A Beginner’s Ice Fishing Checklist: What to Bring on Your First Ice Fishing Trip
As the fall succumbs to winter, avid anglers are gearing up for a big change in fishing. Most people are familiar with fair-weather fishing and trophy fishing. And some are even familiar with charter fishing or fishing from a kayak. However, not all anglers love the idea of sitting over a hole in the ice in hopes that they’ll catch panfish. That said, many people love ice fishing for its physicality and due to the fact that it is novel. After all, the window for ice fishing is fairly narrow, and it is definitely not for the faint of heart. If you’ve been thinking about taking your fishing game to the next level, you should definitely consider ice fishing. Before you go, however, you’ll first need to look over an ice fishing checklist.
The average fishing trip checklist will not prepare you for your first ice fishing excursion. There are different kinds of hazards, and the approach itself is entirely different. At any point in your first outing, you might take one wrong step and find yourself in unbelievably cold water. Furthermore, the techniques involved and equipment used are fairly different from perennial lake fishing. So, if you’re feeling brave and want to learn more about what to bring on your first ice fishing trip, read on!
Mandatory Items: What You Must Bring on an Ice Fishing Trip
The first item on this list is perhaps the most important. One might think that the fishing pole or tip-up is the most important asset here, but the auger is absolutely essential. An auger is a spiral-shaped device equipped with razor-sharp blades. These devices can be hand-cranked or affixed to a drill to facilitate the process. Without the ice auger, you can’t break through the ice and drop in a line. You may be able to fish through holes other people have fished through on the same day. But, these used fishing holes have already been thoroughly fished; and, if enough time has passed between uses, chances are the hole will freeze over. At the end of the day, you aren’t going to have a successful fishing trip without an auger.
When someone who hasn’t ice fished thinks of the sport, they usually think of the lodging. Or, they think of the types of fish-catching equipment and flasks of bourbon. That said, most people who have not ice fished do not know what a spud bar is. A spud bar is essentially a long, heavy piece of iron that you thrust into the ice to gauge its thickness. If you do not use a spud bar, you will have a harder time assessing the thickness of the ice underneath you. This is guesswork that you don’t want to undertake. It might seem nerve-wracking to plunge a heavy piece of iron into the ice. However, it is much, much more nerve-wracking to not know how thick the ice is—period. It might seem silly, but walking around with a spud bar could potentially save your life!
One of the most recognizable fishing devices for ice fishing is the tried and true tip-up. Historically, tip-ups were made of a good base with a metallic spring connected to an arm with a flag. The arm is attached to a spool of fishing line attached with a hook at the end. This design is called a flat-board tip-up. Nowadays, these devices are constructed with more sturdy, rugged materials to maintain their integrity over time. But, the basic mechanics are the same after all these years. To use a tip-up, place live bait on the hooks and drop your line into the water. Then, set the flag so that when a fish bites, the flag will release and swing upward. Once you see your flag “tip tup,” you’ll have to run to the hole and retrieve your fish!
This might seem like a no-brainer, but having an up-to-date fishing license is incredibly important. Not only do fishing licenses prevent you from being fined, but the proceeds also conserve and sustain the wilderness. Many anglers fish frequently and stay on top of their fishing licenses. However, if you have not been fishing in some time (months to a year), you may forget to update your information. Fortunately, procuring a same-day fishing license is possible in most places. Consult your local bait shop for more information about your region’s licensing practices.
Many of the items most ice-fishers use will not appear on this list. But, every ice fishing adventure requires anglers to bring more equipment than they could possibly carry in one trip. Heavy-duty sleds are the best way to transport a ton of equipment in a streamlined, easy-to-handle manner. (It wouldn’t be reasonable to carry an auger AND something else by yourself) These sleds will make your life much easier, and you can keep inventory in a better way by keeping track of where items are placed.
Some lakes in the world are equipped with ice fishing shanties. However, these are not always for public use. And, if they are, they are competitive and operate on a first-come-first-served basis. So, the best option is to bring an ice fishing shelter in your sled. Some of these shelters are designed to house one person in a sled (they attach to the back). Others are designed to house numerous people. These shelters look like sturdy camping tents and are designed to break the wind. Ice fishing is always cold, and shelters will not protect you from all the elements. That said, ice fishing is a much different, more treacherous sport without the shanty.
Fishing Rods & Tackle
These items appear quite low on the checklist because they’re incredibly hard to forget. Still, it is worth mentioning that jig fishing (i.e. fishing with a pole) is the bread and butter of ice fishing. Tip-ups fall under the “set it and forget it” category of fishing gear whereas jig fishing is active. The average ice fishing pole is much smaller than the average lake fishing pole, and it is more sensitive to the touch. As for bait and tackle, stinky, old fish can do the trick, but lures and spinners are also acceptable as bait.
