A Beginner's Guide to Ice Fishing in Canada

Ice fishing is an exceptionally fun and rewarding way to get you through Northwestern Ontario's extended Winter Months.

Editors Note: While many are experts at fishing in Ontario in the summer, there are definitely fewer that go ice fishing, often because they don't realize how enjoyable (and warm) it can be. I've asked Meagan from Clarks's Resorts & Outposts to write some tips for ice fishing in Ontario for someone who has never ice fished—or for those that just want a little extra knowledge to help them go ice fishing.

Anyone who has grown up in remote Northwestern Ontario would probably agree that the winters can get a little long. One of my favourite activities that I've loved to do ever since a young age, is to go ice fishing. In the very busy and connected world that we live in, I cannot think of a better way to spend quality time with friends and family. Whether we spend the whole day out on the lake, or just an evening in the shack, it's always great to talk and laugh while being completely unplugged and in the moment. Even if the fish are not biting, ice fishing is still a great way to connect, while enjoying the great outdoors. When you are dressed properly, the winters here in Northwestern Ontario are beautiful and can be very enjoyable.

The scenery is stunning with snow-covered trees and miles of untouched powdery snow. The air is so fresh and crisp and on a sunny day, the sparkling snow is absolutely breathtaking. If you enjoy snowmobiling, ice fishing is also a great activity to get you out on the machines exploring and carving out the snow, while traveling to your favorite fishing hole.

7Winter Scenery

Fresh snow covers a frozen lake

We are very fortunate to have a great fishing spot right out in front of one of my parents’ tourist camps, K.C.’s Landing Resort on Edward Lake. They put an ice fishing shack in front of camp every winter within walking distance from the house. I have to admit, we’ve become a tad bit spoiled. Our shack is heated by a propane heater (with a cooktop), and we have lights, padded benches, and two tabletops to put our snacks on. With no jackets, we stay toasty warm while jigging in the fishing hole right at our feet. Sometimes we even cook dinner while we fish.

8Shack Interior

Even basic ice fishing shacks can be designed for comfort and warmth

I always find “early ice” to be the best time for fast-action Walleye fishing. Ice-over usually takes place in early November, but this year it wasn’t until December that we finally had safe ice to walk on. My Dad has always taught me that 4 inches of ice are plenty if you are on foot, but because ice thickness can vary so much on any one lake, you must measure everywhere that you plan to step. We use a needle-point ice pick to test the ice and always carry a survival kit including waterproof matches. We like to wait until we can measure at least 6 inches of ice before we venture out to go fishing. Once we have about 8 inches of ice, we are able to pull our ice shack out with a four-wheeler. We look for the “honey hole” which is a drop-off at about 15-20 feet deep. We raise the shack about a foot off the ice using Styrofoam blocks for easy removal in the spring. We bank it up with snow to keep the drafts out and also use hole covers to keep any critters from getting inside.

Learn more about ice fishing at Clark's Resorts & Outposts

9Outside ShackCover Holes

Always ensure the ice is thick enough before heading out

My “tackle box” consists of a pocketful of assorted colours of 1/8 oz. lead head jigs. I always fish with live minnows, and I prefer the smaller ones. In my opinion, a bigger minnow does not mean a bigger fish. When Walleye fishing in the summertime, I use the exact same bait; a 1/8 oz. lead head jig and a small minnow. The reason that I never stray away from this is that all you need to feel is a couple of taps on the rod and you can set the hook right away, hooking the fish nicely in the lip allowing for a quick and easy release. I find that when using bigger minnows, you have to allow the fish more time to get a hold of them and it’s not as easy to get a good hook set. I was always raised to keep a few smaller ones to eat and to throw the bigger ones back to keep a healthy population of breeding stock in the lake.

10JigsFish Lip

All you need is a sturdy rod equipped with a jig and a minnow

As for the equipment, I use a 20-inch medium or light-action ice fishing rod with a 6-8 pound test line. If we are fishing out in the open, I will often use a rod holder like the one in the picture below and just keep an eye on the rod for any bending or heavy bouncing. Sometimes we use tip-ups, which shoot a flag into the air when you’ve got a bite. A light willow stick with a fishing line also works great. If I choose to not hold my pole and jig, I will pre-set the line so that the minnow is about 4 inches off of the bottom. When you’re out with a few people with multiple holes set, part of the fun is seeing who can run to the hole fast enough to set the hook. Whatever you choose to fish with, the idea is to let the fish take the bait down with a slight amount of tension at all times without giving it the opportunity to run with the bait.

