A grandfather and grandson used summer tackle to land a winter channel catfish and a lifetime memory. Photo courtesy Patty Gillespie.

February 1, 2023

Introducing Youth to Ice Fishing

A farm pond with a great population of fish is one of the best places to take young people to ice fish. If you caught fish earlier in the year at a pond, especially bluegill, this is a promising body of water to try. In my opinion, bluegill, our state fish, are the easiest fish to catch under the ice.

A young girl in a pink coat and a big smile holds up a green and black fish with both hands. In the background is an icy body of water and fisherman ice fishing on top of the ice.
Photo courtesy of the IDNR.

Make sure the weather is comfortable so they will enjoy the experience and want to go again. Consider a shorter trip for their benefit so they will go again (getting a little wet and cold may be a new experience). Dress appropriately for the weather. You are not going to be moving around much and standing or sitting with your feet on the ice can become uncomfortable. Hand and foot warmers which can be found at most outdoor stores are excellent and affordable warming comforts to add to this fun activity.

There are some safety reminders to consider before taking children to ice fish. Not all ice is safe ice. Check to make sure the ice is thick enough to support your weight, observe other fishers and take care getting onto and off the ice as it could be thinner near shore. I like to drill a hole a few feet from the shoreline to make sure the ice is thick enough to support the group’s weight. If the ice is clear, you need to have at least 4 inches of ice, but more is better. The ice needs to be thicker if it is not clear. Going a day or two in advance to check conditions without the young mentors may be a good approach for planning a safe trip.

The basic equipment for an ice fishing experience should include:

  1. Ice rods are typically about 3 feet in length; a summer rod will work in a pinch, as well as a spool or line with a bobber and hook.
  2. Ice auger to drill a hole in the ice
  3. Bucket to sit on and to put your fish in when your done
  4. Pliers
  5. Tackle box with ice jigs, bobbers, hooks and weights
  6. Extra line
  7. Rod holders
  8. Bait of choice (wax worms, spikes, red worms and minnows are all popular winter baits)
  9. Safety equipment includes a rope/floatation item (life jacket/ring/cushion) and ice picks for adults to help if the unthinkable happens. See this video http://ifishillinois.org/programs/ice.php.
Two young boys stand together. One boy on the right holds up a brown and black fish with a white belly. In the background is an icy body of water with people fishing through small holes in the ice.
Photo courtesy of the IDNR.

In some regards, a successful ice fishing outing is when you can find a big school of fish for children to have ample opportunities to catch. As I mentioned earlier, the easiest fish to catch are bluegills. First, take a weight with a line attached and drop to the bottom of the pond to find out the depth of the water. Bluegill depths will vary throughout the winter. Early in the fishing season when the ice first forms bluegill will be in shallow waters. As the ice is on longer fish will move to deeper water. Second, look for brush in the ice. Locating bushes or trees, which provides structure for the fish to hide from predators, will increase your chances of having a great time in catching an abundance of fish. Remember, if you don’t find fish in one location, keep drilling holes until you are successful.

Another secret is to fish with two poles. On one I like to use a small and bright-colored ice jig with a wax worm on the end of the hook. I include a minnow on the other pole. The minnow will work for bluegill but works great for crappie, bass and catfish, too. This fishing concept also will help you to decide what bait works best at your fishing spot.

For experienced ice fishers, using a tip-up or “fish trap” can make a fun trip for youngsters. These fishing devices are typically set up with live or dead baits for predators such as bass, catfish, pike or walleye. The fish takes the bait, and a flag quickly indicates a bite. And then the race is on to the flag to see if the fish can be landed!

On ice and snow above a lake sits a tool for ice fishing with a yellow base and a rod with a flag at the end connected to the base with a spring. A fishing line with a hook and bait is connected to the rod. If there is a fish on the line, the flag with move.
Photo by Kevin Irons.

After cleaning, the fish meat is snow white because of the cold, clean water and immediate icing after catch as compared to other times of the year. These are some of the best fish you will ever eat. Most youngsters love to eat fish and go fishing for dinner.

Indeed, ice fishing is fun but just being out on the ice and enjoying the great outdoors is special, too. Children grow up fast. Start ice fishing today with them today and this fun activity may continue throughout their lifetime and be handed down to the future generation.

Scott Isringhausen started as his career with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) in 1989 as a Park Interpreter at Pere Marquette State Park. After 21 years, he accepted a job as the Urban Fishing Coordinator covering IDNR Regions 4 and 5, which encompasses 38 counties in southern Illinois. He is an avid hunter and fisherman who loves the great outdoors and educating people about fishing and wildlife.

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