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Ice Fishing Safety

Ice fishing opportunities can be found in a variety of inland lakes and ponds and Lake Erie as well, but the “Big Lake” warrants special considerations. For a variety of reasons, including safety, many anglers hire a licensed ice fishing guide who can set them up in the protective shelter of a shanty and help them locate fish. For those targeting walleye, use minnows on jigging lures or blade baits. Yellow perch can be caught with a spreader or crappie rig tipped with shiners.

Before Going Ice Fishing, Remember:

  • No ice is safe ice
  • Have a valid Ohio fishing license
  • Know the size and daily limits for the fish that you hope to catch 
  • Learn the ice fishing regulations for where you are fishing 
  • Make a checklist of things you will need to have fun and be safe 
  • Consider leaving a “float plan” with someone who knows that you will be out on the ice, indicating where you plan to fish, where you plan to park your vehicle, and when you plan to return home. For boaters, this is common practice and for ice anglers, it’s not a bad idea either.
  • Once the freeze is on, check the most recent ice fishing reports, or make a quick stop at the local bait shop to find out what’s biting and where. As always, be safe when you head out on the ice and for more information, please call 1-800-WILDLIFE or contact your local Wildlife District Office.

Safety Tips

  • Find an Ice Fishing Guide
  • Always fish with a partner or in an area with several other anglers present
  • Let others know exactly where you are going and when you plan to return
  • Place a cell phone in a plastic bag to protect it from moisture in case you get wet
  • Sprinkle sand around your feet for better traction on the ice
  • Always take along a PFD seat cushion or more importantly, wear a life vest in case of an emergency
  • Avoid areas where feeder streams, springs, bridge pilings, docks and dam structures since ice is usually very thin there
  • If you fall into the water, remain calm.
  • Slip your loose boots off to better tread water
  • Use ice awls to pull yourself out of the water
  • If no ice awls are available, call for help and try “swimming out” by letting your body rise up to firm ice and crawl out
  • Stay flat, distributing your weight on the ice
  • Keep your clothes on once out of the water. This will keep you insulated.
  • If someone else falls in the water:
  • REACH using a stick or fishing pole.
  • THROW a rope or PFD.
  • ROW or push a boat.
  • GO call for help.

Fishing Tips

Here are a few other pointers to keep in mind. Try to fish around other ice anglers so if you do fall through, someone might be there to help you get out. Remember to dress appropriately to prevent hypothermia and wear a life jacket or flotation suit when walking around on ice. Many anglers also bring along an extra change of dry clothes just in case of an emergency. Keep your cell phone available, but protected from the elements.

One of the great things about ice fishing is that tackle can be very simple and inexpensive. Short rods, light gear, light line and small baits are the ticket. Some anglers also like to use small bobbers as strike indicators since strikes can be subtle. Tip-ups are a common addition to many ice anglers’ tackle, too. They come in a variety of designs, but essentially involve a spool of line hanging in the water with bait attached. Most store-bought versions feature a signaling device, such as a flag, that pops up when a fish takes the bait. In Ohio, anglers can have up to six tip-ups going at one time and each must be labeled with the owner’s name and address.

Because fish don’t strike as aggressively in the winter, you’ll want to use lighter tackle – 10-pound test or less – and smaller baits. You can increase your odds by tipping artificial lures with live bait. Sluggish fish are much more likely to hit on a minnow-tipped jig as opposed to one with a plastic worm.

Tip-ups are another common method of ice fishing and come in a wide variety of designs. Essentially, they involve a spool of line hanging in the water with bait attached. Most store-bought versions feature a signaling device, such as a flag, that pops up when a fish takes the bait. In Ohio, anglers can have up to six tip-ups going at one time.

What’s biting down below? Petering says you can catch the same species when ice fishing as you hooked during the summer months, including crappie, bluegill, bass and catfish, as well as perch, walleye and saugeye.

In fact, some of the most sought after ice fish are saugeyes (a cross between the sauger and a walleye), because they are so active in the winter. Two of the best places for saugeye – and ice fishing in general – are Buckeye Lake in Fairfield and Licking counties and Indian Lake in Logan County, which generally freezes quickly due to their shallowness. At these lakes, consider using a jig or spoon tipped with minnows.

Drop your line through an ice hole on a farm pond and you’ll likely be pulling up some tasty panfish, such as bluegill and crappie. For bait, Petering suggests using a tiny ice jig or fly and tipping it with wax worms.

Lake Erie ice fishing is definitely a different “kettle of fish.” For a variety of reasons – including safety – many anglers hire a guide who sets them up in the protective shelter of a shanty and helps them locate the fish. The area between Green and Rattlesnake islands, just west of South Bass Island, usually offers some of the safest ice on the lake.

For those targeting walleye, use minnows on jigging spoons, blade baits and jigging Rapalas. Yellow perch can be caught with a spreader or crappie rig tipped with shiners. Some anglers include a bobber as a strike indicator.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is safer, clear ice or cloudy ice?
This is actually a trick question- NO ICE IS SAFE ICE! Regardless of how the ice looks, always proceed with caution since there are always thin spots on lakes and ponds. But, as far as which ice is better, clear ice is better than cloudy ice. It is very intimidating if you step out onto a lake or pond and can see clearly to the bottom. But with the way ice forms, the clearer it is, the fewer impurities and irregularities it has. So, inch for inch, clear ice is stronger since it's purer.

There is no one on the lake and I hear weird noises. Is that the sound of the ice cracking?
Probably not. The ice on a lake is in a difficult position: cold air above, warm water below and only so much room to expand. So when ice forms, it will actually “sing.” This is the result of the ice pressing against itself as it expands. It is hard to describe, but with experience, you can distinguish between the muffled music of forming ice vs. the dangerous sound of ice cracking.

True or False- Speaking of water temperatures, the warmest water will be near the top since the sun can still warm the water.
False! Believe it or not, water can have different density depending on the temperature. Water is MOST dense when it is at 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit). Instead of warm water at the top and cool water at the bottom in summer, the warmest water in the winter will be at the bottom while the coolest water will be at the top. This cool water will eventually freeze first and become the first layer of ice. So when you start your day ice fishing, try putting your lures near the bottom first since that is where it is the warmest.

True or False- Why go ice fishing? The fish are “turned off,” so they won’t bite.
False! Just like everything else, fish need to eat to survive. Now granted, they do eat less when the waters get cold since their activity level decreases. But they do need to eat enough to maintain their body condition and make it to the spring when they will reproduce. They aren’t going to eat much and what they will eat will basically be a snack. So scale down the bait size, present it a bit slower, be patient and that Fish Ohio-sized crappie might be on your line before you know it!

True or False- During the winter, aquatic vegetation dies off, and the lake bottoms are flat with no features or cover for fish.
False! Aquatic vegetation can last throughout the winter as long as sunlight can penetrate the ice. If you ever reel up some vegetation in the winter and it is green, it is probably alive. However, if the ice is cloudy or there is an excess amount of snow on the ice, this can cause the vegetation to die off. If the die-off is severe enough, a “winter kill” of fish can happen since decomposing vegetation reduces oxygen in the water that fish need to survive.