A Guide to Successful Ice Fishing

Here are a few tips and tactics that you can use to make your day out on the ice epic!
Nothing brings out the smiles like a successful fishing trip.

In the realm of fishing, there is nothing more user-friendly or inexpensive than ice fishing! Over the past decade, the technology and quality of ice fishing equipment have advanced tremendously. And while there are benefits to having all the latest technology and gear, anyone can get out, fish, and compete with geared up anglers with just some basic equipment. I think that is why this sport is exploding across the country. 

Colorado Fishing App icon

In Colorado, an easy species for beginner ice anglers to target is trout. Colorado Parks and Wildlife operates 19 hatcheries that breed, hatch, raise and stock over 90 million fish per year, with a large number of those fish being trout. Anglers can check the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Fishing Report and the CPW Fishing App for possible trout fishing locations. 

Here are a few tips and tactics that you can use to make your day out on the ice epic!

Lake Location and Water Depth

tape measure

In general, across the western United States, productive trout fishing occurs in semi-shallow water (8-12 feet deep). So, how do you know you are fishing in 8 to 12 feet of water without a depth finder or graph? Go simple. When I started ice fishing, the options and availability of graphs were minimal and costly. My father used to take a 25’ Stanley Construction tape measure and extend it down the hole to figure out depth. This seems a little odd but it worked great and we were always able to figure out depths and find the ultimate spot. Keep this affordable solution in mind if you do not own a graph.

To increase your odds of success, begin fishing adjacent to shoreline points or in areas in which the contour of the lake bottom transitions from shallower water to 8 to 12 feet. These areas typically gather fish looking to feed, a sure-fire win for success!


fish clock

Trout will feed throughout the day but in my opinion, the earlier and later hours of the day are usually more productive.  I break the day down into two-time slots and options for fishing opportunities. I consider the peak fishing windows to be from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Aligning your fishing around these times will increase your opportunities of putting fish on the ice.

Line, Lures and Presentation

A successful day out on the ice.

Once you have found the ideal location, depth, and time of day, it is time to fish! As a tournament director, tournament angler, guide, and ice fishing pro, I recommend pairing the type and size of fishing line with your lure. Use a fishing line that allows your jig to have full motion and is not hindered by line stretch or twist. For example, when using a small tube jig, I prefer to use green 4lb Trilene XL. This line is strong enough to handle a majority of the fish you will catch and gives you full control of the action of your jig.

A frequently asked question when ice fishing is whether to use an active presentation (jigging or moving the bait a lot) or dead sticking (leaving the rod completely still). Assuming you only have one rod, I like to select a presentation that will produce fish in both scenarios. I prefer a lure that has good action when it is jigged and is effective when sitting still. My go-to presentation for this scenario is a 1.5” tube with a 1/32 head. This combination has great action when it’s jigged and it doesn’t seem out of place when it’s sitting still like a jigging spoon.

1.5” tube with a 1/32 head
1.5” tube with a 1/32 head

I recommend beginning fishing approximately 6” to 10” off the bottom of the lake; however, I am not afraid to fish the entire water column. Many ice anglers miss opportunities to catch fish by solely targeting the bottom portion of the water column. I also pay attention to what jigging cadence attracts the fish and triggers bites. Next time you are ice fishing, try jigging for 30 seconds and then let the bait sit still for 1 minute. Think about the range or height of the jigging stroke. I like to keep my jig in a 4” to 8” window of movement to draw fish into the presentation and to make it easy for them to commit to bite the bait. Generally, it is a combination of the two styles, but whatever is producing the most bites, stick with it!

A very important element is to pay attention and observe what patterns are leading to your success.  The excitement of getting a bite and catching a fish usually consumes us and often times we forget about what we were doing or what we did to get the bite. Paying attention to those details so you can repeat it is one of the single most important things you can do.


small cooked shrimp

There are limitless options of bait to tip your jig with but at the end of the day, I narrow it down to two characteristics: Scent and Size. I prefer to use baits that produce a scent in the water for at least 30 minutes and I do not want the bait to decrease the action of my jig. The two ultimate baits that I recommend are live wax worms or small cooked salad shrimp from the frozen food section of your local grocery store. Waxworms can be placed whole on the hook and I recommend using ¼ of the salad shrimp on the hook at a time. I use only these two bait options for trout.

See you out on the ice!

Nate Zelinsky is a professional Walleye Angler and all species guide based in Colorado and has guided and tournament fished all across the country. Nate is on his 19th year as owner of Tightline Outdoors Colorado’s Premier outlet for multi-species guiding, tournaments, TV, Digital Content, TV, Radio, and Writing! Some of these experiences can be seen on In-Fisherman, Jarrett Edwards Outdoors, Denver’s 7News, 9News,  and WFN. You can also listen to Nate on Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. on The Fan Outdoors with Terry Wickstrom. Nate’s daily goal is to educate anglers to create success every time they go on the water. More on Nate can be found at www.tightlineoutdoors.com

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