What to Know When Ice Fishing this Winter


Photo Courtesy of the Utah DWR

DWR News Release

While skiing and snowboarding are often what first comes to mind when people think of outdoor recreation during the winter, ice fishing is another great activity for the coldest months of the year. If you are planning to go ice fishing this winter, here are a few things you should know.

Safety tips for anglers

Staying safe is one of the most important aspects of ice fishing. Be sure to dress in layers and have all the needed equipment to stay warm. If you are bringing children, it’s nice to have hot beverages like hot cocoa or even hot soup available to help them stay warm. It’s also recommended to bring hand warmers that you can put in your gloves or boots. Ice fishing bibs are another great way to bundle up and stay warm, and they also use material that keeps the angler afloat in case they fall through the ice.

To avoid falling through the ice, a general safety recommendation is to not step on the ice unless it is at least four inches thick. Keep in mind, though, that ice thickness can vary across a lake. If you see the ice is four inches thick in one spot, don’t assume it’s four inches thick across the entire lake. Be sure to drill test holes into the ice as you venture onto it or take a spud bar (ice chisel) if it is really early in the season so you can test the ice regularly as you walk out. You should also avoid putting large groups of people and equipment in a small area — spread the weight out.

“As a basic precaution, you should also purchase and always wear ice safety picks, which can help you get out of the water if you fall through the ice,” Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Sportfish Coordinator Trina Hedrick said. “I’d also recommend taking a throw rope with you, and it’s always a good idea to have someone else with you when ice fishing.”

Find more ice safety tips on the Utah State Parks website. 

Common mistakes to avoid when ice fishing

Another important element of ice fishing is to make sure you are following all the laws. A few of the most common mistakes that DWR conservation officers encounter are:

  • People catching and keeping too many fish over the legal limit

  • License violations

“Quite often, ice fishing is so good that people can forget about the regulations and take too many fish,” DWR Capt. Chad Bettridge said. “If you are lucky enough to experience one of those kinds of fishing trips, please remember the rules so other anglers can enjoy that same kind of day later on.”

Catch-and-release tips for ice fishing

If you want to release the fish that you catch while ice fishing, there are a few things you can do to help decrease stress to the fish and increase survival.

Just like hot temperatures and warm water can have impacts on certain fish species, freezing weather can also be tough on fish. Anglers have to remember that even though they are ice fishing, the fish they are catching are living in water that is not frozen, which means that the water temperature that the fish are experiencing is often warmer than the temperatures they are exposed to coming out of the water.

“If an angler is fishing on a particularly cold day, pulling a fish up through a hole and exposing them to freezing conditions can be stressful to a fish,” Hedrick said. “The water that remains on sensitive areas, such as the gills or eyes, can begin to freeze and this can cause damage to a fish. So, it is best to minimize exposure time and to release the fish as quickly as possible after catching it.”

One way to eliminate the air exposure time is to make sure you have quick access to all the tools you will need to easily and quickly release the fish.

“A unique aspect of ice fishing is that anglers tend to dress in layers to keep warm, which is definitely recommended,” Hedrick said. “However, they often bury key equipment, such as pliers and cameras, under those layers. Another key aspect of ice fishing is that anglers often fish with two holes that are somewhat separated from each other. This makes it easy to forget key equipment for releasing the fish when you head to another hole in response to a strike. What you don’t want to do is increase air exposure time for the fish because you are scrambling to find equipment. Anglers should carry the equipment that they need to release their fish in an easily accessible location.”

One idea for doing that is to keep your pliers on a lanyard around your neck to make them easy to find and access while ice fishing. Another idea is to keep all your equipment in a bucket or sled so that it’s easy to find and doesn’t get buried in the snow on top of the ice.

Another tip for decreasing the stress to a fish is to remove your gloves before handling the fish. Wearing gloves while ice fishing is typically recommended to protect an angler’s hands from freezing conditions. However, winter gloves are often made of absorptive fabric. Fish have a protective slime coat on their skin, and wearing gloves while handling the fish can remove the slime coat.

“That can leave fish more susceptible to various skin issues, such as fungal diseases,” Hedrick said. “I know that it is tough to take gloves off while ice fishing because it’s cold, but handling fish with your bare hands is best — and when the fishing is hot, your hands just don’t seem to get as cold! Once the fish have been safely released, then you can put your gloves back on.”

Find more information about where to go ice fishing in Utah on the DWR Fish Utah map.

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