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Family Ice Fishing Beginner's Guide

ice fishing shanties

Winter means cold temperatures and short days with plenty of darkness that can keep you indoors and bring on a serious case of cabin fever. One of the simplest, FUN, and inexpensive opportunities to get outdoors and beat cabin fever is ICE FISHING!

Vermont offers a Free Fishing Day on the last Saturday in January, when anyone, resident or nonresident, may go fishing in Vermont without a fishing license. If you are interested in introducing your family to ice fishing this winter, here are some tips to help get you started.

Ice Safety
Safety should always be your primary concern. There’s an inherent risk walking on frozen water, but risks can be minimized with a little knowledge and common sense.

  • As a general guideline, 3½ to 4 inches of clear ice is required for a person on foot, and 8 inches for a snowmobile or ATV. Double the thickness if the ice is white or opaque and not consistently clear throughout.
  • Ice never freezes uniformly, so frequently test ice thickness and solidness with a spud bar or auger as you walk out on the ice. 
  • Ice that has formed over flowing water, springs, pressure cracks, old ice holes or around the mouths of rivers and streams can be weaker than surrounding ice and it’s generally a good idea to stay away from these areas. 
  • Carrying a set of ice picks is good insurance, and having a compass to rely on should you experience snowy or whiteout conditions is also smart. 
  • Let someone know what lake you will be fishing, where you are accessing the lake and when you plan on returning home. Bring your cell phone, just in case, and place it in a freezer bag to keep it dry.

Starting Out – Gear Basics
If you’re new to ice fishing a great idea is to ask a seasoned ice fishing friend, family member or neighbor to take you and your family out for your first time. They will be able to help you quickly learn ice fishing techniques and become comfortable out on the ice.

If you’re on your own, here’s the basic gear you’ll need to start you on your way to enjoying a wonderful day of ice fishing!

Ice Auger: A good ice auger is the basis of any good ice fishing experience. A four to six-inch hand auger with sharp blades is an inexpensive way to cut through hard ice with ease. Gas and electric augers are more effective at cutting larger eight to ten inch holes, but are more expensive and not necessary for beginning ice anglers.

ice auger

Tackle: One of the really appealing qualities of ice fishing is that you can make it as expensive or inexpensive as you want. A limited budget shouldn’t stop you from catching fish, or having a great time on the ice. If you already fish in the open water season, you should be able to use much of that same tackle.

snap and hook

Basic hooks, line, and sinkers are all utilized in ice fishing, as well as lures. For example, lake trout love the tube jigs you might use for bass. You can jig trolling spoons for northern pike, and small jigs tipped with a piece of nightcrawler, waxworm, minnow or small microplastic will catch perch and other panfish any time of the year.

Ice fishing Rods: Short fishing rods with small open-face spinning reels are fairly inexpensive and can be purchased at any bait and tackle shop or in the sporting goods section of major department stores for under $40. For most applications, filling the reel with four to eight pound test fishing line will work fine. Tying on a small swivel with a snap to attach snelled hooks or small lures and jigs, just like in open water, is very simple and straight-forward.

tip up

Tip-ups: Tip-ups are one of the most popular and effective ways to ice fish. They are inexpensive and easy to set and fish. A tip-up is a stationary fishing reel attached to a shaft on a bracket that spans the hole drilled in the ice.  The reel goes under the water, and a live minnow is suspended at a fixed depth under the ice.

A flag on a spring is set under a “T” on the shaft, and when a fish takes the bait, the shaft spins, allowing the flag to “spring up,” indicating you have a bite. It is important to note that a special braided or coated line is used for tip-ups, to which a short leader of regular line is attached.

Bait: If you are going to set a tip-up or two out during your ice fishing trip, live bait is the way to go. Small fathead minnows or medium to large size golden shiners are available at bait shops around the state. For jigging with an ice fishing rod and reel, most people use small weighted jigs, bibbets, or spoons, tipped with a piece of nightcrawler, waxworm, or minnow.

panfish jigs

Other items: Other accessories will make your day on the ice a little easier.

  • A couple five gallon pails with lids can do double duty as a way to carry tackle and as a seat to sit on while fishing. You can also use them to keep and carry your catch on the trip home. 
  • Every ice angler also carries a perforated scoop to clean the slush out of your ice hole. 
  • A sled is a great way to bring your equipment out on the ice and can be used to bring your tired kids off the ice after fishing.
  • A plastic minnow bucket is essential if you’re using minnows for bait.
ice scoop two anglers with sleds

Staying Warm
Nothing ruins an ice fishing trip quicker than frozen feet and hands. Dressing for a day on the ice is as important as the tackle you bring with you to catch fish.

kid with tip up
  • Dress in layers, starting with a good base layer like natural wool or fleece.
  • A good quality winter coat and waterproof snow pants are also a must. 
  • Avoid the temptation to bundle up tightly regardless of how cold it is when walking long distances on the ice, especially in deeper snow. Walking will generate heat and perspiration that can quickly make you feel cold once you reach your fishing destination. Leaving your coat partially unzipped, removing your winter hat, or bringing a couple of extra layers with you to put on afterwards are better options.
  • A decent pair of winter boots is essential to avoid cold feet. The key to warm feet is to keep them dry and wear boots slightly larger than your standard size. The extra space in the boots will trap warm air and help keep your feet toasty.

    Snowmobile type boots are good or simple waterproof rubber boots with high quality liners. If wearing this type of boot, remember to remove and dry the liners after each use. A two layer sock approach works best—a thin pair first and then heavier wool socks over top. Also, if you keep your legs warm by wearing multiple layers, your feet will often stay warmer, too.
  • Hand and toe warmer packets also offer a great way to keep hands and toes warm.
Kids eating hotdogs

Make it Fun and Rewarding
If you bring the kids remember their attention span can be short, so think about ways to keep your kids busy in-between bites. Consider bringing out a football or something similar to toss around on the ice, and have lots of snacks, especially thermos’ full of hot chocolate or soup.  Play games, build snowmen, have a snowball fight – make the most out of your day on the ice!

Ice fishing in Vermont is a time honored tradition that can be enjoyed by anglers of all ages and skill levels. It can be as simple or complex as you care to make it, and of course eating some of your catch is an added reward and an important part of the ice fishing experience.  Fresh fish caught from Vermont’s cold clean lakes are a healthy, local, and nutritious source of food.

Learn how to prepare your catch for the table here »

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