Have you ever tried to explain to someone what you do when you go fishing? Of course, you have, anyone that really fishes have tried to give that dialed down explanation of the gear, time and tactics that are all described by the term “fishing”. Ice fishing is no different than any other type of fishing in that you can fall deep down the rabbit hole. The more you enjoy this sport the more you will realize all of the different types of gear that you can truly use. This really comes down to how efficient you want to be and how consistent you want to be. Everyone knows you don’t really NEED all the gear that we buy. Everyone has gotten smoked by the old guy or young kid that has one rod and is using maggots on a hook with no electronics, or something of that sort. You’ll find that you get bested once in a while by these types of anglers but the other 95% of the time it is the guys who put the time and money into it that do the real catching. I once heard a quote that 95% of the fish are caught by 5% of the anglers. I believe there is some real truth to that. Not everyone has the money to go out and drop thousands of dollars on new gear though. So, what do you really need? I going to break down the basic equipment that anyone who is serious about ice fishing should have.
Now in my personal opinion, the most important gear in your arsenal is your clothing. You can be on the best bite of the century with fish pouring in but if you can’t stay warm and dry then you’re going to be miserable. So, preparing for the elements should be the first thing you do. You need to check the weather and then dress for 20 degrees colder. It is always easy and convenient to take layers off and have them set aside if you need them, it’s a real Debby downer when you don’t have then necessary layers on.
My go to brand for cold weather gear is Simms, hands down. I think they make the warmest gear on the market, in terms of traditional clothing. I use everything from their water proof insulated socks to their insulated gloves. Their gear is rather pricy so its understandable to find other brands but this is just what I use. I start with a few insulated under layers, top and bottom, and then I throw a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie on. I will then put on an insulated flannel and then put a wool pullover on overtop of that. I’ll have the waterproof insulated socks on my feet to prevent wet toes. I always recommend a size bigger heavy rubber boot than what you would typically wear as well. This will allow space for your foot to heat up as well as give you room for more layers. That’s my typical go to for traditional clothing layers, this does not include gloves and bibs though
When it comes to bibs and heavy jackets, I have to give it to the striker crew they really made some incredible stuff. Most, if not all, of their heavy insulated ice gear, I love their bibs, is water proof to help keep anglers safe on the ice, which is a great selling point. That alone sells it for me personally but their gear comes made for hardcore ice fishermen, equipped with numerous pockets, rags, zippers, heavy duty seams, pads on the knees, and easy access compartments to store all you gear in your bibs. These bibs cost a pretty penny though so just having a comfortable pair of bibs that will further insulate you are extremely recommended. It just adds an extra layer that protects you from the harsh environments we fish in.
The next important piece of gear is gloves. I hate wearing them more than anyone on this planet but they are a must when the weather is nasty. I like two pairs of gloves. Ill have a large and easy on and off pair to use when walking in to keep my hands warm when I’m pulling a sled. Then ill have another pair that are still insulated but have a removable top half to make it easy to fight fish. Finding gloves that are easily removable is crucial to keeping your hands dry. When you hook a nice fish and have to scoop it out you don’t want your whole glove in the water. So, preparing for that moment before it comes is important.
The last couple pieces of clothing that ill advice you on would be a buff and a cheap pair of sunglasses. You lose a lot more heat in the neck that you would ever imagine and having a fleece buff around your neck can be huge if its windy out. Buffs can also wrap up your neck and go over or under your hat to really seal the head in. They also cover your face to really shield you from the wind when its really cold out. A cheap pair of sunglasses will also really save your eyes on really sunny days. The snow acts as a reflector for the sunlight and can literally blind you if you stare at it for too long. So, moving around and staring at a fish finder for hours can be made easier on the eyes by a pair of sunglasses left in the bucket at the end of every trip.
Augers and Safety Gear
The next thing you absolutely need is an auger, you can’t catch fish if you can’t drill a hole through the ice. I look at augers in two different ways. The first thing I’m going to look at is the thickness of the ice where I am fishing. If the ice is over 8 inches, I will generally take a gas or battery powered auger. This saves time and makes your time on the water more productive. The next thing I want to take into account is the noise that I’m going to make when I drill a hole. Hand augers and battery powered augers are much quieter than a gas-powered auger is going to be. If in going to be fishing really shallow or for finicky fish I might take a hand auger or battery powered auger. Today, the battery augers are becoming more and more popular and for good reason. They perform extremely well and are cost and fuel efficient. If I had only one choice it would be Ion Electric Auger. This thing flat out cuts and is easy to charge and reuse. If I was on a tight budget though then I would stick to a cheaper hand auger. It takes longer but in the end you get a workout and still put holes in the ice.
