Ice Fishing Equipment

Posted by MNAngler On February - 17 - 2010

This week, the average daily temperature in Minnesota rises above 30 degrees F and signals the beginning of the end of ice fishing season. Ice thicknesses are still in the 2 ft range, but will start to thin and become dangerous in a matter of weeks. As the season winds down, I thought it might be a good idea to document some of the things I’ve learned about ice fishing equipment this season. I’m obviously just a rookie when it comes to ice fishing, but when it comes to equipment, temperatures in the single digits (Fahrenheit) tend to be good motivator to make you pay attention.

Below is a list of necessities and some nice to haves that I’ve learned about in my first few outings. As I pick up more tips, I’ll update this post.

First the basics:

Fishing License
The license you bought for open water fishing in the summer carries you into the winter months. Don’t forget it. If the DNR catches you without a license, they will fine you and confiscate all your gear. And then they’ll confiscate all the gear of everyone you’re fishing with. It’s one thing if you’re going to be stupid on your own, but don’t drag your friends down with you.

Ice Auger

It’s kind of hard to go ice fishing if there isn’t a hole in the ice. There are two types of augers: hand crank and gas-powered. Hand crank (manual) auger prices start at about $40. You’ll get a work out with the manual augers, but they work great on a budget. Gas-powered augers range from $250-500. They obviously drill a hole faster than the manuals. They also create a little bigger hole for that big lunker you’re going to catch. A little known third option is to buy a power drill attachment for the manual auger. They run less than $50, but I don’t know how well they work.

Ice Dipper

A dipper is like a ladle with holes in it. Once you drill your hole, you’re guaranteed to get snow into it. So you’ll need a dipper to scoop out the snow. Not to mention that the hole will start to refreeze if you’re out there long enough. The dipper helps to break the new ice and keep the hole open. Some dippers have a ruler on them so you can measure the thickness of the ice. Dippers only run $6-15. An inexpensive one will be just as good as “high end” one.

Ice fishing pole
You can’t fish without a fishing pole. There are almost as many choices in ice fishing poles as there are in warm weather poles. They can range from $6 up to $50. Plan to spend at least $20. The combos that are less than $10 seem like a deal, but you get what you pay for. They are good for kids, but if you’re going out regularly, it won’t hold up. I almost bought a $13 combo, but a friend of mine pointed out that the pole is not as sensitive as the one I settled on. Mine is a Berkeley combo that cost $20. Don’t forget the hooks.


Unless you’ve ice fished before, you won’t be familiar with a tip-up. It’s basically a hands-free fishing pole. It’s a board that goes across the hole with a metal rod vertically attached in the center. The fishing line goes on a spool at the bottom of the rod in the water. A flag on a bendable pole is set such that it “tips-up” when a fish is on the line. There’s also a circular version that has styrofoam on the underside. The theory is that the styrofoam acts as insulation and prevents the hole from refreezing. Many an angler have found these frozen to the ice, though. In Minnesota, you are allowed two lines in the water per person, so having a pole and a tip-up is nice to cover more area at once.

A tip-up isn’t absolutely necessary, but you’ll need either a pole or a tip-up. it would be kind of hard to catch a fish without one or the other. Tip-ups usually run about $20.


Lots of ice anglers just use ice fishing jigs, but when the water is cold, the fish are sluggish, so live bait helps give them encouragement to bite. Get some minnows from your local bait store, or buy some wax worms. Euro larva, also known as “spikes”, are another great option as they are more durable than traditional wax worms. Putting three of them can last through several fish. Add them to panfish jigs and you’ll increase your chances even more.

5 gallon bucket
You’ll need something to sit on while you’re waiting for that big one to bite. Many ice fishing buckets come with a styrofoam cooler that sit nicely inside. You can use the cooler for bait, fish, or both.

