So, you want to get into ice fishing! Welcome to an exclusive but tight-knit club. Ice fishing brings a unique twist to your typical fishing experience and offers a different way to get out and experience nature during the winter months.
A cursory glance at all the gear established ice-fishermen use can be pretty intimidating. That’s a lot of specialized equipment! But you don’t need that much to get started ice fishing, and then you can acquire more gear slowly as you fall in love with the sport. We’ve put together this easy-to-use guide with all information you need to get out and enjoy Oregon’s winters on the ice.
Before you start gathering gear, it’s important to know Oregon’s laws regarding ice fishing. While they’re available online, it’s a good idea to go into your local Fish and Game office and get a physical copy of all the rules and regulations. That way you’ve got it handy to reference quickly, and while you’re there you can have a conversation about what ice fishing spots you should try.
Alternately, most big camping stores or outdoor shops that sell fishing licenses will have the rule books available as well. Learn the rules, follow them, and you won’t run into any issues. After all, it’s called ice fishing, not ice catching. The point isn’t just to go home with some fresh fish, it’s also important to respect the places you’re recreating and the wildlife that inhabits them.
Ice fishing is generally pretty safe, but there are a few safety considerations to think about. Your number one concern will always be ice thickness. If you fall through the ice, you’re going to have a pretty terrible day. Ice strength varies based on a lot of factors, but a good rule of thumb is that you’re looking for at least 4” thick ice to support your weight safely. That’s the bare minimum, and something closer to 8” gives you a bigger margin for error. More advanced ice fishermen sometimes will use ATVs and cars to drive out onto the ice to access their fishing holes. For beginners though, we recommend skiing or walking out onto the ice.
It’s important to remember that ice thickness isn’t consistent through a body of water. There will be thicker and thinner spots. In general, ice is thicker near shorelines and places where the water is shallower. But occasionally a warm spring flowing into the lake, or some other abnormal waterway can create thinner ice. Be aware of these inconsistencies.
When you’re ice fishing, it’s best to have a buddy with you. Just like any winter sport, there’s some objective hazard to spending this much time out in the cold. Having a buddy means you can keep an eye on each other and help each other out in case of an emergency. Always pack more food, water, and warm clothes than you think you’ll need.
For folks just getting started at ice fishing, you don’t need fishing-specific clothing. Instead, you can use whatever winter gear you already have. Just make sure it’s insulated and waterproof. If you’re looking for deals on warm winter clothes it’s a good idea to hit up your local ski shop. The clothing they sell is designed to keep you warm and dry in the same extreme winter weather that you’ll run into ice fishing.
When you’re ice fishing you want to dress in layers. You want a synthetic or wool layer close to your skin (not cotton). This layer helps wick sweat away and keep you dry. Then you want a puffy insulating layer over that to keep you warm. Down or synthetic insulation works well here. Finally, on top, you want a shell layer to keep you dry from any snow or rain that may fall. It’s a good idea to always pack at least one extra insulating layer, often it gets colder throughout the day and you’ll be happy to have another layer to bundle up in.
Wear the warmest boots you have, and don’t go overboard on the socks. Wear good wool socks, but don’t wear multiple pairs and jam your feet into too-small boots. Too many or too tight of socks can cut off circulation to your feet and make them colder. Bring extra socks in case your feet end up getting wet. Nothing saves the day like dry socks.
If you’re just getting started out and already own normal fishing gear, all you need is an auger. An auger helps you drill holes through the ice. Manual augers are very affordable, but it’s a lot of work to drill holes. We’d recommend starting with an affordable gas auger. They work a lot faster and allow you to drill more holes quickly. That’s important, especially as you’re starting because ice fishing is all about trying a bunch of different locations. You can’t just cast out into different areas like you would in the summer, so you need to be ready to try different locations.
It’s helpful to have some kind of sled to haul your gear out onto the ice. A kid’s sled works just fine, or you can get a heavier duty one made specifically for ice fishing. Starting, you can just walk out on the ice with Yacktrax on your winter boots. But if you want to fish bigger bodies of water, a pair of XC or touring skis makes a big difference. You can get them waxed for traction on the ice anywhere that offers good ski tuning service. They make it a lot easier to move quickly and efficiently with all your gear.
Shorter ice fishing rods do make jigging your bait easier, and it’s less challenging to pull fish up through the hole with them, so it’s not a bad idea to get an affordable rod. You can use your summer reel on an ice rod just fine.
The magic of ice fishing is that it’s addictive. Once you get started you’ll get hooked fast. So follow this guide to start fishing the ice, and then talk to and learn from more experienced anglers. You’ll be a pro soon yourself.