The Hardest Thing About Ice Fishing

The Hardest Thing About Ice Fishing

By Gary Lewis 

We fished through the ice yesterday. There was a half-inch skiff of hard water on the pond, but we broke the crust at the edge of the dock and put a single Pro-Cure salmon egg on a hook and pretty quick Little Smokey had a nice rainbow in winter colors flopping on the hardwood. It was the only bite we got in an hour of trying, but we went home with smiles on our faces and a trout to fry. 

Every January people ask about ice fishing. Where to go? When? What to use? I like to ask why? Why not wait till the ice melts and then go fishing? 

For some of us, like my brother-in-law, if we don't go fishing, and soon, we are not nice people to be around. Fishing is what smoothes out our rough edges. We have to fish for the sake of our sanities and our loved ones. Sometimes that means ice fishing.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife lists most of the local lakes as open year-round, but many of them are not accessible without a snowmobile.

When it freezes hard, Diamond Lake in the central Cascades is a great ice-fishing destination and it should be full of fat holdover rainbows. Keep the rainbows (up to five per angler) and turn back any tiger trout or brown trout.

Another good ice fishing destination is Lake of the Woods (southern Oregon) for rainbows, brown trout and yellow perch. There is no limit on the number of perch an angler can keep and they are the best tasting fish in the lake. 

Eastern Oregon's Magone Lake is another destination east of Prairie City. Fishing was very good last summer. Snow can close access to the lake. Check before you go. 

East of Prineville, consider Walton Lake, which was full of fish when the gate closed. Keep in mind, you will have to park a ways out and walk in.   

In the years when central Oregon's Haystack Reservoir freezes over, it provides a good drive-to opportunity for rainbows, browns, bass and crappie. A quick look at the recreation report on the ODFW web site will reveal several other good options. Click on 

Pay special attention to the stocking reports. If a lake was fishing good in October, it could turn out a bucketful of fish in January. 

Now to the important part. 


The most important thing about ice fishing is the thickness of the ice. If it is two inches or less, stay off it. Four inches of clear ice is the standard. Clear ice is the strongest. White ice has about fifty percent of the holding power. And ice can be two feet thick in one spot and an inch thick in another. Check it often.

If the ice is thin, wear a life vest and keep a throw rope close. 


There is specialized gear for the ice fisherman. Back in the Midwest, they have heated ice houses, generators and TV sets and they drive out on the ice and have a good time. And every year someone loses their car. 

We don't expect you to be that sophisticated here. Layer up, wear good boots, bring a Camp Chef Dutch oven or a portable stove for hot chocolate, and a hat with the coyote trim (faux fur is acceptable) over the ears. Bring buckets to sit on.

Cut a hole with an auger or an ice chisel. I used a hatchet one time. I don't recommend it. A better idea is to start the hole with a cordless drill and a five-eighths-inch wood auger bit. 

Check the thickness with a tape measure. Widen the hole to a maximum of 12 inches in diameter and use a coffee can or a small bucket to skim the ice.


Prop up an ultra-light trout or crappie rod or use a specialized ice rod which runs from about 25 inches to 36 inches.

 To get started, fish natural baits or plastic, with sharp hooks. For crappie, use a small skirted jig or a grub and tip with a Berkley Crappie Nibble. Some people prefer jigging spoons for trout. I'd go with a scented pink plastic worm or a Gulp Alive Crawler.

Bring some hot soup. Build a fire. Now you're ice fishing.

Did I mention the thickness of the ice is the most important thing? The experts say five inches is the minimum for holding up a snowmobile or an ATV.

They tell me that 8 to 12 inches is the minimum for parking a car or a small truck on hard water. Wait till the ice is 15 inches thick to park your F-150 on it. Me? I'm leaving the truck in the parking lot. I don't care how thick it is. If you do park a car on the ice, make it your brother-in-law's Subaru.


 For a signed copy of Fishing Mount Hood Country, send $29.99, includes shipping, to Gary Lewis Outdoors, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709. Contact Gary Lewis at


Gary Lewis is an award-winning author, TV host, speaker and photographer. Recent books include Fishing Central Oregon, 6th Edition, Fishing Mount Hood Country and Bob Nosler Born Ballistic. Gary has hunted and fished in eight countries on three continents and in the islands of the South Pacific. Born and raised in the Northwest, he has been walking forest trails and running rivers for as long as he can remember. Lewis is twice past president of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association and a recipient of NOWA’s Enos Bradner Award.




#1 - Eastern Oregon skyline


#2 - Icy Pond_Little Smokey 2 - A rainbow trout that was caught below thin ice.

#3 Ice fishing rig and a nice trout!


#2 - Frabill Bro-Hub  - Brian Brosdahl with a crappie taken through the ice. Several Central Oregon lakes offer a chance to take crappie. Photo courtesy Frabill



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