Ice picks

These aren’t the picks that you use to chip away at an ice block. These are smaller, fit in your hands, and have a rope between them that go around your neck. They are akin to your life jacket on the open water. They could save your life. If you happen to fall through the ice, the water will keep you from getting a grip on the ice to pull yourself out. Ice picks act like a grappling hook so you can pull yourself out. They expensive ones which have retractable picks are less than $10. I got mine for $3. Get a pair. Saving a few dollars isn’t worth your life.

Drinking Water
When you are out in the cold air for a few hours, you can get thirsty. I usually bring a bottle of water with me. My neighbors bring coffee. Either way, it is good to keep yourself hydrated. A lot of anglers bring alcohol on the ice as well, but that doesn’t keep you as hydrated as some ice cold water.

Energy Bar
Something to snack on is never a bad thing. If you’re out early in the morning, or in the middle of the afternoon, an energy bar will give you a burst of energy that could help you land that big one. If nothing else, it will stave off any hunger pangs until you get off the ice.

To document the lunker you’ll catch. If you decide to let it go, you’ll want to have proof that it wasn’t just a fish story.

Now on to clothing. We’ll start at the top and work our way down:

Knit Hat
It’s a well known fact that a lot of body heat escapes from the head. Even more so when you’re like me and prefer a short haircut. A well fitting knit hat will prevent a lot of this body heat loss. It should cover your ears as your ears are extremely vulnerable to cold. They are one of the first parts of your body to get frostbite if you don’t protect them.

A hat will prevent body heat loss, but then your neck is exposed. Wind is a lot like water in that it can get in every nook and cranny it has available to it. A few hours out in the cold and an exposed neck will contribute heavily to the rest of you getting chilled. I have found that a jacket with a hood helps to keep your neck warmer, and therefore, keeps you warmer.

Base Layer
When you were a kid, your mom should have told you to dress in layers. Many survivalists advocate the 3 layer system. The first layer, that goes against your skin, is just as important as any other layer. It should be form fitting, but not tight, to act as a second skin. Cotton is the most abundant material available for this layer, but new technology has improved this layer immeasurably. Moisture wicking materials pull moisture away from your body to keep you warmer. You lose heat 23 times faster if your wet, so a layer to keep this moisture away from your body is extremely important. Under Armour is probably the most famous of the companies that make these types of shirts, but I know there are a lot more inexpensive options. They will be more expensive than cotton, but well worth it. And you’ll be able to use them in other situations than just out on the ice.

Insulation Layer
The base layer isn’t designed to keep you warm, just dry. So your next layer is going to be a heat retention layer. Unlike the base layer, it should be somewhat loose to trap air for extra insulation. This layer can be wool, fleece, or down and consist of multiple layers.

If you’re out in the winter air long enough, the wind, no matter how light, will eventually penetrate all of your layers. Unless one of those layers is a windbreaker. The windbreaker will keep the wind out and keep you warmer longer. It will also keep water from dampening your clothes. Most people have an outer shell that has windbreaking capability. I have an old down jacket I use for ice fishing so I don’t have to worry about keeping it clean. But it doesn’t do much against the wind. So I wear a windbreaker over my insulating layer and my down jacket over the windbreaker.

Do I need to explain this one?

Hand Warmers

Your extremities are the first parts of your body that will get cold. I was never one to think I needed hand warmers, but I got some for Christmas and used them in an outing after Christmas. Now I’ll never go back. It’s really hard to not eventually take off your gloves to do something while you’re out on the ice whether it be rebaiting your hook, adjusting a tip-up, or (hopefully) taking a fish off a line. Your gloves will warm your fingers up again, but not as quickly if you have hand warmers. They cost less than $1 and last 10 hours after you expose them to air. I’ve used them to warm up my lower back even after I’ve come in from the cold.

Snow pants
Inevitably, you’ll kneel on the ice to check your line, make adjustments to your tip-up, or some other necessary reason. When you do, you won’t want to do it in jeans. Snow on jeans means water on jeans, which means cold knees, cold legs, and cold feet. A good pair of snow pants will protect you from the snow and also keep your legs warm. If you don’t have snow pants, at least wear a pair of athletic pants to protect you from the snow. My brother was generous enough to give me a pair of his. He said I was guaranteed to catch at least one fish each time I was out with those snow pants. So far, I haven’t had a need to return them.