The next thing to think about is the possibility of falling through the ice. It’s not something to take lightly, people die every year from falling through and not being able to get out. So, here is a few pieces of gear that can help keep you out of the water or save your life in the event that you do fall through. My first piece of gear is a life jacket. This will keep you from going under the ice and from having to fight to float. I always wear this when the ice is 5 inches or less. You never know when you might hit a thin spot. My next piece of gear would be ice picks. These can be a life saver in pulling you out of the ice. I wear them around my neck at all times for easy access. A couple extra pieces of gear that I utilize is a spud bar and some rope. The spud bar makes it easy to check ice while walking around. This way you know constantly how thick the ice is around you. The rope is for a precautionary measure in case someone you’re with falls through. This way you can pull them out from a safe distance. You’re never completely safe when you’re out on hard water but we do everything we can to try and make these success stories instead of obituaries.
Rod and Reel
These two pieces of gear are extremely important no matter what species of fish you are targeting. This will be the gear that gets changed out when most everything else stays the same. So, its important to understand what species you are targeting and what type of baits you will be throwing on them. I won’t use the same rod to fish small spoons as I will rattle baits or heavier jigging raps.
The first step to choosing the right rod with the right action is first understanding what you’re fishing for and where your fishing. Its going to be a lot different gear if your fishing Lake Erie versus fishing a small midwestern lake. You need to prepare for hooking the biggest fish in your lake while still making your gear efficient at catching the majority size. There is no set you need this rod for this or this rod for this but you do need to pay attention to the weights of the baits you are throwing and the hooks that they have on them. Treble hooked baits require more of a parabolic bend rod while single hooked baits can have a much stiffer action. So, asking yourself these questions before purchasing a new rod can be clutch. I have multiple rods that I carry just to be able to handle the different baits that ill throw throughout the day.
When fishing for panfish I keep it pretty straight forward due to the fact that most of the baits I’m going to throw are all the same weight and size. I’ll have two or three rods but they’re mostly the same with one being slightly heavier action, still very light, for smaller spoons and jigging baits. I like a rod that has a soft tip to allow the angler to visually see the bite. Panfish, especially crappies, can do what’s called an up hit. Where the fish eats your bait while moving up. This takes the tension off your line and if you have too still of a rod, you’ll miss the bite. This soft action rod also helps cushion the small hooks that were using in those fish’s mouths. You don’t want to pull the hook to the point where you pull it out of their mouths.
When fishing for larger game fish I again tend to have two or three rods rigged and ready to go, but in this case they will generally all be different sized. I’ll have one rod rigged for smaller spoons and lighter jigging baits. Then, ill have another rod rigged for medium sized jigging baits and then a heavy rod for throwing large jigging raps and ripping raps. This helps make it easy for me to switch presentations quickly. I don’t dead stick baits too often but if you plan on having a dead stick rod make sure it is a slow action rod that really lets the fish get the bait without feeling the resistance of the rod.
Reels often get overlooked by most anglers. They often think any reel will do, which couldn’t be further from the truth. There are three styles of reels to focus on, traditional open-faced spinning, casting, and inline reels. The main question to ask yourself, again, is what are you fishing for? For larger species, where you’re using heavier line, I would prefer a casting reel. These reels are made for putting some torque onto those larger fish and are able to hold more line. These reels are also made for heavier baits to be fished more efficiently. The two main styles that I focus on are inline and spinning. Inline reels are becoming increasing popular among anglers. This is due to the fact that these reels greatly reduce and even eliminate line twist caused from reeling the baits up and down. This can be extremely important when targeting pressured fish on popular fisheries. This gives the fish one less reason not to eat your bait. On heavily fished fisheries, no matter what species, the fish will come in and spend more time analyzing the bait before striking. These inline reels are extremely popular among panfish fishermen. When using small jigs where finicky crappies and bluegills that lack of line twist can be a night and day difference.
If you are just looking for a great beginner reel then I would start with a spinning reel. These reels are very simple and can be used with a multitude of different baits. These reels will cause line twist however. Regardless, they will always catch fish. These reels come in many different sizes and models. The size of your reel will depend again on the fish you’re trying to catch and how deep you’re fishing. A 2500, slightly larger, and a 1000, slightly smaller, spinning reel will always be a good choice.
