Ice Fishing Basics

Ice Fishing Basics

Chain pickerel are common a catch. Photo Tom Richardson

When my wife gave me a guided ice-fishing trip in the Berkshires as a Christmas gift a few years ago, I wasnt sure what to think. Yes, I had previously expressed some curiosity about ice fishinga form of angling with which I had littleexperiencebut to banish ones spouse to a frozen lake for the day? Really?

My guidewas Paul Tawczynski, an accomplished freshwater angler who once competed on the B.A.S.S. tournament circuit.Tawczynski is the founder of Charter the Berkshires, which he built into a successful year-round guiding service before selling the business to fellow guide Patrick Barone, who continues to offer guided groupice-fishing trips, as well as warm-weather trips targeting everything from bass to trout.

A basic tip-up is all you need to get started in ice fishing. Photo Tom Richardson

Serious Operation

On a cold and overcast day in mid-February, I met Tawczynski and the four other members of our shared party at snow-covered Lake Laurel in Lee, an hour west of Springfield and roughly two hours from Boston.Once our group had assembled in the parking lot in front of the lakes launch ramp, Tawczynski gave us the drill on how the four-hour afternoon session would proceed. He had pre-rigged 25 tip-ups over holes the ice, all baited with live shiners, which hestores in buckets treated with a chemical that keeps the water from freezing.

What to Wear

Speaking of freezing, its critical to dress properly for ice fishingat least if you want to enjoy yourself. Insulated, waterproof boots for the often slushy lake surfaces and layered clothing are a must (most ice-fishing veterans favor snowmobile suits)and dont forget ear protection and your best pair of gloves or mittens. If things get really bitter, Charter the Berkshires provides aportable shelter warmed by a propane heater.

The tip-ups we fished were standard-issue. Each featured an orange flag that automatically pops up when a fish takes the bait. A set of bells on the flag also alert the angler to a bite. The reels were spooled with 50-pound-test braided line and a three-foot monofilament leader with a No. 1 hook tied to the end (hook size varies according to the size of the bait and the species being targeted). A small split-shot sinker is sometimes attached several inches above the hook to keep the bait at the desired depth. The shiners, meanwhile, were lightly hooked just ahead of the dorsal fin and above the spine, so as not to impede their swimming ability.

Shiners should be hooked just ahead of the dorsal fin and above the spine. Photo Tom Richardson

Live Baits Best

While Tawczynski sometimes fishes small jigs tipped with waxworms for species such as perch, sunfish, and bass when the fish are biting well, the live-bait approach is best for inexperienced anglers and days when the fish are sluggishwhich is much of the time. Winter fish do not eat to increase their size, energy, and muscle mass for breeding and competing with rivals or evading predators. Rather, they are simply trying survive the winter, and therefore feed less frequently and aggressively than during the warmer months. They still have to eat, however!

But where to set the lines? Much depends on the species being targeted, but in general one should look for drop-offs, weed beds, rocks, tree stumps, and areas of current flow, such as near the outlet or inlet of a lake or pond. All of these places tend to attract baitfish, which in turn draw predators. To locate these spots, consult a bathymetric map, available through the state, digital charting companies, andvarious apps, such as GPS nautical charts. In our case, the lines were set in 5 to 20 feet of water and staggered to cover different depths in the hopes of intercepting the fish as they cruised for a meal.

Some Massachusetts lakes are stocked with tiger trout. Photo Tom Richardson

Laurel Lake is noteworthy for containing stocked salmon, which can weigh 10 pounds or more. They are an elusive species that tend to cruise just below the ice, and are often spooked by the movements of fishermen above. Catching one is a real challenge. More common are the pickerel, trout, bass, crappie, sunfish, and perch that inhabit most of the lakes and ponds in western Massachusetts.

Like any type of fishing, ice fishing action is affected by the weather. As during summer, high pressure tends to get the fish feeding more aggressively. On the other hand, low or falling pressure can make for slow days.

Ice-Fishing Safety

Before venturing onto thefrozen lakes and ponds of New England, follow these important safety tips:

In general, a clear layer of ice four inches thick is safe for foot traffic, but there are no guarantees. Always consider ice to be potentially dangerous. Assess the ice by using a chisel to chop a hole in the ice to determine its thickness and condition. Ice thickness is seldom uniform, so continue to test the ice as you venture further onto the pond or lake. Remember that ice thickness depends on water currents, depth, and the presence of springs and objects such as tree stumps or rocks (ice will be thinner around objects that retain warmth from the sun). Daily changes in temperature also cause the ice to expand and contract, which affects its strength. Never venture on to ice-bound rivers or streams, because the currents make ice thickness unpredictable.

What if you fall through the ice? As with any emergency, dont panic! Briefly call for help. It doesnt take long for the cold water to start slowing your physical and mental functions, so you must act quickly. Air will remain trapped in your clothes for a short time, aiding in buoyancy. Kick your legs while grasping for firm ice. Try to pull your body up using ice pins or picks, which should be hanging around your neck. Once your torso is on firm ice, roll towards thicker icethe direction from which you previously walked. Rolling will distribute your weight better than walking.

After you reach safe ice, you need to warm up quickly to prevent hypothermia. Go to the nearest fishing shanty, warm car, or house. Dont drive home in wet clothes.

If a companion falls through the ice, remember the phrase Reach-Throw-Go. If you are unable to reach your friend, throw him/her a rope, jumper cables, tree branch, or other object. If this does not work, go for help; do not risk becoming a victim yourself. Pet owners should keep pets on a leash. If a pet falls through the ice, do not attempt to rescue the pet; go for help. Well-meaning pet owners often fall through the ice when trying to save their pets.

Ice Thickness and Strength

Ice Thickness (inches)

Permissible Load (on new* clear**, blue ice on lakes or ponds)

2 or less



Ice fishing or other activities on foot


Snowmobile or ATV


Car or small pickup truck

12 15

Medium truck

*New ice is stronger than older ice. **White ice or snow ice is only about half as strong as new clear ice. Double the above thickness guidelines when traveling on white ice.

  • More Safety Tips
  • Leave information about your plans with someone, including where you intend to fish and when you expect to return.

  • Wear a personal flotation device.

  • Ice varies in thickness and condition. Always carry an ice spud or chisel to check ice as you proceed.

  • Be extremely cautious crossing ice near river mouths, points of land, bridges, islands, and over reefs and springs. Current almost always causes ice to be thinner over these areas.

  • Avoid going onto the ice if it has melted away from the shore. This indicates melting is underway, and ice can shift position as wind direction changes.

  • Waves from open water can quickly break up large areas of ice. If you can see open water in the lake and the wind picks up, get off!

  • Make sure yourcell phone is fully charged.

  • Carry a safety line that can be thrown to someone who has gone through the ice.

  • Heated fishing shanties must have good ventilation to prevent deadly carbon monoxide poisoning. Open a window or the door part way to allow in fresh air.

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