Wool Socks
Wool is generally warmer than cotton, but it has another advantage: it retains its insulating properties even if it gets wet. You never intend on getting your feet wet, but things happen out on the ice. It’s best to be prepared to make sure your feet stay warm just in case.

Toe Warmers

As with hand warmers, I was not a believer until after this Christmas. The cool thing about the toe warmers is that they have some adhesive on the tops of them so that they stick to your socks and won’t shift around in your boots when you’re walking. Put your toes on them before you put on your boots and you’ll be toasty warm for up to 6 hours.

Some lakes are popular enough that they plow roads and even name them. But most lakes don’t have enough fishermen on them to make that necessary. That means you’ll basically be walking through a large, flat, snow bank. You wouldn’t go into a snow bank without boots, so don’t go on a lake without them either.

Nice to haves:

Depth Finding Weight

When figuring out where to set your bobber on your fishing pole, or when you’re setting up your tip-up, it’s critical to set the depth of the line correctly. When you’re after walleye, you want your minnow swimming a foot or two above the bottom. The best way to find the bottom is by using a depth finding weight. You could just as well use a couple of split shots, but at $2.50 for 2, they are a small expense for convenience.


When you’re out in the cold, even if there’s only a slight breeze, it will eventually penetrate your clothes and chill you to the core. Shelters protect you from that wind. They come in all shapes and sizes from a one man nylon temporary shelter, to two story permanent shelters that stay out on the lake all winter. Shelters aren’t required, of course, but you’ll be able to stay out longer and have a more enjoyable ice fishing experience if you do.


If you have a shelter, you should have a heater. You’re in an enclosed space, so a propane heater can heat the air effectively. You’re brain will tell you it’s crazy to bring a heater on the ice since it tells you ice + heat = water, but it’s actually quite safe. I wrote a post early this winter about why. It’s nice when the outside air temp is in the single digits and you actually feel warm in your shelter.

Extra Propane Cylinders
For your heater. You wouldn’t want to run out of fuel. A heater does no good if it’s not on.

Depth/Fish Finder

When you’re not readily able to roam, it is important to know how deep the water is before you drill a hole. It appears that most ice fishermen that have depth finders use what are called, “flashers.” The cool thing is that they work on the surface of the ice without drilling a hole. Just clear a spot, pour some water on it, and place the transducer right on the ice. If you don’t like the depth, find a new spot and repeat the process.

Flashers also double as fish finders. They are not like open water fish finders, but rather flash lines when they sense something other than water. They can be tricky to read, but aren’t too bad once you get used to them. If you don’t have one, go out with a buddy that does. They aren’t completely necessary, but you’ll drastically improve your odds if you have one.

Underwater Camera
Using an underwater camera could be considered “cheating.” I leave the reader to form their own opinion. But the fact is, many ice fisherman use them. It can be really frustrating, however, because you can see the fish look at your bait, then swim away.

I’ll be using this list as a reference next year because my memory is barely good for 10 days let alone 10 months. I hope you find it useful, too. If I forgot anything, please leave a comment and let me know.

[Update: Argosgirl published a great post on what she learned while ice fishing in the winter of 2010-11. Be sure to check it out. It has some great, practical tips: Ice Out: Reflections On The Ice Season]

5 Responses to “Ice Fishing Equipment”

  1. [...] had scheduled a blog post for tomorrow to talk about things I’ve learned about ice fishing equipment, but then I noticed that my next post (now this one) would be my 100th. I couldn’t let a [...]

  2. [...] If you have never been ice fishing and you wonder what type of preparation and gear you need then head over to Minnesota Angler site and read the post on Ice Fishing Equipment. [...]

  3. MNAngler says:

    This article is linked by Ronnie Garrison at

    The link is titled, “Ice Fishing Diary.”

  4. MNAngler says:

    This article was picked up by the Chicago Sun Times:

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