Many factors determine the best depth for ice fishing. These factors include the depth of the body of water, part of winter, and the targeted species of fish.
We wish there were a definite answer as to what depth you should be ice fishing; however, there isn’t one. To give you a starting point about which depth to fish, we will look at several popular fish species and make suggestions as to where to start fishing. We will also look at baits and lures that are good for the depths. Ice fishing is a trial and error approach when searching for the right depth. Ice friendly fish finders and sonars are excellent resources for finding fish below the ice. Before we get started, however, let’s look at common behaviors fish exhibit during winter months.
Common Winter Behaviors
As the water cools and ice begins to form fish behavior changes. Fish metabolism slows down, and they become lethargic under the ice. This slowing down of the metabolism causes the fish to move slow, which generally means less of a fight. Many people believe you can’t fish in winter months because fish don’t eat during this time; however, that is untrue. Fish still eat during the winter months, and most species still actively eat, just like spring and summer months. Staying at specific depths helps maintain energy. With a lower metabolism, fish do not want to expend a lot of energy to eat. We can use this knowledge to help us find fish and know which baits and lures to use while ice fishing.
Properties of the Body of Water
Each body of water is different, and the properties within that body of water differ. Depth, water clarity, structure, and contour also make a difference in defining the best depth to ice fish. Other factors to take into consideration include water current, vegetation, type of water (fresh, salt, or brackish), and the presence of baitfish. There is no easy answer as to the best depth to ice fish, but one of the factors to consider is the properties of the total body of water.
The targeted species of fish determine what depth of water you should ice fish. The time of winter also affects the depth, but this is also dependent on the targeted species. We are going to look at the seven most targeted species in ice fishing.
Bass is probably the least popular species of fish to ice fish for, but people still do it. Whether you are fishing for largemouth or smallmouth bass, the ideal depths will be the same. The perfect depth is 20-30 feet. Search for bass near bulrushes, rocks, brush, and weeds. Ice fishing for bass is very different than fishing for bass during the spring and summer months. During winter, the bass will not fight as much as they do during warmer months. Fishing for them with the same rigs as summer and spring months will not produce many results. When ice fishing for bass, be sure to use smaller baits and jigs. Bass metabolism slows way down, and they won’t chase after topwater lures, crankbaits, or fast-moving lures. The best results for ice fishing for bass happen when you drop your bait or lure about 30 feet. Wait for a few minutes, if no bites, raise it a few more feet. Keep doing this until one bites. If one doesn’t bite, move.
Perch, especially yellow perch, are extremely fun to catch during warmer months, but did you know they are as equally enjoyable to fish in winter. Perch are popular to catch during ice fishing. They live in large schools, and a variety of jigs and lures are successful. If you are in a shallower body of water, drop your rig down into the hole until you hit bottom. If the perch are not on the bottom, bring your rig six inches above the bottom. Keep raising your rig until you find the school of perch. In deeper bodies of water, in early winter months, you can find perch between 12 feet and 15 feet. They will remain here until aquatic plants die off. As the winter progresses, you will discover perch between 20 feet and 35 feet. Perch love transition zones that are between shallow flats and drop off to deeper flats.
Crappies are incredibly active in the cold water. Crappies are school fish that move around quite a bit. To begin your search for crappie, try fishing between 8-40 feet depending on the time of winter. During the early part of winter, fish between 8-12 feet in areas that still have weeds. During mid-late winter, fish between 20-40 feet at basins depending on the quality of vegetation. Fishing for crappie in the ice is similar to fishing for crappie in the open water. Crappies tend to hold tight to underwater structures. Using minnows, ice spoons, and swim jigs will catch crappie. When fishing with live bait, be sure to drop the bait above the fish as crappie fish up because of the location of the eyes of the crappies.
Walleye are some times very evasive fish. Catching walleye will vary from lake to lake, region to region. Often found near drop off ledges, points, reefs, healthy weed beds, and travel corridors, walleye tend to be night feeders and feed while it is overcast.
When winter hits, walleye move deeper where water is warmer, The best depths to ice fish for walleye are between 10 and 25 feet. Locating the walleye depends on water temperature, light, conditions, and time of day. In early winter, try fishing at depths of 10-25 feet. In mid to late winter, try fishing at depths of 15-25 feet. Knowing the bottom and topography of the lake will help find walleye. Also, try fishing in the same spots you caught them in the fall. In late winter, walleye will start to spawn; they will move to inlets and shoreline structures to spawn where the water is warmer. They will also assemble where water enters the lake. One very effective way to fish for walleye is with tip-ups. Tip-ups are a way to ice fish without a rod or reel.
When ice fishing, trout is a trendy fish to try and catch. Like the walleye, they are more active in the cold water than other fish. Trout will hunt in higher water columns near rich nutrients and take a variety of baits. Ice spoons and large swim jigs are ideal lures. The depth at which you should ice fish for trout is hugely dependent on the depth of the lake. If the lake is more in-depth than 60 feet, ice fishing between 20-60 feet should catch you a trout. If the lake is more shallow, drop your lure at 10 ft or the top third of the water. Another similarity between walleye and trout is the convenience and effectiveness of using a tip-up. If you don’t use a tip-up and would instead use a rod and reel, lower your lure/bait into the water just below the surface, if no bites, lower another foot, and wait. If no bites, drop again and wait. Keep doing until you get a bite. If no bite, move locations.
Traveling in large schools, Kokanee feeds on light-sensitive zooplankton that survives in the mid-depth portions of the water column. Kokanee salmon swim along specific contours, so having contour maps would be beneficial. Generally, trout and kokanee suspend at various depths and can be fished the same way. Try fishing at depths starting at 10 feet. To attract kokanee, use small, brightly colored jigs ornated with corn or salmon egg. If the salmon are near the surface, you can sight fish them.
Pike is a challenging fish to catch not only ice fishing but also all year round. Pike tends to be found near underwater humps, points, and edges of weed beds and at various depths, but starting at 15 feet is ideal. They will also patrol shallow water looking for slow-moving baitfish. Pike are attracted to large swim jigs, spoons, and live/dead bait such as ciscos, suckers, shad, and goldeye. Fish your bait at half the depth as they like to attach their bait. Tip-ups are often used to catch pike. It will be tough to find a pike; they are easily spooked, especially while ice fishing.
While ice fishing, you can’t cast, which means the area you can cover from one hole is restricted. Moving and drilling more holes is the only way to cover the ground. Using fish electronics can also be very helpful when ice fishing. They will help you locate underwater structure, weed beds, and even fish. Ice fishing depths are dependent on the species you are targeting. Other factors to consider include the time of winter and the properties of the water. These depths are just starting points, and they are not guaranteed. Trial and error is the best practice. Remember, if fish are not biting, move.
You may also like to know: Can You Use a Normal Rod & Reel for Ice Fishing?