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Find the Right Depth, Catch Fish through the Ice - Ice Fishing Part 3

Finding where the fish are and then not moving your bait or lure much are the keys to catching fish through the ice.
Finding where the fish are and then not moving your bait or lure much are the keys to catching fish through the ice.
Photo courtesy Ray Schelble

Putting your bait or lure at the depth the fish are—and then not moving it much—are the keys to catching fish through the ice.

And using some simple devices that will help you know when you have a fish on the end of your line is a big help too.

Drew Cushing, warm water sport fisheries coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources, says fish become lethargic when they're under the ice.

"Fish will often stay at a certain water depth all winter long," Cushing says. "Also, they aren't able to move as fast, to catch their food.

"Keep those two things in mind," he says, "and you should find plenty of fish on the end of your line this winter."

You can stay updated on where fishing is best in Utah at www.utahfishinginfo.com/dwr/fishingreports.php, www.wildlife.utah.gov/hotspots, www.bigfishtackle.com and www.utahwildlife.net. You can also learn more about the basics of ice fishing by watching a video titled "Ice Fishing Basics, Jan. 8, 2015." The video shows a clinic that was held recently in Salt Lake City.

You can watch the video at www.youtube.com/UDWR.


Cushing recommends two techniques to help you find fish and catch fish after you've found them:

Cushing says a mistake many ice anglers make is lifting their bait or lure too fast and lifting it more than six inches. "Remember that fish that are under the ice aren't willing to expend a lot of energy to catch their food," Cushing says. "If you move your bait or lure too much—or too fast—the fish might decide it's not worth their effort to catch what you're offering them.

"The best thing to do," he says, "is find the depth where the fish are. Then, drop your bait or lure right in front of the fish so it's easy for them to bite it."

Water depth

The depth at which you'll find fish varies depending on the species you're after. No matter which water you're fishing in Utah, you'll probably find the following fish at the following depths:

Yellow perch

Either right on the bottom of the water you're fishing, or no more than six inches above the bottom.


Close to the bottom.

Trout, kokanee salmon

Suspended at various depths. The depth at which trout and salmon can be found ranges from just under the ice to as much as 15 feet below the ice. "Once you find the depth at which trout or salmon are suspended in a body of water," Cushing says, "there's a good chance you'll find them at that depth throughout the winter."

To catch trout and salmon, Cushing recommends fishing your bait or lure just under the surface. If you don't get a bite, lower your bait or lure a few feet. Try that depth for awhile. If the fish still aren't biting, continue lowering your bait or lure a few feet at a time. If you're using the right bait or lure, and you're still not catching fish, you'll know trout and salmon are not using that part of the lake at that time.

Bluegill, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass

Near brush, bulrushes, rocks and weeds. Look for vegetation that's sticking up through the ice or ridges that extend down into the water. To find the depth where the fish are, start by dropping your bait or lure all the way to the bottom of the water you're fishing. Then raise your bait or lure 6 to 12 inches at a time until you find the fish.

Burbot, walleye, tiger muskie, Northern pike

Near the bottom of the water you're fishing. Each of these fish likes to pick baits or lures up, swim a ways with them, and then eat what they've picked up. Fishing with the bail on your reel open, or using a device called a tip up, are good ways to let the fish run with your bait or lure before you set the hook.

If you're not sure which depth to try, ask others who are catching fish near you. "Most anglers are very willing to tell you the depth at which they're catching fish," Cushing says.

Cushing also reminds you that fish aren't everywhere in a lake. If you drill a hole and fish for 30 minutes without getting a bite, move to a new spot.

"Once you find a spot that has fish," he says, "keep coming back. More often than not, an ice fishing hotspot will stay hot through the winter."


Not only do fish move less under the ice, they also bite less aggressively. And that can make it challenging to know when a fish is striking your bait or lure. "If you're relying on your fishing rod to tell you when a fish is on the end of your line," Cushing says, "you might not know when it's time to set the hook."

Fortunately, two inexpensive items—spring bobbers and ice bobbers—are available to help you detect the subtle bites.

Spring bobbers attach to the end of your fishing rod. After attaching the bobber, run your fishing line through it, and then attach your hook or lure. After lowering your hook or lure to the desired depth, watch the spring bobber closely. Spring bobbers are extremely sensitive. They'll detect bites long before your fishing rod begins to flex.

Ice bobbers are another effective way to detect soft bites. Simply measure the amount of line that will put your bait or lure at the depth you want to fish. Then attach your bobber at that point on your line. The bobber will sit on top of the water with your line dangling under it.

"When you see the bobber move," Cushing says, "you'll know it's time to raise your fishing rod and set the hook."

Tip ups

An item that will cost you about $15, but that's effective and fun to use, is called a tip up.

A tip up is a device that takes the place of your fishing rod. When a fish takes your bait, a mechanism on the tip up sends a small flag up, letting you know a fish is on the end of your line.

"Using a tip up makes it easier to fish in two holes," Cushing says. "You can drill two holes a ways apart and still know when a fish is biting the line in either hole."

Please remember that your poles or tip ups cannot be more than 100 feet apart. You must be able to see each pole or tip up clearly.

Part 4

Our final story will list some of the best ice-fishing waters in Utah.

(See also Ice Fishing Part 1 and Ice Fishing Part 2)

More ice fishing tips here.