A man stands beside an ice fishing shelter next to a snowmobile on the ice.

Manitouwik Lake | James Smedley

Guide to modern ice fishing in Ontario

A man stands beside an ice fishing shelter next to a snowmobile on the ice.

Manitouwik Lake | James Smedley

For seasoned ice anglers, braving the winter elements in the great outdoors is part of its charm, but even the most rugged of winter anglers are embracing the wide selection of specialized ice fishing gear designed to make this cold-weather sport even more enjoyable.

Drilling a hole in the ice and lowering a lure to entice fish sounds like a simple undertaking but doing it in a safe, comfortable and productive way requires a bit of know-how and gear. Fortunately, there are plenty of both available to properly equip the ice angler of today.

What to wear ice fishing

Cold weather is an intrinsic part of ice fishing however, it can swiftly become your worst enemy if you’re dressed improperly in sub-zero temperatures. Dressing for the occasion is imperative. Consider the following:

  • The layer closest to the skin is important. Start with a base layer of quick dry breathable underwear that wicks away moisture.
     
  • Add additional layers of wool and/or fleece followed by windproof insulated pants and jacket.
     
  • Gloves make it much easier to perform many of the tasks associated with ice fishing but mitts are much warmer. Bring both and switch between the two as required.
     
  • A warm and windproof hat that covers the ears or is equipped with ear flaps is essential for windy, cold conditions. A spare lighter knit hat is good to have when it’s mild.
     
  • Footwear is another important consideration. There are a lot of warm winter boots on the market rated to -100°C that will more than do the trick when conditions are dry and snowy. However, the weight caused by a thick layer of snow can result in slushy conditions that are made worse after ice fishing holes are drilled. In wet conditions, insulated boots that are completely waterproof are the only option for staying comfortable and dry.
     
  • Sunny conditions call for sunglasses and sunscreen applied to any exposed skin.

A typical winter brings overcast, cold days as well as lovely warm days when heavy clothing is not necessary but dressing in multiple layers is important. It’s better to be too warm than too cold, you can always remove a layer or two depending on the conditions.

Measure ice for safety

The first and most important thing to determine is that the ice is safe to travel on.

As a general guide, 4 inches of solid ice will hold a person, 5 to 7 inches is strong enough for a snowmobile, 8 to 12 inches a car and 12 to 15 inches to support a pickup truck. Other considerations include:

  • Ice thickness can vary and anglers must be certain to avoid areas of current around river mouths or narrows where ice can be significantly thinner. This is especially true early in the season when the ice is just forming and late in the season when ice starts to deteriorate.
  • Ice quality can also vary. Every water system is different and it’s best to err on the side of caution and tap into local knowledge at bait shops or sporting good stores if you are unfamiliar with the area.

Learn more about safety on the ice.

Getting around on the ice

Walking on foot or using snowshoes or skis is a basic and reliable way to access the ice. A small backpack or sled can be used to carry all the bait, food and gear for a day on the ice.

Snowmobiles are the most popular means of covering long distances over the snowy landscape. Today’s sleds are generally lighter, faster and more reliable than ever with a large variety of models available. Those designed with ice fishing in mind generally have long and wide tracks for maximum flotation in deep snow. They also allow anglers to pull sleds with heavy loads so traveling by snowmobile means the ability to bring a lot of gear.

Anglers also use all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) year-round, especially in areas that don’t receive a lot of snow. Like snowmobiles, ATVs can haul sleds full of gear. They can also be fitted with tracks which broaden horizons when the snow is deep.

When travelling by snowmobile or ATV, stay on established trails. Venturing off trail to experience fluffy powder snow can be part of the fun but riders should be aware that there’s always the possibility of slush. The weight of deep snow can force water up cracks and holes in the ice and mix with snow to form slush. Today’s snowmobiles and track-equipped ATVs are adept at navigating certain amounts of slush but there is a limit. Getting stuck in the slush is no picnic. Use caution and know the limitations of your vehicle.

