Field Notes of a Colorado Sportsperson: Ice Fishing

On our first ice-fishing expedition we learned some valuable lessons about the winter sport that is so popular at many Colorado state parks.
Rainbow trout
Rainbow trout. Photo by © Mike DelliVeneri/CPW

Welcome to “Field Notes of a Colorado Sportsperson” where, once a month, you’ll learn of my latest outdoor adventure and hopefully be inspired to get out and enjoy all that Colorado has to offer whether you enjoy hiking, mountain biking, camping, fishing, hunting or wildlife watching.

This monthly journal started last year when I joined Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 2019 Rookie Sportsperson Program (RSP). My participation in the year-long program has ended but not my love of outdoor recreation. The RSP opened my eyes to all the possibilities that abound in our 41 state parks, our 350 or so State Wildlife Areas, other public lands and trails. 

I can’t wait to go out and catch a few of the 90 million fish CPW stocks in our lakes and streams each year. I’m excited to try again to harvest my first wild turkey or pronghorn or other big game animal and fill my freezer with meat. I’m stoked to wander our thousands of miles of trails and refine my wildlife-watching skills by spotting as many of our state’s 950 species of wildlife as possible.

So after the final RSP banquet, I dropped the “Rookie” from the column title and launched into this new iteration of Field Notes, where I hope to highlight even more of the other fantastic outdoor opportunities in Colorado. This month, we’re talking ice fishing. 

Ice-fishing Expedition

As part of the RSP, I went on our first ice-fishing expedition and learned some valuable lessons about the winter sport so popular in many state parks. I want to share them with you before the ice-fishing season ends so you still have a chance to get out on the ice and see for yourself.

One lesson involved life-saving advice about how to judge safe ice, equipment needed for a fun day on the ice, what to do if, heaven forbid, you fall in, and other techniques and secrets.

The other valuable lesson was simple: if you are lucky enough to land a trout, think about whether you want to keep it before tossing it back in the water. It may be the only fish you catch all day!

Ice Fishing 101

Catching a rainbow trout through the ice makes for a big smile on the face of Dave Hoffa.
Catching a rainbow trout through the ice makes for a big smile on the face of Dave Hoffa, a participant in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Rookie Sportsperson Program offered through Area 14 of CPW’s Southeast Region in Colorado Springs. Photo by © Travis Duncan/CPW

That was the case for us as we attended the CPW’s Ice Fishing 101 class at Manitou Lake just outside of Woodland Park in Teller County. My girlfriend, Jamey Hastings, joined 14-year-old daughter Natalie and me for the event.

For Ice Fishing 101, CPW Assistant Area Wildlife Manager Cody Wigner and District Wildlife Manager Tim Kroening provided instruction to our group of RSP participants.

For starters, Wigner assured everyone the ice we were standing on was very safe at 16 inches thick, noting that ice on a body of water should be at least 4 inches “of good clear ice” to be safe to walk out on. He explained that clear ice is dark and is the strongest. 

Ice Rule Of Thumb Graphic

Be aware though, just because it’s four inches where you’re at, doesn’t mean it’s four inches everywhere,” he said.

Wigner also went over ice safety when in a big group. 

“Especially when it’s early or late in the season, it’s really important to walk in a single-file line and give space,” Wigner said. “The idea is, if one person goes in, the whole group’s not going in.”

What if the worst happens and you fall in? 

Ice Picks/Safety Spikes
Ice Picks/Safety Spikes

“Stay calm,” Wigner said. “Get your elbows up on the ice. You want to go back the way you came from, where you know that it’s good ice. They do make safety devices, ice picks that can help you climb back up on the ice. Once you’re up, lay flat and roll. The big thing then will be getting dry and staying warm to avoid hypothermia.”

Next Wigner talked about equipment. He showed us the ice fishing poles we would be using, which were must shorter than typical fishing poles, so anglers can more easily jig with their bait as they sit over their ice holes. As for creating holes, Wigner offered good advice.

“To get started, you’ll need an auger to get through the ice,” Wigner said. “They make hand augurs. But the thicker the ice, the harder it gets. They also make gas and propane augers. And, they’re a bit more expensive, but they also have new lithium ion electric battery augers.”

Drilling through ice with an auger
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Cody Wigner, Assistant Area Wildlife Manager in Colorado Springs, uses an auger to drill a hole in the ice covering Manitou Lake north of Woodland Park in Teller County. Augers are a valuable tool of ice anglers. Photo by © Travis Duncan/CPW

Wigner reminded us that the maximum diameter of the holes allowed for ice fishing in Colorado are 10 inches. 

“You don’t want a big hole that a kid or even an adult could fall through,” he said. “And remember, when you’re done ice fishing, keep your hole exposed when you leave so others will know it’s there.”

Wigner suggested bringing an ice scoop to keep the hole clear of ice while fishing. And he recommended ice fishing huts for those hoping for a little extra protection from the wind and weather. There were a few set up already on the ice and we took turns using them throughout the day so we could see what it was like.

skimming ice from hole
Ice fishing requires drilling holes in the ice covering a lake then regularly scooping out the hole as new ice forms in the opening. Here, Natalie Duncan, 14, scoops shards of ice from the hole. Photo by © Travis Duncan/CPW

For lures, we used plastics meant to imitate mysis shrimp hooked with either mealworms or wax worms. Wigner told us that fishing between 5 and 15 feet of water was “going to be our sweet spot.” After a brief demonstration on some jigging techniques from Kroening, we all grabbed a pole, got our lures and bait set and got to fishing.

As soon as my daughter put her bait in the water, she had a fish on the line. She got a little nervous and handed the pole to me, and I reeled it in. 

And here came my final lesson of the day. I didn’t think the rainbow trout was big enough to eat and threw it back, but later I regretted it. There’s no minimum length enforced for trout in most of Colorado’s waters, including Manitou Lake. I would later wish I had kept that one to eat because it would be the only fish we caught all day. 

ice fishing
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Cody Wigner peered down the hole being used by an ice angler Jamey Hastings. Photo by © Travis Duncan/CPW

Luckily, other classmates did quite well, many catching their limit of four fish. A fellow angler gave us one fish to take home so we could cook one.

We cleaned our fish when we got home, drizzled some olive oil on it, wrapped it in some foil and threw it on the grill. It was only the second fish I had ever cleaned and cooked myself, and I think I did pretty well. We, of course, picked some bones out of our mouths as we ate. For those still hoping to get in some ice fishing before the spring thaw, you’ll likely have to get outside of the Front Range. Ice will be gone within a week or so and many bodies of water are already open water. Your best bets are at some of the bodies of water below.

Ice Fishing in the South Park Area

Ice Fishing in Northern Colorado

Ready to plan your next Colorado angling adventure? 

CPW  Fishing App icon

Now you can visualize your trip and track your catches with CPW Fishing, the official fishing app of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. CPW Fishing can help you discover new fishing locations, learn new skills, stay on top of the latest regulations and journal your fishing experiences.​ Learn more about the CPW Fishing App on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s website.

Need a Fishing License?
​​​​Colorado’s annual fishing licenses are valid from March 1 through March 31 of the following year (13 months). Licenses can be purchased at sales agentsCPW officesonline or by phone at 1-800-244-5613.​ For more information, please see the Colorado Fishing Brochure.

Travis Duncan is a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Denver. Travis has lived in Colorado nearly 20 years and loves the outdoors. If you have a question, please email him at

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