MDC offers ice fishing tips for ponds and small lakes

News from the region
Published Date

Kansas City, Mo. – Arctic blasts have one benefit, a chance to go ice fishing. But the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) reminds anglers that safety precautions are in order, and anglers will need to adjust tackle and techniques for the best chance for success.

Bluegill and crappie are popular catches. It’s not unusual for an ice angler to catch a channel catfish or a largemouth bass.

“There’s something fun about pulling a fish through a little hole in the ice with a two-foot rod,” said Tory Mason, MDC fisheries biologist and veteran ice fisherman. “Even six-inch bluegills are fun to catch, and they’re the best eating fish of the year.”

However, anglers will need to adjust techniques. What works in summer won’t be the best approach through ice. Work them slowly, alternate stillness and slow movements.

In winter, a prime food for fish is insects hatching and emerging from mud at the bottom of the pond, Mason said. They also feed on other tiny organisms. Thus, the best lures or baits are small.

Mason prefers small 1/64 ounce jigs tipped with waxworms. Waxworms are quarter-inch long white worms that have a scent, size, and color fish like. He makes sure to cover the hooks or hooks completely with the worms. He likes to fish with short, light rods and reels spooled with 4-pound test line made especially for ice fishing. Check with local bait shops for wax worms, but anglers may need to order them from a bait supplier.

“Tiny things are what they’re looking for,” Mason said.

In a pond or small lake, he drops bait to the bottom, then slowly works it upward in the water column to find a depth where fish are holding. He starts in the deepest part of the pond. But fish will also congregate near structure such as standing trees, weed lines, or brush piles.

“If you know a pond with a brush pile in water six feet deep or deeper, that’s a good place to start,” Mason said. “If it is a farm pond without cover, start in the deepest part of the pond on the bottom.”

Classic ice fishing rods and reels, or tip ups, are not essential to give ice fishing a try. Spinning and spin casting gear used in summer can be used. But using light line or attaching a leader to heavier line will help. A sensitive rod tip to feel very light bites helps. If fishing in shallow water, a small bobber can serve as a strike indicator.

Ice fishing provides an angler the strange sensation of walking on the water. Places only accessible by boat are now reachable on foot. But safety precautions are important. It is not uncommon for MDC to receive reports of anglers breaking through thin ice. Some tips:

  • Fish with a partner or partners so help is available. Include a floatation device in gear carried out on the ice.
  • Make sure ice is safe. Ice thickness can vary. Snow can cover weak spots, such as places where geese kept water open. Drill the first hole close to shore and make sure ice is at least four inches thick and safe. Keep drilling as moving out to deeper water to insure ice is safe.
  • A four- to six-inch hole in the ice is plenty big for landing a panfish. Larger holes provide an opening that is easier for a foot to step in and through.
  • Anglers can use an ax to chop a hole. Ice augers work best. A popular trend now is using augers that attach to heavy-duty, battery-powered drills.
  • Dress warm, wear boots that provide traction on ice, a five-gallon plastic bucket provides a place to sit and something to carry fish home in.

“When you’re catching fish, the action can be pretty fast,” Mason said. “Everybody has a chance to find and stay on a good spot without needing something like an expensive boat.”

To find an MDC lake near you to go ice fishing, visit