The right gear to start ice fishing

Bill Graves, Special to The County, Special to The County
4 years ago

A fellow came up to me at the grocery store and introduced himself and said he recognized me from my photos accompanying my outdoor-oriented newspaper and magazine articles. He’d moved his family from a populous Florida city to northern Maine.  Now that’s got to be a major climate and culture shock, I remember thinking. The man wanted to introduce his youngsters to ice fishing and asked me, “What do I need for our first outing?” Having fielded that same question dozens of times over the years, my off-the-cuff retort was, “You need a friend who ice fishes and owns all the gear!”


In reality, it is a good idea to accompany a well-equipped and experienced “hard water” fisherman for a trip or two and find out if this cold-weather sport is going to become a regular pastime. If the answer is yes, then the very first thing a rookie winter angler needs is ice thick enough on a favorite lake to safely support two or three sportsmen. 

That leads us to purchasing your first piece of equipment — something to check ice thickness and create fishing holes.

Fishermen will need an ice chisel, manual auger or motorized auger. The price varies inversely to the amount of work needed to create the hole and time spent. A gas auger can drill 10 holes in the time spent punching one hole with muscle power, but on the plus side, an ice chisel and manual auger don’t require gas or oil and won’t break down. How often you plan to fish and how many companions need holes drilled each outing will be deciding factors.

The next necessity, and perhaps the most important equipment, is a set of tip-ups, also called traps. Even if you are invited to join a fishing partner or a group, and they have an ice auger, you should own your own tip-ups rigged and ready to use. Let me warn you right up front: you get what you pay for, and it’s far better to own five really sturdy, easy-to-deploy traps that are a bit costly than a dozen cheap ones.

There are dozens of shapes, sizes, colors and features available for ice fishing tip-ups, as well as a wide variance in prices. Talk to an experienced ice fisherman or knowledgeable clerk at the sporting goods store for some guidance before purchasing an outfit. (Courtesy of Bill Graves)

Check into tip-ups by Frabill. I like the bright orange models. They are hard to lose and easy to set out and see. Heritage also makes a sturdy trap, flag and reel outfit and Polar manufactures an HT Therma Extreme, a round trap that actually fits over and covers the hole to keep snow out to prevent freeze-up. Another heavy-duty option built right here in Maine is the Jack Trap. They are simple to set up in the coldest weather and will handle even the largest quarry, such as muskie. Finally look over Maxtraps, also made in Maine, and constructed for heavy use in the worst weather conditions.

Plan to spend $25 to $50 for a decent tip-up that will function for many winters, regardless of how wet and cold the conditions are. Some companies even offer combo kits that include a set of tip-ups, a carry sack or pack basket and even special covers for storage or travel. Every ice angler will need some sort of container to transport their tip-ups and extras such as hooks, sinkers, replacement lines, depth sounder, minnow net and other paraphernalia. It can be as simple as a five gallon plastic bucket or a pack basket with waterproof cover and carry harness.

A long-handled ice scoop is a must. Most ice drillers have a backup since they tend to disappear down ice holes due to cold fingers, icy handles and thick gloves. Sportsmen learn quickly how important a wrist strap safety string on ice scoops and chisels can be. A heavy-duty but lightweight plastic tote sled saves a lot of time and effort. Eagle Claws’ Shappell jet sleds offer multiple size and color options, will haul by hand or hook to a snowmobile or ATV and can haul game animals, hunting gear and people as well as lots of ice fishing equipment.

A small comparted fly box for extra line, leader material, sinkers, hooks, jigs and lures, a live bait pail and bait net, knife, multitool and layers of warm clothes ought to round out your stockpile of essential ice fishing gear. If you really get serious about the sport, a snowmobile and portable ice fishing shelter may be added. 

See? I told you it was better to find a friend who’s already geared up.

There are flea markets, yard sales, garage sales and lots of buy, swap and sell books with plenty of second-hand or new ice fishing equipment listed. As much as it pains me to remind everyone, there’s lots of winter remaining and plenty of lakes and ponds to explore. Load up, head out, have fun and be safe.