Recommended Clothing Items: How to Stay Warm When It’s Unbearably Cold
Many people claim to feel cold all over their bodies when their ears and nose are cold. A balaclava is an excellent way to ensure your ears and nose stay warm. Fortunately, ice fishing will make you work up a sweat (it sounds counterintuitive but it’s true). That said, the wind whips off the ice at a higher rate, and the area on the lake is usually colder than the shore. Using a balaclava will diffuse the wind as it whips into your face, leaving you warm and happy. This is not an essential piece of equipment, but it makes everything much more comfortable.
Rugged Fingered Gloves
Some people like to wear rugged, winter-proof mittens when they ice fish. These gloves offer more protection than most fingered gloves due to their design. However, ice fishing, like lake fishing, does require manual dexterity. Mittens will often get in your way when fishing (think about mounting a mealworm on a hook with mittens), which is why fingered gloves are the way to go. Some people use fingerless gloves (think biker/driver gloves) when ice fishing, but this opens up the possibility of getting frostbite. Of note: You do not want frostbite! Not only may you lose a finger; you will definitely not want to ice fish again.
Insole Foot Warmers
This may seem a bit luxurious, but insole foot warmers are a godsend. Trudging through ice and slush is serious business, and your job will be harder if your feet feel frozen. Insole foot-warming patches are relatively cheap and last for hours. Again, it may seem excessive, but these warmers will make you feel several degrees warmer, even under the most intense ice fishing conditions.
Bib with Built-in Flotation
In the good old days, people would bundle up for ice fishing trips with the heaviest clothes they had. Nowadays, you can find an ice-fishing bib at any outdoor store (above a certain latitudinal line). Like most things, not all bibs are created equal. Some bibs come equipped with knee pads and other safety features. The best feature of them all, though, is the built-in flotation system. No one wants to take a plunge into arctic waters; but, if you must, you should be wearing a bib that can float you towards the surface. The water beneath the ice is extremely cold—crashing into it can send your body into shock. If this happens, your bib might save your life.
Recommended Extras: What to Bring for a Better Time
Ice fishing can be incredibly taxing on the body. This sport is even more taxing if you use a manual auger. Setting up your ideal ice fishing spot can take a lot of time depending on how many people there are. So, once you’ve set up everything and ready yourself to jig in your shanty, you’ll want a seat. Fortunately, seats can be as monastic or ornate as you want. Experienced ice anglers usually opt for a five-gallon bucket. But, you can bring a collapsible chair if you’re feeling fancy. Either way, you’ll want to make sure you have a place to rest your tired bones.
Many people look to go ice fishing for solitude. After all, it takes a special kind of person to want to traverse frozen ice to catch a fish that might be no bigger than your palm. That said, bringing your phone is a good idea for a couple of reasons. First, most, if not all, phones come equipped with GPS tracking. Service may be spotty, but many lakes are close enough to cell phone towers to allow GPS tracking. The same is true for being able to make an emergency call. Being stranded on the ice is no laughing matter—having a reliable phone can make all the difference. If, however, you are the sort of person who wants to unplug and enjoy nature, you can always bring a GPS device to keep track of your movements.
Compass & Map
For the old, old school adventurer, a GPS or cellphone might constitute cheating. If you are this kind of person, bringing a map and compass is incredibly important. If you experience a snowstorm while on the ice, you might not be able to see three feet in front of you. And, if conditions get worse, you will want to know you have a way to escape. By consulting your compass and local map, you will always have a way out of the wilderness.
Snacks & Bourbon
There is a reason why drinking bourbon on the ice is a stereotype. Maybe the bourbon just tastes better once you think you’ve earned it. It’s also undeniable that bourbon keeps a body feeling warm in even the most severe conditions. Whatever the reason may be, sharing a drink and a snack, like homemade venison jerky, over the ice is a thing of beauty meant to be experienced by all who make it out on the ice. This is a ritual no one should miss out on, so be sure to bring a flask!
What Should I Do Next?
Now that you have a basic understanding of what you need for your first ice fishing trip, you need to hit the ice. Be sure to bring a camera to snap a picture of your first wild-caught fish from a frozen lake. The first fish might not be bigger than a small perch, but the satisfaction will be huge. Ice fishing is serious business that can lead to injury or death if not taken seriously. Remember: the window is narrow for ice fishing (depending on your location), so get to it while the getting’s good.
Once the ice melts, and once things are back to normal, you’ll have time to resume good old fashioned lake fishing. When the time is right, consider taking a fly-in trip to North Haven Resort where you can enjoy a delicious shore lunch with our expert anglers. We provide a whole host of outdoor activities for every type of adventurer and deliver the experience of a lifetime. When you’re ready, contact our friendly staff to book a trip that will not disappoint!