Everything you need to know to start ice fishing
It’s so much fun to be out on the ice in the winter on a beautiful lake with family and friends. And it doesn’t require a lot of money or specialized equipment to get started. As a matter of fact, in its most basic form, you can just cut a few willow sticks from along the shore, drop a baited hook down a hole and catch countless fish. Especially when you realize there are over 400,000 lakes in Ontario filled with walleye, lake trout, speckled trout, rainbow trout, splake, northern pike, yellow perch, black crappies, whitefish and more.
There is nowhere else on earth that offers such a stunning array of ice fishing opportunities. So let’s get started.
The best way to begin ice fishing is by picking a species or group of fish that are prolific and relatively easy to catch. Panfish, like yellow perch, black crappies and bluegills, are just that. In Northern Ontario, you can also add northern pike into the mix, especially small- and medium-size pike.
These fish are active and easy to find throughout the winter months, and eagerly bite your lure as soon as they see it. This helps you build up confidence quickly. Having nutritious and delicious fish fillets for shore lunch doesn’t hurt either.
Not surprisingly, many Ontario ice anglers remain lifelong panfish aficionados, while others graduate to bigger walleye, whitefish, brook trout, rainbow trout, lake trout and trophy size northern pike. These species are only slightly more demanding, but if you learn the ice fishing basics and gain experience catching panfish first, the challenge is super exciting.
How to cut a hole in the ice
If you’ve never cut a hole in the ice, you might think it’s a daunting task, but it’s actually quite simple. When the ice is not overly thick, the easiest method is to use what’s called a spud bar. This is a weighted four- to five-foot-long metal pole with a chisel-like pick on the end, which you drop on the ice to chip it away and form a hole.
Just as easy to use—maybe even more so—is a simple hand auger that you can turn to cut perfectly circular 4-, 6- or 8-inch (10-, 15- or 20-centimetre) holes in minutes. They retail for around $75 and will last for years.
The only drawback with using a hand auger or spud bar is that you are supplying the power to cut the hole. Many folks enjoy the task, but when the ice gets thick and you want to try fishing in several different holes, it can be a workout. That is why most ice anglers eventually purchase either a gasoline- or an electric battery-operated auger. You can cut through two or three feet (0.6 to 0.9 metres) of ice with almost no effort—especially if you opt for one of the light, quiet and super-efficient lithium battery models.
Rods, reels, lines and lures
Now that we’ve got our holes drilled, many first-time ice anglers wonder if they can use the same rods and reels that they fish with in the summertime. And the simple answer is yes, but you will have much more fun—and catch more fish—using an inexpensive ice rod made for the purpose.
It is important to remember, too, that you're allowed to ice fish in Ontario using two holes, so always take advantage of the opportunity to double your chances and use a second rod. And because so often, if something can go wrong, it will, most ice anglers bring along a third rod, so they have a spare.
The good news, however, is that ice fishing rods are inexpensive, short and not used to cast. You can purchase three excellent ice rods for less than the price of a single summer one. And the best way to decide which rods to buy is to focus on the species and size of fish you hope to catch.
If you're going to start ice fishing for panfish like yellow perch, black crappies, bluegills and herring, for example, focus on 24- to 36-inch (60- to 91-centimetre) medium-light and light action rods. If walleye and medium-size trout and pike are on the agenda, however, medium-light, medium and medium-heavy action ice rods are three ideal choices. The medium-light stick is especially useful as a set rod: you can lay it across the top of a bucket so that the noodle-like tip bends effortlessly to signal bites.
Finally, if you’re going to start out in the heavyweight arena, targeting giant Ontario lake trout and huge northern pike, slightly longer 38- to 42-inch (96- to 106-centimetre) medium-heavy and heavy action ice rods will let you handle the array of bigger baits you need to use to conquer the Goliaths.
Reel them in
It’s an easy task to select the reels to put on your chosen ice rods. In fact, you probably already have them on your summer rods. As a general rule, smaller 1000 series spinning reels spooled with three-, four-, and five-pound test monofilament and fluorocarbon line pair up perfectly with the panfish rods. 2000 series reels equipped with six- and eight-pound line—even 10-pound, if a big fish is a possibility—are the gold standard strengths for medium-size walleye, northern pike and trout. But you will want a 3000 series reel loaded with 10- to 15-pound test to handle the big line peeling pike and lake trout. Don’t use a wire leader that takes away the action from your lure unless you’re specifically targeting pike.
