Pennsylvania Ice Fishing 101

If the weather is cooperative, January and February can be the prime time to think about ice fishing in Pennsylvania. Ice fishing can be a fun, engaging activity for the whole family and is a sure cure for cabin fever. If you’ve never ventured out to ice fish before, there are some things you should know that will greatly improve your chances of success, including safety tips, the basics, and where to go.

This article was previously published on the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website.


The basic gear you’ll need, in addition to warm clothes, includes:

  • A set of ice picks -- which is a tool used to break up ice -- to wear around your neck
  • A PFD for each person
  • A few small jigs, or fishing lures, called tear-drop jigs
  • Some bait such as waxworms or spikes
  • An auger to drill your fishing hole in the ice
  • A scoop to clear ice from the holes you drill
  • A jigging rod or two

Ice fishing rods (jigging rods) are shorter versions of rods that you would use for open water fishing. They need to have very sensitive tips to pick up the subtle bites of fish through the ice.

During the heart of winter, many species of warm-water fish, such as bluegills, perch, crappies, and bass, spend their time close to the bottom of the lake feeding on small invertebrates and minnows. For this reason, you will want to keep your bait small. Cold-water fish, like trout, can be found roaming anywhere in the water column, so you will want to try different depths if they are your target. Many times, the most productive places to fish are near some sort of structure, such as underwater rock piles, brush piles, and manmade structures often put in place by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC). However, it’s important to test the ice thickness if you’re around these structures.

A flasher or sonar unit can act as underwater eyes showing an angler the bottom depth, structure, and fish, as well as how the fish react to your bait or lure. It isn’t a “must have,” but the unit certainly helps locate active fish.


In addition to the tips shared above, here are other ideas to help you be a successful ice angler:

  • Use small ice jigs or ice flies tipped with waxworms or spikes.
  • Use light line, such as a two or four-pound test line.
  • Start out with the bait or lure near the bottom of the lake, then move up the water column until you find the fish.
  • Be willing to move around to find active fish.
  • Pay attention to where others are fishing.
  • Ice anglers normally are a social bunch, so it is often a good idea to talk with others on the ice to learn about locations that are good and baits that are working.
  • View lake depth maps for many Pennsylvania state parks that have fishing opportunities by selecting the state park you want to visit, and then clicking on the fishing icon at the top of the page. The fishing pages will list lake depth maps that can help you.
  • Carry a GPS unit to mark spots that are productive so you can return to them in the future.

Once you learn the basics, you can consider adding to your ice fishing equipment and trying other locations on our state lands.
A portable shanty can be nice to shield an ice angler from the wind and there are many baits and lures to try.

For those that like to eat fish, fish caught through the ice are often of exceptional firmness and flavor. Be sure to keep only the fish you wish to consume and follow seasons and harvest limits set by the PFBC. Also, be aware that on some waters, and for some species, there are consumption advisories (PDF).

For more ice fishing ideas and where to go in Pennsylvania, check out the visitPA website. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram to stay up-to-date on even more great ideas and places to visit around our state.

You might also like: Cure Your Cabin Fever this Winter by Ice Fishing

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