Find the Right Depth, Catch Fish through the Ice


Finding the depth where the fish are is the key to catching fish through the ice.

DWR Press Release

Putting your bait or lure at the depth where the fish are is the key to catching fish through the ice. And using some simple devices that will help you know when a fish is biting your bait or lure is a big help too.

Randy Oplinger, cold water sport fisheries coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources, says fish become lethargic when they’re under the ice. “Fish that are under the ice usually don’t take baits aggressively,” he says. “Instead, they’ll often mouth the bait before stripping it off the hook or rejecting it. That makes it difficult to know when a fish is investigating your bait. That’s why devices, such as bobbers that float on the water or spring bobbers that attach to your fishing pole, are so important.”

You can stay updated on where fishing is best in Utah at, and  You can also learn more about the basics of ice fishing by watching a video titled “Ice Fishing Basics, Jan. 8, 2015.” The video shows a seminar that was held in Salt Lake City.

You can watch the video at


Oplinger recommends two techniques to help you find fish and then catch fish after you’ve found them:

–  The first technique is simple—simply drop your bait or lure to the depth where you think the fish are, and then let it sit. Keep it still. If you’ve put your lure or bait near a fish, there’s a good chance the fish will take it. Sometimes, though, it’s challenging to know if a fish has your bait or lure in its mouth.

“Fish are extremely passive in the winter,” Oplinger says. “They can have your bait or lure in their mouth, and you won’t even know it.”

For that reason, Oplinger recommends lifting your rod from time to time. “If a fish has your bait or lure in its mouth,” he says, “as soon as you raise your rod, you’ll set the hook.”

If you lift your rod, and a fish isn’t there, let your bait or lure flutter down to its starting point, and then watch it for awhile before lifting it again.

Also, if you’re not catching fish, change the depth at which you’re placing your bait or lure. Sometimes, fish are below you but not at the depth at which you’re fishing.

–  The second technique is called “lift, drop and hold.” To use this technique, drop your bait or lure to the depth where you think the fish are. Then, using only your wrist, lift the bait or lure about six inches, and then let it flutter back down to the starting point. Once the bait or lure reaches the starting point, let it sit for a few seconds, and then lift it again.

Oplinger says fish will watch the bait or lure as it moves and then take it as soon as it stops moving.

Water depth

The depth at which you’ll find fish varies depending on the species you’re after. No matter which water you’re fishing in Utah, you’ll probably find the following fish at the following depths:

Yellow perch

Either right on the bottom of the water you’re fishing, or no more than six inches above the bottom.

Bluegill, largemouth bass

Near brush, bulrushes, rocks and weeds. Look for vegetation that’s sticking up through the ice or ridges that extend down into the water. To find the depth where the fish are, start by dropping your bait or lure all the way to the bottom of the water you’re fishing. Then, raise your bait or lure 6 to 12 inches at a time. Keeping raising your bait or lure until you find the fish.

Trout, kokanee salmon

Suspended at various depths. The depth at which trout and salmon can be found ranges from just under the ice to as much as 15 feet below the ice. “Once you find the depth at which trout or salmon are suspended in a body of water,” Oplinger says, “there’s a good chance you’ll find them at that depth throughout the day.”

To catch trout and salmon, Oplinger recommends fishing your bait or lure just under the surface. If you don’t get a bite, lower your bait or lure a few feet. Try that depth for awhile. If the fish still aren’t biting, continue lowering your bait or lure a few feet at a time. If you’re using the right bait or lure, and you’re still not catching fish, you’ll know trout and salmon are not in that part of the lake at that time.


Close to the bottom.
Burbot, walleye, tiger muskie, northern pike

Near the bottom of the water you’re fishing. Each of these fish likes to pick baits or lures up, swim a ways with them, and then eat what they’ve picked up. Fishing with the bail on your reel open, or using a device called a tip up, are good ways to let the fish run with your bait or lure before you set the hook.

Also, if you’re fishing for burbot, walleye, tiger muskie or northern pike, use dead fish as bait on waters where the use of cut bait is allowed. Cut pieces of carp or chub are perfect items to place on your hook. “All four of these species are very attracted to fish meat,” Oplinger says.

To learn more about using dead fish as bait, see pages 10 and 11 of the 2016 Utah Fishing Guidebook. The free guidebook is available at

If you’re not sure which depth to try, ask others who are catching fish near you. “Most anglers are very willing to tell you the depth at which they’re catching fish,” Oplinger says.

Oplinger also reminds you that fish aren’t everywhere in a lake. If you drill a hole and fish for 30 minutes without getting a bite, move to a new spot.


Not only do fish move less under the ice, they also bite less aggressively. And that can make it challenging to know when a fish is striking your bait or lure. “If you’re relying on your fishing rod to tell you when a fish is on the end of your line,” Oplinger says, “you might not know when it’s time to set the hook.”

Fortunately, two inexpensive items—spring bobbers and slip bobbers—can help you detect the subtle bites of the fish.

Spring bobbers attach to the end or the top of your fishing rod. After attaching the bobber, run your fishing line through it, and then attach your hook or lure. After lowering your hook or lure to the desired depth, watch the spring bobber closely. Spring bobbers are extremely sensitive. They’ll detect bites long before your fishing rod begins to flex.

Slip bobbers are another effective way to detect soft bites. Slip bobbers come in various designs, but most have a hole that runs through the middle of the bobber.

To fish with a slip bobber, start by placing or tying a bobber stop on your line. Tie or place the stop at the distance you want your hook or lure to suspend. For example, if you want your hook or lure to suspend 10 feet below the surface of the water, pull out 10 feet of line and tie your bobber stop 10 feet from the end of your fishing line. Next, run your fishing line through the bobber. Finally, tie your hook or lure to the end of the line.

After you’re set up, reel your fishing line in, until the bobber comes to the end of your fishing pole. When you want to fish, simply release the bail on your reel. The baited hook or lure will pull line through the bobber until the bobber stop contacts the bobber and stops the hook or lure from falling. The bobber will sit on top of the water with your line dangling under it.

“When you see the bobber move,” Oplinger says, “you’ll know it’s time to raise your fishing rod and set the hook.”

Tip ups

An item that will cost you about $15, but that’s effective and fun to use, is called a tip up.

A tip up is a device that takes the place of your fishing rod. When a fish takes your bait, a mechanism on the tip up sends a small flag up, letting you know a fish is on the end of your line.

“Using a tip up makes it easier to fish in two holes,” Oplinger says. “You can drill two holes a ways apart and still know when a fish is biting in either hole.”

Please remember that your poles or tip ups cannot be more than 100 feet apart. You must be able to see each pole or tip up clearly.

Part 4

Our final story will list some of the best waters to ice fish in Utah this winter.

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