once it’s below the ice, rotating the cone it produces and extending its side-to-side coverage.

You’ll see a lot more water that way, though your flasher will display fish as a lightning-fast blip.

Watch that dial carefully!

With the right lure and action, you can call those hungry predators to your tackle.

Chum

A final tip that can help attract sluggish fish is chum. Before you try this technique, check with your local wildlife and fisheries department to make sure it’s legal on the ice you’re fishing.

Try mashing-up a few minnows and dropping them into your hole or spilling a handful of waxworms into the water. The key here is to distribute scent in the area your fishing, enticing fish to feed and giving predators that come-hither call.

chumming guide

 More Ice Fishing Tips

  • Fishing smaller lakes early in the year will give you a longer ice fishing season since they freeze faster.
  • As the winter progresses, move to larger lakes. Larger lakes have more oxygen which means the fish will be more active.
  • Fish relate to structure so before you fish a lake, get the best map you can and identify the lakes structure. Look for points, breaks, weed lines, and underwater humps.
  • During first ice fish the points and bars that extend from shore and the weed lines. Mid winter look for fish around the deeper structure like mid-lake humps and rock piles. As spring and spawning get closer the fish will begin to move shallower to where they were during first ice.
  • Follow the example of the ice fishing pros and drill several holes at varying depths around the structure your fishing. If you don’t see any fish on your flasher or catch any fish in 15 minutes try another hole.
  • Some fish, like Walleye and Perch, are found close to the lake bottom. Crappie and Sunfish are normally suspended.
  • Start by jigging larger lures about a foot off the bottom to attract and catch the more aggressive fish. If you’re seeing fish but not catching them switch to a smaller jig.
  • While ice fishing, using live bait is essential whether you’re jigging, dead sticking, using a bobber, or a tip up. See the Tips & Techniques for individual species for further information.

Tips By Species

Walleye Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques

Crappie Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques

Sunfish Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques

Perch Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques

Northern Pike Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques

Muskie Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques

Lake Trout Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques

Final Thoughts

The finest gear in the world won’t have you catching fish if you don’t know where to find them, and winter presents a unique set of challenges for anglers. But if you study your lake, do your homework, and take a systematic approach to cutting it down to size. You’re sure to increase your luck on the hard water. The most important tip to remember is to have fun! You’ll learn some things from this site and other places but make sure you get out there and put this information into practice every chance you get.

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