If the weather is cooperative, January and February can be the prime time to think about ice fishing in Pennsylvania.
Ice fishing can be a fun, engaging activity for the whole family and is a sure cure for cabin fever.
If you’ve never ventured out to ice fish before, there are some things you should know that will greatly improve your chances of success, including safety tips, the basics, and where to go.
The sport is vastly different from open water fishing, but one thing they both share is the beautiful locations where you can enjoy the activity on DCNR lands.
Where to Ice Fish in PA State Parks and Forests
Most state parks across Pennsylvania with lakes offer ice fishing opportunities, as well an ample number of state forests.
Popular Pennsylvania state parks and forests for ice fishing include:
Before venturing out to any location, you’ll want to find out about ice fishing opportunities and the most recent ice conditions. There needs to be a certain ice thickness to enjoy ice fishing and stay safe.
To learn about the ice conditions on DCNR lands, we recommend:
- Exploring the state park or state forest webpage you plan to visit; on these pages you’ll find fishing recreation information
- Viewing Pennsylvania state parks’ weekly updated Winter Report that shares ice and snow conditions
Not all state parks and forests monitor ice thickness, it's best to call the state park or forest and ask. If you’re a short distance away from the lands, you can always stop in before your trip and ask in person.
Ice Fishing Safety and Rules
Before heading out, it’s also critical to become familiar with the rules and regulations associated with ice fishing, and always think about safety.
Anyone 16 years or older will require a valid Pennsylvania fishing license and a trout stamp if targeting trout.
Whether you are a seasoned ice angler or new to the activity, it’s important to know how to keep yourself and others safe on the ice.
Here are some tips (PDF) to help you safely enjoy your ice fishing adventure:
- Venturing out on ice alone is not advisable. Take a friend along for fun and for safety.
- Let someone know exactly where you are going and when you expect to return.
- Check the weather and plan accordingly; several days with temperatures above freezing will weaken the ice.
- Dress for the weather -- wear multiple layers to keep yourself warm, and wear a warm fleece or wool hat and appropriate footwear for slick ice conditions.
- Wear a personal flotation device (PFD).
- Test ice thickness with an auger before recreating. Four inches of solid ice is the minimum recommended thickness for a single person. Seven inches of solid ice is the minimum recommended thickness for a small group.
- Always carry safety equipment, such as ice picks, and know how to use it.
- Spread out. Crowds can put too much weight onto one area.
- Be aware of changes in ice thickness across a body of water, and check ice thickness frequently. Perimeter ice is weaker due to shifting, expansion, and sunlight reflecting off the bottom.
- Avoid areas with protruding logs, brush, plants, and docks. These structures absorb heat, weakening the surrounding ice.
- Avoid areas with multiple or intersecting cracks, and standing water over ice.
- Know your limits; if you become wet, cold, or tired, it is time to pack it up for the day.
The Gear You Need to Get Started
The basic gear you’ll need, in addition to warm clothes, includes:
- A set of ice picks -- which is a tool used to break up ice -- to wear around your neck
- A PFD for each person
- A few small jigs, or fishing lures, called tear-drop jigs
- Some bait such as waxworms or spikes
- An auger to drill your fishing hole in the ice
- A scoop to clear ice from the holes you drill
- A jigging rod or two
Ice fishing rods (jigging rods) are shorter versions of rods that you would use for open water fishing. They need to have very sensitive tips to pick up the subtle bites of fish through the ice.
During the heart of winter, many species of warm-water fish, such as bluegills, perch, crappies, and bass, spend their time close to the bottom of the lake feeding on small invertebrates and minnows. For this reason, you will want to keep your bait small.
Cold-water fish, like trout, can be found roaming anywhere in the water column, so you will want to try different depths if they are your target.
Many times, the most productive places to fish are near some sort of structure, such as underwater rock piles, brush piles, and manmade structures often put in place by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC). However, it’s important to test the ice thickness if you’re around these structures.
A flasher or sonar unit can act as underwater eyes showing an angler the bottom depth, structure, and fish, as well as how the fish react to your bait or lure. It isn’t a “must have,” but the unit certainly helps locate active fish.
More Tips to Help Find Ice Fishing Success
In addition to the tips shared above, here are other ideas to help you be a successful ice angler:
- Use small ice jigs or ice flies tipped with waxworms or spikes.
- Use light line, such as a two or four-pound test line.
- Start out with the bait or lure near the bottom of the lake, then move up the water column until you find the fish.
- Be willing to move around to find active fish.
- Pay attention to where others are fishing.
- Ice anglers normally are a social bunch, so it is often a good idea to talk with others on the ice to learn about locations that are good and baits that are working.
- View lake depth maps for many Pennsylvania state parks that have fishing opportunities by selecting the state park you want to visit, and then clicking on the fishing icon at the top of the page. The fishing pages will list lake depth maps that can help you.
- Carry a GPS unit to mark spots that are productive so you can return to them in the future.
Once you learn the basics, you can consider adding to your ice fishing equipment and trying other locations on our state lands.
A portable shanty can be nice to shield an ice angler from the wind and there are many baits and lures to try.
For those that like to eat fish, fish caught through the ice are often of exceptional firmness and flavor. Be sure to keep only the fish you wish to consume and follow seasons and harvest limits set by the PFBC. Also, be aware that on some waters, and for some species, there are consumption advisories (PDF).
Learn More About Ice Fishing
To get more ice fishing knowledge, consider attending an ice fishing program at a state park or one offered by PFBC.
While you are out and about, don’t hesitate to ask our state park and forest employees for more ice fishing information and tips.