The last type of rod that I’ll cover will be tip ups. These can be an extremely effective tool on certain bodies of water in which fish roam over larger flats feeding on baitfish. There are many different brands and types. I prefer the brands that cover the entire hole, such as the HT Enterprises Polar Therm, for the fact that they keep the hole from freezing the reel in the water. On warmer days I don’t mind breaking out the traditional wooden sticks however.
The category of baits is where people tend to go crazy and lose their minds over thousands of different colors, sizes, and brands. I will admit I love looking and fishing different baits. I will go through dozens of baits before I find a brand that I like. The reality of it is that you really don’t need all that and the kitchen sink. For this section I will go into a species category to break down the necessary baits in order to have the best success, in my opinion.
Panfish are a relatively simple species, you can chase these guys, perch, bluegills, crappies, with a very minimal amount of gear. A mainstay in any pan fisherman’s arsenal should always be a tungsten jig tipped with maggots. This will perform day in and day out. You can use a variety of different jigs but my favorite is a VMC tungsten tubby. This jig flat out has great hookup and land ratio, from big crappies to small bluegills. If you want to have a couple tricks up your sleeve, then I highly recommend carrying some small spoons, rattle baits, and soft plastics. These can be great tools when the fish are really firing in order to catch as many as you can in those small bite windows. There is a couple of types of small spoons that I really like. These include the VMC tumbler spoon, VMC tingler spoon, and a VMC rattle spoon. These spoons can also double for walleye spoons in bigger sizes. There are many different types of plastics out there, what I can tell you about those is just to get different sizes, colors, and shapes. This will allow you to keep switching until you figure something out. I like white, pink, and orange. These are my go-to colors. I find myself fishing plastics for panfish more than I fish anything else. This is because they are cheap and they last forever. I don’t have to worry about them going bad. I can just pull another one out year after year. I still have plastics from 4 years ago that still catch fish.
Predatory Game Fish
In this category I’m going to be talking about pike, walleye, and smallmouth/largemouth bass. This is because I use the same baits for all of these species, just in different areas. For these species I like to use rattle baits, blade baits, jigging raps, spoons, and live bait. You can use the same spoons I listed above, the VMC tumbler spoon, VMC tingler spoon, and a VMC rattle spoon, just be sure to upsize them. I’m not saying that you won’t catch them on the panfish sizes, because you will, but your catch size will go up with bigger baits. I use spoons all throughout the water column for all species. If I could have one bait for the rest of my life it would without a doubt be a VMC tingler spoon. They trigger a reaction strike out of all species as the bait flutters back down.
For rattle baits I really like the Rapala rippin rap in a bigger size. These baits have a great sound and action that seems to draw and trigger fish. I also really like blade baits for this same reason. My go-to blade bait would have to be a Jackall Keeburn blade bait. It has a design that allows it to nose down on the bottom and cause I nice vibration to draw fish in from a wide area. These baits work extremely well for more bottom hugging species, I use them mainly for walleyes. I like to think of it as a spoon that also uses vibration along with the visual aspect. The key is finding the right cadence, as it is with any bait. When it comes to jigging raps Rapala makes a few different types, as well as other companies but I like Rapala’s the best. They make the jigging shad rap, the original jigging rap, the flat jig, and lastly the snap rap. All of these baits have phenomenal action and without a doubt will catch fish. It really comes down to figuring out what the fish on your body of water want the most. They each have a little bit different action and finding the right action just takes playing with a few.
The last type of lure that I will discuss will be live bait on either a jig head or a treble hook. It just depends on the setup you plan on using. If you plan on running tip ups I would go with a standard owner treble hook and adjust the size according to the bait you are running. If you plan on running big suckers or shiners then I would lean toward a sure set treble hook rig. If you plan on simply using a jigging rod with a minnow, then I would lead more toward using a tungsten jig head. These are both great options for finicky fish that have seen a lot of pressure.
The single biggest overlooked part of people’s gear is their line and hook choices. When in reality these two categories are what hold you to the fish. Most people will use whatever hooks come on the baits they get. I will fish stock hooks 5% of the time. Most every company downgrades their hooks to make the baits even cheaper for commercial sale. This means they hooks you’re trusting are in most cases garbage. So, swapping out the hooks to a better-quality model and generally upsizing them are my first move. Each type of lure is going to have different hooks that suit it best but for now I would focus on round bend trebles to allow for a good grab on the fish. Another thing I’ll do, depending on where I’m fishing, is upgrade the split rings as well. If you are targeting steelhead, big trout, pike, muskies, or just big walleyes I would highly recommend changing those out to VMC stainless steel split rings. It’s just like I said earlier, you want to prepare for the biggest fish possible. If you fish hard and smart enough one day, you’ll hook a true giant and you don’t want it to be the one that got away over something as easy as changing hooks.
