Increase Your Catch…

Years ago I used to guide ice fishing trips commercially. Time and time again I saw first hand how improper fish fighting techniques would cost anglers a lot of fish. I had one gentleman who needlessly lost a half dozen trophy walleyes in one day by making the same mistakes over and over. Despite my coaching and pleas, he just wouldn’t change his failing ways. He insisted on keeping slush in his ice hole saying that it provided camouflage so the fish couldn’t see him. He hooked several big walleyes jigging and lost all of them because he couldn’t see into the hole to steer them to the surface. He also lost several more big fish on tip-ups too. Every time he would get a flag, he dashed to the hole, snatched the tip-up from the hole, grabbed the line and jerked as hard as he could savagely yanking the line from the edge of the hole to as far back as he could reach with his over-the-top hook set. Three times in a row he broke off big fish with his reckless hook sets. His buddies caught lots of dandy walleyes that day and really harassed him about his mistakes, but he still would not change. Instead he caulked up his fishless day to ‘bad luck,’ when in fact luck had little to do with it.

Luck may be a part of the game when it comes to getting bit, but converting those bites into fish on the ice is more about skill. If he would have used proper fish fighting techniques, he’d have likely limited out on jumbo walleyes that day.

No matter what kind of ice fishing is being done, there are some fast and hard rules to follow to really up the odds in your favor. First, I’m a big believer in drilling big holes. Eight inches should be considering the minim for any kind of ice fishing. A nine or 10 inch diameter hole is better yet. Even when just targeting panfish, a larger hole will allow you to see into the water better and will make steering panfish through thick ice a snap. Often times when I’m targeting perch or bluegills, I’ll hook into a big game fish too. There are few things more frustrating than not being able to fit a big fish through an ice hole that’s too small. Been there, done that and don’t want to do it again.

After punching a hole through the ice, I always clear away all the slush and ice chunks. It’s best to use a shovel for this task, but it can also be done by kicking the slush away with the sides of your boot. If not cleared away, the slushy mix will often freeze up into jagged formations that will crunch loudly when stepped on causing a fish disturbing ruckus. The ice chunks can also catch on your line at the most inopportune times too and I’ve seen fish lost as a result. I also clean the slush out of the hole completely and keep it clear while fishing. When jigging, always keep the line and rod guides free of ice too. I’ve seen it happen several times where an angler hooks a nice fish and then can’t reel up any line because chunks of ice on the line or guides blocks up the works.

There are several pieces of equipment that I always have at my side while ice fishing: I have a quality ladle that has a built in ice chipper welded to the handle. My handy-dandy ladle also has a ruler on it to measure fish. I have a gaff handy at all times. My favorite model is homemade. I’m hard on golf clubs and broke the heads off three irons from my last set of clubs. Using epoxy putty, I attached a giant treble hook inside the end of a golf club shaft for the perfect Michigan gaff. It’s long enough to reach three feet into the water, which is handy when the ice is very thick, a common occurrence in northern Michigan. I only gaff fish that I plan on keeping. Gaffs are essential when trying to haul big fish up through a shanty with an elevated floor. I also use the gaff on fish that just won’t straighten out and come up through the hole properly.

I always have long-nosed pliers and jaw spreaders in my pocket along with a bait bucket at my side. There’s nothing worse than having a buddy yell across the ice that he needs to borrow your pliers and by the time you get there his undersized fish has frost covering it and will likely not survive being released thus wasting the resource. I also have my compact camera handy at all times just in case a big one is caught and a live release is desired, I can a take couple quick snapshots before sending him back down the hole.


Setting up a tip-up hole properly should be priority one. I always use hole-covers on my tip-up sets. Mine are made from ¼” plywood painted black. They serve several purposes: They keep snow out of the hole, prevent ice from freezing in the hole, and they provide an element of stealth to the setup.

When a flag goes up, I don’t run to the hole, but I don’t lollygag either. I simply grab my bait bucket, gaff and ladle and walk to the tip-up pronto at a good pace. When I get to the tip-up, I set my equipment about five feet away from the hole on the up-wind side. I then slide the hole-cover off and inspect the hole. If ice has formed, then I chip and skim it clear.