On many larger northern lakes in Ontario, ice roads are plowed and anglers get to their ice fishing spots by driving cars and trucks. Places like Lake of the Woods and Wabigoon Lake have a network of plowed ice roads to access popular ice fishing areas and ice hut rental businesses. But even plowed ice roads are at the mercy of the elements and can only be used when the conditions warrant.

Ice fishing huts and shelters 

Even on the warmest winter days, it’s good to have some way to get out of the elements, but when it is windy and -20°C or colder, shelter is crucial for a day of ice fishing.

Traditional homemade ice shacks come in all shapes and sizes and with various levels of luxury. At a minimum, they offer protection from the wind, are often heated and have comfortable seating with access to ice fishing holes through the floor.

On many large Ontario lakes, ice hut operators rent out ice bungalows that allow anglers to fish within a large, heated space equipped with beds and rudimentary kitchens. Some even feature luxuries like a television, microwave, indoor bathroom and thermostatically controlled heat with beds to sleep up to eight comfortably. These substantial ice fishing accommodations tend to stay in one spot throughout the entire season.

Learn more about ice fishing outfitters in Ontario.

Angler serious about mobility use portable ice fishing shelters that double as ice fishing sleds. They are pulled by hand, behind a snowmobile or ATV and feature telescopic poles that extend to support a fabric covering to cut the wind.

There are also collapsible standalone fabric shelters anglers can secure to the ice with ice screws.

Portable pop-up shelters can be made more comfortable with insulated fabric and interlocking foam flooring laid on the ice and portable propane heaters. Some portable propane heaters feature an automatic low-oxygen shutoff system. Whenever using a heater in an enclosed space, be sure there’s adequate ventilation to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Use ice augers to drill the fishing hole

Getting to the fish requires making a hole in the ice, and in the dead of winter there can be as much as a full metre or more of ice between anglers and fish.

The most common way to create the ice hole is with an ice auger. Basically, this is a giant ice drill - a spiral shaft tipped with angled blades.

The most popular sizes of ice augers make 6, 6 and 10-inch diameter holes. A sharp six-inch hand-powered ice auger will do the job but it’s a bit of a workout and drilling multiple holes can be tiring. Power augers save a lot of time and energy. Today, a wide range of options include two-stroke or four-stroke gas and propane-powered augers.

The latest trend is to use electric augers powered by a rechargeable battery. The same idea also extends to rechargeable drills that are fitted with a lightweight auger and blades. As with all battery-powered units, keep batteries warm and have a spare, although most electric augers are capable of drilling more holes on a single charge than most anglers would require in a day.

Fish finders and underwater cameras

Electronic devices to help locate fish have long been used in open-water fishing but are relatively new on the ice fishing scene.

Devices known as flashers use coloured lights to mark the lake bottom, bait or lure and any fish that might be in the water column.

Flashers are still highly effective and popular, but they are now joined by a variety of liquid crystal display (LCD) screen fish finders. LCD units used to perform poorly in subzero temperatures but are vastly improved and are available in models costing anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

A basic function of a fish finder is to simply show how deep the water is. In winter they are useful for locating structures like reefs and rock piles or drop-offs that can attract fish.

Some models are equipped with GPS technology to mark likely spots for future reference. As the name suggests they also show fish and where they are in the water column. A good fish finder also shows where a lure is in relation to the fish so you can reel up to the appropriate level and tease fish into striking.

One of the more recent developments in fish finders is a transducer that is positioned under the ice on a shaft that can be rotated 360°. While conventional flashers and fish finders show what is happening directly below the hole, these units can show fish location within a 40-metre radius or more. Getting a lure in front of those fish is as easy as drilling a hole over their indicated position.

Underwater cameras are another device in an angler’s arsenal. By lowering a small camera by a long cable to the bottom, a video feed of what’s happening in the depths appears on the screen. This gives anglers an identification of the species and how they react to a variety of baits and lures.

When you add dedicated ice rods and reels and a variety of ice fishing lures, a day on the ice can involve a lot of stuff. But it doesn’t have to. There’s an abundance of water in Ontario and anglers have a lot of options on where and how they ice fish.

Learn more about what you need to know to start ice fishing in Ontario.

Last updated: February 9, 2024

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