Ice Fishing Tackle and Tools

In addition to warm clothes and waterproof boots the following gear is all you need to catch fish through the ice in the winter:

A short fishing rod and a small reel.
Fishing line.
A package of wax worms or meal worms, and some small hooks.


Jigging rod – Light and flexible rods used mostly for panfish (bluegills) and walleye. A short, firmer rod is better for perch.

Tip-up – A clever device that signals when a fish hits on your line. A flag “tips up” when the fish strikes and gives you the freedom to leave the fishing hole for a moment.

Hooks – Small number 10 or 12 hooks are recommended for panfish. Short shank number 3 hooks are good for walleye. Northern pike go for large number 2/0 to 6/0 hooks. Swedish hooks, also called pike hooks, are used for northern pike.

Lures – Ice flies and teardrop lures with live bait are recommended for panfish.

Jigs – Walleyes can be caught on minnow imitation jigs.

Ice fishing

Ice fishing

Line – Light monofilament (a thin plastic length of string), 2 to 4-pound test (breaking strength), is all you need for panfish. Game fish require at least 10-pound test.

Leaders – A leader is a short wire that the hook is attached to. The fishing line is then tied to the other end of the leader. For walleye, take 2 or 3 monofilament leaders, at least 12-pound test (breaking strength) and about 3 feet long. For northern pike, 2 or 3 wire leaders, and about 15-pound test will do the job, but in most pike waters, some say, 8-pound test is enough.

Useful Tools

Toboggan or sled – This is a practical way to haul equipment onto the ice. Some anglers put their gear on top of their shanty, which is transported on runners.

Ice auger – This tool is for drilling your fishing hole in the ice. The hole should be no more than 12 inches across.

Skimmer – This handy tool is needed to scoop out slush or chips from your fishing hole. It looks like a long-handled soup ladle, with a shallow, sieved bowl.

Ice chisel – Called “spuds,” ice chisels are used for chopping holes early in the ice fishing season when the ice is thinner. Be sure to secure these thin, but hefty, poles with a line tied to your arm. Many spuds have slipped from angler’s grasp and plummeted to the bottom of a lake.

Bait bucket – Holds live bait such as minnows.

Spud – an ice chisel. (See ice chisel for description)

Gaff hook – A special-purpose, large and heavy hook to help hoist a slippery fish through a hole in the ice.

Seat – Something to sit on such as a small stool or folding chair, sometimes even a 5-gallon bucket.

Dip net – Used to dip into minnow buckets to retrieve bait and keep hands dry.

Hook disgorger – A tool like a needlenose pliers to help you get the hook out of the fish’s mouth.


Putting your bait or lure at the depth the fish are—and then not moving it much—are the keys to catching fish through the ice. Fishing at the right depth, and not moving your bait or lure much, can put a lot of fish on the end of your line in the winter. Don’t use nightcrawlers. In the winter, use wax worms or meal worms. You can catch any species of fish through the ice using these worms. They’re the best baits to use in the winter. Wax worms and meal worms are easy to keep alive in the winter, and they’ll last longer on your hook. If you like to fish with lures, buy some small ice flies or small jigs. Ice flies and jigs come in a variety of colors.

Ice Safety

Safe ice is the number one consideration. A minimum of three to four inches of solid ice is the general rule for safety. Ice thickness, however, is not uniform on any body of water. The guidelines presented here are based on clear, blue, hard ice on non-running waters. Remember, your own good judgement is essential!

The American Pulpwood Association has developed a table for judging the relative safety of ice on lakes and streams. This is just a guide; use your own good judgement before going out on any ice. Avoid areas of moving water, including where streams enter the lake, and around spillways and dams.

Ice Thickness
Ice Thickness Permissible Load
2 inches one person on foot
3 inches group in single file
7.5 inches one car (2 tons)
8 inches light truck (2.5 tons)
10 inches truck (3.5 tons)
12 inches heavy truck (7-8 tons)
15 inches 10 tons
20 inches 25 tons

Note: This guide is based on clear, blue, hard ice on non-running waters. Slush ice is about 50 percent weaker. Clear, blue ice over running water is about 20 percent weaker. Many ice anglers do not like to fish on less than five inches of ice, and do not like to drive a pick-up truck on less than 15 inches of ice. Use common sense!

Be cautious in areas where “bubblers” are used to protect docks. They can produce thin, unsafe ice some distance away. Be especially alert in areas near shore, over moving bodies of water and on lakes and ponds where streams enter or exit.

Remember, use the buddy system while ice fishing – it saves lives.

Jay Bryce is a community manger at has fishing and local information for over 40,000 lakes and fishing areas in the United States. Information includes current weather and forecasts, best times fishing charts, maps, local businesses, Fishing Store and more. also has a large library of fishing videos, current fishing reports and fishing articles to help you catch more fish.


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