Most anglers will admit lures are fun to collect, but follow the “KiSS” principle (“keep it simple”) when you’re just starting out. This method really does work. So, if you’re ice fishing for panfish be sure to have to hand a selection of 1/8- to 1/32-ounce tungsten jigs like the VMC Tungsten Fly and H.T. Marmooska, which you can tip with a pinhead minnow, wax worm or maggot. Tiny spoons like the smallest Williams Wabler and Jigging Rap-style baits will fill up the quiver.
For Ontario’s ever-popular winter walleye, northern pike and trout, it will suffice to use a number five or number seven Jigging Rap-style lure all winter long. But medium-size spoons like the Williams Bully and lipless crankbaits like the Kamooki Smartfish have proven their worth, so keep one or two handy at all times.
Ice anglers new and old have caught more lake trout using quarter to half-ounce white and silver tube jigs than any other bait, so they’re the best lure to start out with. If you like experimenting—and who doesn’t—round out your trout and big toothy critter tackle box with bigger lipless crankbaits, jigging spoons and soft plastic swim baits.
Ice fishing technology has come a long way
There was a time when high-tech ice fishing sonar units (which tell you the depth of the water and show you the fish swimming beneath your hole) were viewed as something straight out of a Star Trek movie. But not today. You can buy a basic unit for a minimal cost and it will add immeasurably to your Ontario ice fishing experience, allowing you to visually interact with the fish and monitor their behaviour.
Flashers are the basic units, but don’t let the inexpensive price tag fool you. They are exceedingly light, easy to carry around, highly accurate and ideal for the beginner ice angler.
Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) units are the mid-price step-ups and are slightly more intuitive to use because the display, showing you your lure and any fish looking at it, scrolls across the screen. Many LCD units also feature a chart plotter that accepts a map chip showing you the bottom contours of the lake that you’re fishing: you can set up and drill your holes over the most promising underwater points, rock reefs and shoals. And when you find a spot that produces plenty of action, you can push a button and record the GPS waypoint so you can return ever after to that great hole.
Live-action sonar units are the latest ice fishing gadgets, and they are technological marvels. When you place one in your hole, you can adjust the angle of the transducer to shoot out a beam in any direction and watch the fish as they swim toward your lure. These units are bigger, bulkier and heavier, making them slightly more difficult to transport and set up, but one look at the screen and you’ll start saving up your pennies to get one.
Do you need shelter?
When you’re first starting out, it’s easy to pick sunny warm days to ice fish in Ontario. But you’re going to have so much fun that, eventually, you won’t want anything—like a bit of inclement weather—slowing you down.
Thankfully, insulated portable ice fishing shelters have helped revolutionize the sport, turning even the coldest winter day into a warm sweater experience. You can pop up and take down a compact hub-style shelter in under a minute. And you can fold it up and store it in a bag that you can carry over your shoulder. Hub-style shelters vary in size, accommodating up to six ice anglers, and offer spacious interiors.
Flip-over-style shelters, on the other hand, attach to the back of a snowmobile or ATV. They offer fixed padded seats and aluminum rods that you extend out and then flip over, hence the name. If you already have a snowmobile or an ATV, flip-over shelters are the ultimate way to ice fish in comfort.
Fast track to success
If you still have questions about ice fishing strategy, equipment or fish behaviour, hire a local guide to take you out on the ice for a day and teach you the ropes. Better yet, book a weekend stay at an Ontario resort or lodge that specializes in ice fishing. A good guide will explain where the fish live, how they behave and what the best structures to find them are.
A guide will also supply rods, reels, lures and sonar units and explain how to use them. It’s such an enjoyable, hands-on learning experience. The chances are good that you will do it inside a warm, propane-heated portable shelter or permanent hut located out on the ice.
And how is this for a final reward: at the end of the day, you’ll go home—or back to your warm cozy cabin at the lodge—with an exquisite fresh fish dinner fit for a king or queen. Do it once and you’ll be hooked for life on ice fishing in Ontario.
Safety first, safety always
Ontario ice anglers enjoy a long and spectacular season, so there’s never a need to rush or take risks. Always check the local ice conditions with the Ontario Provincial Police, Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry or tourism operator.
Last updated: January 24, 2024