One of my favorite parts of ice fishing is eating what I catch. I don’t always keep fish for the oven, but when I do I like to make sure they taste as good as possible.
This means keeping the fish alive until I’m ready to go home. You’ll be absolutely amazed what a difference this makes in the taste of the meat, especially for char and trout.
This article will cover several of the ways you can keep your catch swimming until you’re ready to head home:
To keep the fish you caught alive while you fish, you can cut a livewell in the ice, fill a cooler or other containers with lake water, or put the fish back into the lake on a stringer. Keeping fish alive improves the taste of the fish and allows you to release the fish later if you change your mind (depending on local regulations).
Why Should You Keep Fish Alive While Ice Fishing?
The main reason to keep fish alive as long as you can is that they will taste better when you eat them.
When it comes to any type of fish and seafood, freshness is key.
A fish that is alive and swimming will continue to pump blood to all of its muscles, oxygenating the muscles. This will keep the meat firm and fresh.
Killing the fish too long before you cook can affect both the texture and the taste, leading to a stronger “fishy” flavor.
It’s also important to gut and clean the fish ASAP, so you will probably want to clean all of the fish at one time when you are done fishing for the day.
When you are ice fishing, it’s unlikely that dead fish will really spoil because it’s cold. If anything, the fish are more likely to freeze solid, which will make the meat mushy when thawed.
The other reason you might want to keep fish alive when you catch them is so you have the option to release them later.
Anglers usually do this when they want to keep a certain size or number of fish. For example, you can release a small fish if you catch a bigger one later in the day.
Releasing a fish that has been held out of the lake is prohibited in many areas because it can lower the fish’s chance of survival. Always learn the regulations in your local area.
How Do You Keep Fish When Ice Fishing?
Below are four of the best ways to keep fish alive until you’re done ice fishing. Any one of them can work for you – just see which one best suits your style and equipment needs.
How to Keep Fish Alive in a Cooler or Ice Chest?
This is one of the best ways to keep your fish alive until you’re ready to clean them and take them home: put some lake water in a cooler or ice chest and let the fish swim inside.
I recommend taking your beverages out of the cooler before you let the fish loose in there!
This is an easy and humane way to keep the fish alive. You do need to haul the ice chest out on the lake with you, but it will keep the fish alive all day with minimal stress.
My favorite thing about this method is that you can close the lid of the cooler to keep the water from freezing.
Other methods can be annoying because the water may freeze over if left exposed to the wind and cold air. Your fish will have a hard time staying alive if the water freezes solid around them.
To keep fish alive in a cooler, you just need to add enough lake water to allow the fish to swim upright and be completely submerged in water.
The easiest way to get the water into the cooler is to use a plastic mug with a good handle to scoop out of your fishing hole and fill the cooler up. You can also use a plastic bag to dip the water (a long minnow bag works great and holds a lot of water).
Can You Keep Fish in a Five-Gallon Bucket Ice Fishing?
You can use a five-gallon bucket just like a plastic ice chest. Fill it with lake water using a mug or plastic bag that you dip in the fishing hole.
Buckets can be convenient because they can double as a way to carry your poles or other gear out on the ice. If you have a lid , you can keep the cold air from freezing your fish, and you can even sit on the bucket while you keep fish inside.
Obviously, a five-gallon bucket is a little too small to hold really large fish, such as lake trout or pike. If you are catching panfish or small trout, though, it will do the trick.
How to Keep Fish in the Ice (Livewell Method)?
This is a method to keep live fish in water without having to carry a large container or scoop any water out of the hole.
You need a pretty powerful auger to make this worthwhile. It also works best if the ice you are fishing on is at least 6-7 inches thick.
To make a “livewell” in the ice, drill a hole with your auger but stop before you break all the way through the ice. Try to leave a layer of ice that is about 1 inch thick at the bottom of the hole.
Next, drill several more holes that overlap with the first hole. I like to drill out a grid that is 2 holes wide and 4 holes long. Again, leave a thin layer of ice at the bottom of each hole so you do not break through into the water.
When your large hole is complete, scoop out all of the slushes. Finally, with your auger slowly drill down in the hole you have created until you just barely break through to the water below.
As soon as you see the water start to trickle in, quit drilling and remove your auger. Water will gradually fill the hole and you can place fish inside.
I like this technique because you can make the hole as big or as small as you want, depending on the size of the fish you are catching.
If you drag your sled or place some other flat object on top of the hole, it will keep the surface of the water from freezing due to wind. However, if the fish are active their movement should be enough to prevent them from icing over.
How to Use a Stringer on the Ice?
One of the easiest ways to keep fish alive when you are fishing is to put them on a stringer. It’s simple and allows you to hold a lot of fish, but some anglers consider it inhumane because it can stress the fish. You could also lose the whole stringer of fish if you don’t tie it up securely.
A stringer can be as simple as a length of cord with a thick steel needle on one end and a metal loop on the other end. Some stringers are made of cable or chain and have a strong metal clip for each individual fish.
Use a stringer by piercing the metal needle or clip through the fish’s lower lip or jaw. Don’t run the stringer through the fish’s gills.
Then secure the other end to something heavy, such as the handle of a gear bucket, and let the stringer of fish back down into the water.
When done properly, the fish can still swim upright for several hours on a stringer. You should never release a fish that has been on a stringer. When you are done fishing for the day, dispatch the fish quickly after removing the stringer from the water.
Try out one or more of these tips to keep your catch alive when you’re fishing on the ice.
Whether you keep the fish in an ice chest or a plastic bucket, you drill a live well in the ice, or you place the fish on a stringer, keeping them alive will leave the meat firm and tasting good. It’s also more humane than just throwing the fish on top of the ice.
If you’re having trouble filling up your bucket or stringer with fish, you only need to read some of our other articles to discover the secrets to catching more fish. Good luck!