It’s always best if the fish is taking out line when you set the hook. This is indicated by the spool rotating. If line is going out then it’s time to take action by gently lifting the tip-up out of the water without any fish detectable pressure on the line, then grab the line and set the hook with a gentle tug that takes in about one foot of line on the jerk.

If the spool is motionless, then I prefer to wait for the fish to begin taking line before touching the tip-up. I’ll typically wait just one minute though before carefully picking up the tip-up and slowly pulling in line using my thumbs and forefingers until I feel the weight of the fish, then the hook is gently set with a jerk of about one foot.

Once the fish is hooked then the fish is brought to the ice hand over hand depositing the retrieved line on the downwind side of the hole. If you have a partner, he or she should be reeling the line back onto the spool while you are pulling up the fish thus preventing tangles. If the fish starts pulling, then let him take line by letting the line slip through your fingers. When the fish is ready, try to guide the fish’s head into the hole. If you’re certain it’s a keeper, and it won’t turn to come up properly, then use the gaff by jabbing one of the hooks solidly into the fish to haul him up. Typically, I only have to use the gaff on about one out of twenty fish that I hook on tip-ups, however when a gaff is needed, it can really save the day.

I also use tip-ups on deep water fish like lake trout and whitefish. When I’m fishing in waters over 50 feet deep, bringing up fish hand over hand is not practical as it will just create a massive, tangled mess. This is where a big spool on the tip-up really shines. When a deep water fish hits, I simply lift the tip-up from the hole and start reeling up line. I continue reeling until the fish is sighted in the hole, which is when I put the tip-up down and finish the fight hand over hand.

Game Fish with Rod and Reel

Jigging and other presentations with a rod and reel are often deadly for a variety of game fish species. In most cases though light line is often used and that combined with a short rod makes proper fish fighting techniques especially critical. Most ice rods are equipped with small spinning reels. Spinning reels twist the line when you reel at the same time drag is pulled out. I use 6 or 8 pound test line on my ice rods and I’ve caught walleyes, lakers, pike, steelhead, brown trout, whitefish and more with my setups. Because I typically ice fish where big fish prowl, I prefer to keep the drag set very light on my ice reels. When a fish strikes an ice rod set, I like to set the hook with a short upstroke and then pump the fish towards the surface always keeping a good bend in the rod. This technique involves lifting the rod and then quickly reeling down as the rod is lowered. The lowering process reduces the pressure on the fish and allows the line to be gained. The lifts should be no more than one foot at a time so as not to stop and start the fish, which causes hooks to work loose. If the fish takes line, then I stop reeling; otherwise it’s a pull up, reel down rhythm until I get him to the hole. Once at the hole I try to get his head pointing upwards so I can slide him onto the ice. If he resists too much then the gaff is used.


I’m often shocked when I see people fighting small panfish like fools. I once saw a guy that would set the hook on a bluegill and then run across the ice in an attempt to bring the fish to the surface. Usually the fish would come off when it smacked into the side of the hole or he’d break his line. Every once in a while though he would launch a fish onto the ice. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then I guess.

I like to use dainty, two pound test line for most of my small lake, panfish efforts. Dainty lures and hooks are also the norm too. The rods for panfishing are often very light as well. I often fish for panfish in water less than 10 feet deep. If that’s the case then when a fish hits I set the hook, stand up and slowly pull upwards until the fish clears the ice. Sometimes I use my other hand to grab the line and steer him through the ice hole. If it’s deeper water I set the hook and slowly reel the fish to the surface. Either way, one needs to be very gentle as horsing the fish too hard will often break the line or pull the dainty hook free.

Good luck and please never tread on thin ice.

The author offers fishing charters for Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay walleyes along with trips for salmon and trout at Manistee on Lake Michigan and Rogers City on Lake Huron. Contact Mike Veine at or 734-475-9146.