There isn’t a silver bullet answer to this question. The best depth for your target species under clear, early season ice differs from later in the season. Many variables such as time of day, lake depth and more affect where you’ll find the fish.
Studying the habits and tendencies of your target species before stepping on the hard water will help you locate the best depth for your favorite fish and increase your odds of a good catch. The following guidelines provide tips on finding many types of popular game fish under the ice.
How Far Off the Bottom Do You Ice Fish?
Ice anglers today have the advantage of sonar and fish finders that work through the ice. Before you spend too much time worrying about the right depths, It’s important to scan the ice to find any fish nearby.
Under the Ice fish stay in deeper water, so you need to be flexible in Your methods methods and the depths used. Two feet below the ice may be the active hot spot for some species. Other times, bouncing your jig in the mud and cranking up slowly can attract hungry fish.
Some variables affecting how close to the bottom you want your bait or lures include:
Time of season, target species,ice clarity, and time of day. Let’s look at how each of these affects where you suspend your bait or lure.
Time of Season & Ice Clarity
Oxygen released by underwater vegetation is why many species of fish remain in shallow waters in the early ice fishing season. As the ice thickens, less sunlight penetrates the ice and plants die, as a result from reduced oxygen levels, causing fish to move to deeper water.
Time of Day
Fish are more active and bite better at different times of day. As many ice anglers know, dawn to early morning, and a few hours before and after sunset are prime feeding times for many popular game fish.
When the sun is high in the sky, its light can penetrate deeper into icy lakes. This causes fish to move to deeper water, so you’ll need to set your lines deeper to find the fish.
In the Winter, Deeper Water is Warmer.
Below the surface of frozen, freshwater lakes, water temperature patterns become inverted. At about 40° F cold water becomes lighter, and warm water becomes heavier, causing the warm water to sink. As a result, fish move to the deeper levels to take advantage of the more hospitable water.
How Close to the Bottom Do I Fish?
That depends on your target species. All species of fish have a preferred depth in the water column, which changes over the season. Try suspending your bait or lure about eighteen inches off the bottom. See the table below to find more details on the best levels for your target species.
The idea that game fish are sitting in the bottom mud looking for food is a common ice fishing myth. Sure, fish go deeper under the ice, but as stated above, there are levels common to every species.
Presenting your bait or lure above a fish’s field of vision is important for several reasons.
First, because light travels poorly underwater, fish can’t see your bait from more than a few centimeters away. On a clear day, you may see 2 kilometers in similar underwater conditions. A fish may see fifty meters at best. If the waters are choppy, algae filled or murky, a fish’s visibility drops to centimeters.
Second, most game fish’s eyes are near the top of their heads, so their vision is best above and beside them. Present your bait below a fish, and it’s less likely to see it, but dangle it above the fish and you’ll not only get more bites, but they’ll be more aggressive and easier to hook too.
A trick to get started is to let your line drop to the bottom and bounce your bait or jig on the mud or silt, causing vibrations and clouding the water to get the fish’s attention. Then, crank your bait up to the optimal depth for your target, where you jig or bounce your hook.
What is the Best Depth for Ice Fishing?
We’ve already reviewed why you’ll find fish suspended at different levels in the column. Now it’s time to learn where these levels are. While it’s true that most species move to deeper water as the winter wears on, each species has a preferred depth. Knowing these depths will help you know the right level to set your line at.
|Target Species||Best Early Winter Depths.||Best Late Winter Depths||Peak Feeding Times|
|Walleye||12 to 15 feet||20 to 35 feet||Night feeders, peak ½ hour before & after sunset & dawn.|
|Perch*||12 to 15 feet||20 to 35 feet||Early morning and dusk.|
|Lake trout||20 to 60 feet||20 to 60 feet||Dawn and around sunset.|
|Northern Pike||5 to 15 feet||5 to 15 feet||Sunrise & two hours after. Two hours before sunset.|
|Muskie||15-20 feet||Out of Season||Early morning, dusk to early night time.|
|White fish||5-15 feet||10-20 feet||Feed the best dusk to dawn.|
|Crappies||8 – 12 feet||20 – 40 feet||Most active mid-day.|
|Bluegill & Sunfish||15 -20 feet||20-25 feet||Most active late afternoon to early evening.|
*If you locate a school of small perch early in the evening, it’s time to set up your lines for the walleye that will probably feed on them later that night.
The guidelines in the table above will get you started, but every region is unique and the depth ranges and feeding times may vary. Remember, flexibility is key. If your first setup isn’t producing, try different depths, baits, lures and holes to find the active fish.
When fishing in a new lake, local bait and tackle shops are a source of valuable information on the fishing conditions. It’s a good idea to swap some fish stories to learn how deep you’ll find your target species in a lake before stepping on the ice.
How Do You Set the Depth for Ice Fishing?
One last element remains to your depth: underwater structures. These can be anything from naturally occurring ledges, submerged trees or brush, construction debris, or sunken boats. Many game fish like crappie and walleye gather near this type of cover.
Sonar will still show structure under the ice. Look for drowned wood that still has branches and leaves. The thicker the brush, the better for a walleye or crappie to hide in.
Northern Pike are aggressive ambush hunters and like weeds, vegetation, and submerged trees to stalk their prey and lake trout love to stay around ledges or underwater cliffs to catch their prey.
Using sonar like a Vexilar flasher , find the depths of these structures and set your line to suspend slightly above them, because many game fish like to strike up at their prey. These are excellent tools for locating fish through the ice before drilling.
Physical Line Setup
Now that you’ve got a good idea of how to find the best depth for your target species, we need to talk about line setup. This is the simple part, whether you’re using a tip up or a rod.
First, establish your target depth and be sure your reel has enough good quality ice fishing line to reach your target depth. Berkeley and Clam Pro Tackle make some of the best ice fishing lines on the market.
A fish finder makes setting your depth easier. While watching your scope, lower your bait or lure to just above your target depth or fish appearing on your sonar. You can leave it stationary or start gently jigging (bouncing) your bait/lure to attract fish.
No fish finder? No problem. Select an area with the depth of water for your target species, for example 20 to 40 feet for crappie in late winter. Lower your line to the bottom, then crank your bait up 18 to 24 inches off the bottom.
You want your bite slightly above the optimal depth for your target species because fish strike up at their prey.
If there’s no fish activity for a while, change your bait or lure and adjust your depth or start over with a new hole.
Wrapping it All Up
The world below the ice is upside down with the warmest water near the bottom, but that doesn’t mean fish are waiting in the mud. When ice fishing, 18 to 24 inches off the bottom is a good starting point for your bait or lure, but many elements affect finding the optimal depth.
Time of season, water temperatures and target species all affect the optimal depth.
Learning how these apply to your fish of choice before you hit the ice will make for an exciting day or night of ice fishing.