Whether you are targeting panfish, walleye, pike, lake trout, or other popular species, the best baits for ice fishing will help boost your chances of catching fish.
Ice fishing is a great way to counteract cabin fever and turn a cold day into an abundance of fun on the ice and catching a load of fish. You can target most of the same species you catch during the summer through the ice in the winter if you use the right baits for your target species.
When the fish are hitting and the lines are busy, ice fishing becomes a truly joyous occasion. But when they aren’t biting, it’s time to start rotating through baits to figure out what they want.
During winter, fish are hungry and can be aggressive but they can still be picky.
You can’t just pick any bait to catch any species of fish. You’ll need to learn which fish feed on which types of baitfish, worms, larvae, and other food sources. Carefully selecting ice-fishing bait helps most ice fishermen have success. Here are some of the best baits for ice fishing.
Understanding the Bait Types
A lot of ice-fishing live bait is similar to what you would use during the summer. Different types of worms, minnows, and larvae are equally effective on a cold day in February as they are on a hot day in August. Using the right type of ice fishing bait requires a little research and some timely tips from your local bait shop and other ice anglers.
Ice Fishing With Minnows
Artificial minnows, like the popular Berkley Gulp! Minnow, can be very effective at causing fish to bite. The Gulp! minnows are infused with Berkley’s proprietary bait scent and are effective at catching crappie, perch, and other minnow-munching fish. I use them quite a bit when targeting crappie and appreciate being able to keep them packaged in their scent-infusing fluid when I am not fishing instead of having to let them go if they were live minnows.
Artificial minnows work great, but live minnows are best when the bite is on. Perch, crappie, walleye, pike, and lake trout are some of the more commonly caught fish when using live minnows on an ice fishing trip. Live minnows just require a hook or jig and a split shot sinker to help get them down to the desired depth. Then they can move naturally and give off their natural scent to catch fish.
Ice Fishing With Worms
Nightcrawlers are versatile bait for targeting larger species like walleye, trout, and pike. They are the time-proven ice-fishing live bait and might be the first bait that you ever used when learning how to fish as a kid. You’ll have to buy them during the winter months, but one nightcrawler could bait several hooks and catch several fish while ice fishing.
One of my favorite types of ice-fishing bait is the venerable wax worm. Wax worms are affordable, plentiful, and can last a lot longer than minnows or nightcrawlers. They work especially well when ice fishing for bluegill and can catch crappie, yellow perch, and bigger fish. I like to use a glow-in-the-dark teardrop lure with either worms or minnows when using ice-fishing bait.
Ice Fishing With Cut Bait
Anyone who fishes for catfish knows the value of using fragments from common fish, like whitefish or shad, to bait a treble hook and attract big fish. Cut bait is an irresistible meal for predatory fish and holds very well to bare hooks, jigs, and lures. The cut bait also gives you the added advantage of a natural scent that attracts fish.
Ice Fishing With Jigs
Jigs are the primary choice for many ice anglers and make ice-fishing bait more effective by giving them some added color to catch the eye of predatory fish. Jigs also can hold artificial bait and plastics that are designed to mimic live bait. Using live bait with a jig makes it possible to use deadstick fishing, but jigging up and down will help to give it more action and entice bites from hungry fish.
Some jigs are made to look like baitfish and are great ice-fishing lures for catching walleye, northern pike, lake trout, and other predatory fish. A Jiggin’ Rap is a great example and one that you should bring along on any ice-fishing trip. A Jiggin’ Rap and others like it are shaped like a small baitfish with single hooks extending from the very front and the very back.
A treble hook is on the bottom and directly beneath the eyelet at the top, and a delta-shaped fin in the back adds to the motion and vibration when you jig the ice-fishing lures. The Jiggin’ Rap and similar ice-fishing lures look like baitfish and create a walking motion when jigged up and down. Some similar fishing lures also rattle to help get the attention of bigger fish.
Ice Fishing With Spoons
Spoons are terrific ice-fishing lures that you can use at any time of the year. Many of the same popular and effective spoons that you might use during the warm months also work well as ice-fishing lures.
Flutter spoons in particular flutter and flash due to the jigging motion to attract and catch different fish species. The fluttering also creates vibrations that lake trout, landlocked salmon, and other species can detect with their lateral lines.
Jigging spoons that flash and rattle are some of the best ice-fishing lures for catching predatory fish. Some jigging spoons just flash when jigged, like a Swedish Pimple. Others might rattle or have joints that enable them to bend and click while you ice fish.
You can increase the appeal of jigging spoons by placing some ice-fishing bait, like wax worms, larvae, or cut bait, on the treble hook to make it more enticing. The combination of bait and the jigging makes it easier to attract and catch fish while ice fishing.
Live vs. Artificial Baits: Weighing the Pros and Cons
Using live bait while ice fishing unmatched scent and motion of live baits. You’ll have to jig when using wax worms and nightcrawlers, but minnows provide all the action that you should need for the best ice fishing. Live baits produce a natural scent and are great baits for catching fish through the ice. Unfortunately, they do have a limited shelf life and should be used before they die.
If the fishing is slow, you might have a lot more live bait than you need. If you only use a couple of minnows while you ice fish because nothing is biting, those minnows aren’t going to last long. The convenience and versatility of artificial baits make them a relative bargain for ice anglers and are great lures for catching fish. You use only what you need and can save the rest for your next ice-fishing trip.
Live bait works best when ice fishing in shallows and other areas where baitfish are likely to be in large numbers and attract predatory fish. They are especially effective in clear water where they can be seen more easily.
Artificial bait works best when the water color is ruddy, muddy, or green and fish have a harder time locating live bait. You can use different colored artificial bait that are more visible in discolored water or where there is less light, like when ice and snow cover a frozen lake.
Storing and Handling Live Bait
You can get more longevity and maintain the general health of live bait for an extended period to you can use them on your next ice-fishing trip instead of making another trip to the local bait shop. You can place a bubbler in a minnow bucket that adds oxygen so the minnows stay livelier and in good health longer. Wax worms, nightcrawlers, and similar baits generally last longer when kept refrigerated.
You also can get better fishing results when you properly place the bait on the hook. Worms and similar baits easily slide over hooks and stay in place if they have bait-holder tines.
When fishing with minnows, I prefer hooking the minnow just beneath its dorsal fin so it can pass water and oxygen through its mouth and gills. Hooking them in the fleshy part near the middle of the fish makes it harder for a fish to take the minnow without getting hooked.
Safety and Regulations
As always when fishing, you need to ensure you are doing it legally and ethically. Different states have different regulations regarding bait usage. For example, you can use a net to catch shad to use as bait in some states, but not any crappie that you might net.
I do my best to abide by respective state laws and regulations for fishing, including using a legal number of lines and only catching fish that are in season, of legal size, and in lawful quantities that don’t exceed creel limits.