It's Easy to Get Started Ice Fishing with a Few Basic Supplies

Shanties can range anywhere from simple fold-out tent-like structures, to elaborate, semi-permanent shacks large enough for a cot and a propane heater.

January 20, 2011

Fishing is a year-round pursuit and for anglers who can't get enough. That means a big shift in gears this time of year. There's very little open water in Michigan in winter and if you want to get into the wet stuff, that usually means you have to cut a hole in the hard stuff first.

Ice fishing ranges from pastime to passion; for some anglers, it's more enjoyable than fishing in the summer. And it has its advantages. Anglers who don't have boats, for instance, can get just about anywhere on the lake when there's a foot of ice covering it.

Ice fishermen can pursue almost every fish they chase in open-water season, with the exception of bass (the season closes Jan. 1). But pike, walleye, and all species of panfish are open and anglers can fish for trout in select waters. There are even some opportunities - sturgeon on Black Lake, for instance, that are allocated to ice anglers.

Fishermen need three basic tools to get started ice fishing: something to make a hole in the ice, something to clear the hole and keep it open, and something to fish with.

Two basic tools are used to open a hole in the ice spuds and augers. Spuds look like metal spears with chisel-like heads. Anglers use spuds to chip open a hole. Augers, on the other hand, look like cork screws with cutting blades along the edges. There are both power and hand operated augers.

A skimmer or slush scoop, which looks like a perforated ladle, is used to clean the hole and keep it open.

Anglers can use spears for some species. It's best to spear from inside a shanty. Not only does it provide shelter, it also blocks the light, making it easier to see into the water.

As for fishing gear, anglers are generally limited only by their imaginations. Most popular are short rods with spinning reels, though some folks prefer simple poles with spring tension spools that are used basically as line holders.

Some anglers, especially those seeking larger species such as pike, prefer to use tip-ups, devices that are set on the ice above the hole and dangle the bait beneath them. Tip-ups feature small reels that are submerged beneath the ice and a spring-loaded flag that's bent down and attached to the reel. When a fish bites, the flag "tips up," alerting the angler to the action.

Anglers can also use spears for some species such as pike or, at Black Lake, sturgeon. Spearing typically requires that anglers cut large holes in the ice and they generally need to be in some sort of shelter that blocks the light so anglers can see their quarry swimming beneath them.

But not all shelters, popularly called "shanties", are used by spearers. Many anglers find it preferable to fish inside a shelter rather than outside in the elements. At popular locations, virtual shanty towns develop on the ice.

Shanties can be pre-fabricated semi-permanent shacks that anglers haul out on the ice for the season. Others are simple foldout, tent-like affairs that anglers bring with them for the day. Some shanties are elaborate with propane heaters to keep them warm and folks build them large enough to accommodate cots, so they can spend the night on the ice if they choose.

Fishing techniques vary through the ice nearly as much as they do in open water, though the presentation is always vertical. Anglers can fish with bait, artificial lures, or often, a combination of the two. They can use a bobber or tight-line. They can still fish or jig.

An auger, which looks like a big cork screw with cutting blades along the edge, works great for a cutting hole in the ice.

No discussion of ice fishing is complete without talking about safety. Ice fishing can be dangerous; being submerged in icy water is something to be avoided at all costs. Always check with locals, at the bait shop for instance, about ice conditions.

"No ice is ever completely safe ice," said Department of Natural Resources and Environment law enforcement officer Steven Burton, who has conducted a number of rescues over the years. "Obviously, during some times of the year, some ice is much better than other ice. But all ice has the propensity to be dangerous."

Anglers should always test the ice as they venture forth. Carry a spud and test the ice as you proceed, chipping at the surface hard enough that the spud will go through thin ice.

The U.S. Army recommends a minimum thickness of two inches of ice for a 200-pound load. Avoid areas where the ice is discolored, where vegetation or timber protrude through the ice, or where there is an inlet or outlet - moving water, from a creek or springs, can weaken ice.

Ice safety experts recommend that anglers wear a personal floatation device and carry a rope so they can reach someone in trouble without approaching them too closely. Simple ice picks can help someone who falls in gain hold on the ice to pull themselves back out.

Some anglers prefer to use tip-ups like this one. Tip-ups sit on the ice above the hole and dangle the bait in the water. They feature small reels that are submerged beneath the ice and a spring-loaded flag that's bent down and attached to the reel. When a fish bites, the flag tips up.

Ice fishing can be fun and productive, but it isn't worth taking unnecessary risks. Always pay attention to the direction of the wind, especially on large bodies of water, as ice can break off and drift away.

Should you fall, try not to panic. The first order of business is to get out. Always turn toward the direction you approached, where you last had good ice, and try to slide out. Once you're back on the ice, do not try to get up until you know you are on good ice. Crawl or roll away from the hole.

Similarly, if you see someone fall through the ice, do not approach the hole; use a rope or ladder or pole to reach them.

As with open water fishing, all regulations apply, including license requirements. Michigan hosts a Free Fishing weekend Feb. 19-20, when anyone can fish without a license. Many parks and recreation departments and fishing clubs hold events associated with the weekend. It's a good opportunity for beginners to get some on-the-ice tutoring.

The DNRE will publish a list of Free Fishing weekend events as the date approaches. Visit for details.