The next big terminal tackle category is line choices. I spend a ton of time and money just testing out and sampling different line sizes, brands and types to see what fits what I’m doing the best. The first thing you should know is that monofilament has the most stretch of the different line types. So, if you are using a stiffer action rod and pair it with a bait that has treble hooks you might want to give it a try. Monofilament also floats and has more abrasion resistance than fluorocarbon does. This is due to the thicker line diameter that monofilament has. The next line type is fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon also has a small amount of stretch in it, depending on the brand some have more some have less. Fluorocarbon is also known to sink and have a much thinner diameter then monofilament. This makes it a good overall go to line type.
Braided line has as close to zero stretch as you are going to find. It has a much thinner diameter compared to other line types and is extremely strong. This line makes a great mainline because it doesn’t hold memory and will last multiple seasons. I will cation you though, depending on the braid you use it will retain water and cause it to freeze on your reel. I generally pair braided line with a monofilament leader to help counteract some of that lack of stretch. My go-to braid hands down would have to be Cortland Master Braid. It has an extremely thin diameter while still being incredibly strong. I will only do this for bigger game fish like walleyes and pike though. I don’t bother with smaller fish because its not as important. For panfish I will generally stick to straight fluorocarbon somewhere in the 2-6lb range. It all just depends on what I’m using. Spoons and small rattle baits I will go all the way up to 4 or 6. Whereas with smaller jigs I will drop down to 2 to make it sink faster. For fluorocarbon I prefer to use Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon. It has extreme strength compared to the other brands I have used.
I think I have had more conversations with older gentlemen who tell me that using electronics is cheating than I care to count. I usually flat out tell them that I love to catch fish and if there is a better way to do it then I’m going to do it. If you are not using some sort of flasher, camera, or sonar then you are wasting a lot of time. These devices make finding and catching fish comparable to turning a light switch on in a dark room. You don’t have to have an $1800 unit to be the best, it does help though. I use a Marcum M1 true color flasher, a $350 unit, for the sake of the cost and it works for me for now. They make all different price ranged units that make getting one easier than ever. So, depending on what type of unit you’re getting depends on where and what you’re fishing for.
Flashers are a great unit for all species, they make a great starting unit and are easy to understand. I believe they excel when it comes to panfish however. It makes it easy to see how many fish and what they are doing in regards to your bait. The settings are easy to play with to make it easy to see even the smallest of jigs. They can also be found fairly cheap, $300, making them a great starter unit.
There are however, certain situations in which I prefer a traditional sonar unit over a flasher. The two main situations I like them for is for bigger game fish, such as walleyes, and then when I’m fishing around structure. I like the sonar units for walleyes because they can be extremely finicky and the sonar unit allows me to see how they reacted to different jig strokes. This way I can try to put a better plan together as to how to catch them. Sonar also allows me to easily to see if there is a fish on the edge of the sonar with the bottom color change and size. This allows me to easily try to change my cadence to draw those finickier fish in.
Fishing around brush can also be a tricky deal because its hard to delineate what is fish and what is wood or grass. A sonar unit allows you too see changes as they happen. So, if a fish is slowly moving in then you can see the thickness of the grass change and also change color. This just makes it so much easier than only having a small glimpse at everything, which is what a flasher offers you. You can see how the fish move by seeing their trail through the sonar, because it shows your history of what happened and what is currently happening.
Cameras can also be an extremely fun way to see what is going on and what is actually looking at your bait. There are a few scenarios in which a camera can be extremely useful. I like a camera when I am fishing around large rocks that can create a false bottom on your traditional flasher or sonar unit. A camera will allow you to see what is actually going on amongst all the rocks. It is also extremely helpful using a camera to view different types of bottom composition to find the sweet spots. This meaning grass lines, rock piles, etc. This can put you on the best spot in the area to put you the highest percentage area to get more bites.
Overall, these are the categories of gear you should look into getting if you’re getting serious about ice fishing. It can be an extremely fun sport but a challenging one. The gear listed will help make it so you’re only fighting the fish and not the other little things that can go wrong on any given day. Notice in this article I listed some specific pieces of gear but most of it I left up for interpretation. This is because a lot of the gear is up for the choice of the user. I have my favorite rods but no one I fish with uses what I use because everyone is different. It’s all about playing with what you feel comfortable with. All in all, I pray you all have a safe season and enjoy every minute of it!