11Rod Holder Good

A solid stand can free up your hands while you wait for a bite

I usually like to start out with a medium-action fishing rod. I hook my minnow just under the dorsal fin allowing it to swim more freely creating a natural presentation to better attract the fish. I let the line out until I can feel the jig hit the bottom and then bounce it up and down. I jig no higher than 4-5 inches from the bottom and I make sure to hit the lake floor every time. If I plan to jig more aggressively, I will often hook the minnow through the lips. I like a 1/8 oz. jig because it is just heavy enough to help you find the bottom quickly and easily while being light enough to allow the minnow to move more naturally. If I were to ever stray away from the 1/8 oz. jig, I would choose an even lighter one, never heavier. Once I feel a fish tap 2 or 3 times, I let it take the rod down 8-10 inches maintaining a little tension as the fish pulls down, before I set the hook. After setting the hook, I keep the line tight as I reel the fish to the surface.

12Medium Action and Dorsal Fin

Keep your line taut to the surface after you've set your hook

There are times when the Walleye bite is very light. When this is the case, I choose a light action rod, which to me is actually the most fun. Catching a small, 15-inch Walleye feels like you are reeling in a monster Pike. When we are fishing with “beginners”, it is always fun to watch them reel in a fish on a light action rod. One of my favourite memories was from a few years ago.

5Light Action Small Walleye

Even the little ones can put up an adrenaline-inducing fight

My husband and I spent Christmas Eve in the ice fishing shack with our families, including my husband’s 90-year-old Grandmother. She had never ice-fished before, which came as a shock to us all as she had grown up in Northern Ontario. We set her up with a nice light-action rod, showed her how to use the reel, and it wasn’t long until she was out-fishing us all. It was a blast watching her reel in these beautiful 15-17 inchers. No matter who I fish with, whether it’s a group of my closest girlfriends, my parents, grandparents, or my husband and our 10-month-old daughter, I always walk away with a smile on my face reflecting on the great memories that we just made.

6Vi Ella

Ice fishing is fantastic for all age groups and can bring people together

Whether fishing in the shack or out on the ice, we like to drill our holes with an 8” auger. You can see that the one in the picture below has an extension on it. This is because the ice shack is 1.5 feet off of the ice. I find that an 8” hole will handle just about any size of fish and it’s not as big of a concern with people stepping in them. I always keep an ice scoop on hand to keep the slush out of the hole and to keep it from freezing over. Another valuable tip that we’ve come to realize over the years is that when fishing in close quarters, like in a shack, it is a good idea for others to pull up their lines when someone has a large fish on. On many occasions, we’ve had someone hook a large Pike and it takes off with their line, swimming circles around the shack.

1Auger and Scoop

A sturdy scoop is key to clear built-up ice

One time, there were 8 girls, including myself, fishing in the shack and everyone started screaming and frantically reeling in their monster fish! As it turned out, everyone was tangled up together and only one of us had actually hooked this monster. Although we had to cut most of the lines, the fish actually stayed on the one jig and we were able to pull it up the hole and get a quick look at the culprit… a huge muskie!

2Girls with Walleye

Whether alone or with a group, ice fishing is always a blast

We are very fortunate to live in Northwestern Ontario with thousands of lakes right in our backyards. Fishing does not have to be just a summertime activity. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy the outdoors in the wintertime and spend quality time with friends and family… and let’s face it, you just can’t beat fresh walleye for dinner!

3Fileting Walleye
A payoff of fresh walleye is always worth the effort

About Meagan Stansfield

Meagan was born into the tourism industry in the heart of Northwestern Ontario. Her parents have always owned fishing resorts and a large live bait business. She is passionate about spending time outdoors, and loves to fish and hunt. After venturing out on her own for a while and exploring a couple of different career paths, she couldn’t help but be drawn back to the family businesses. The tourism industry is undeniably in her blood and she came back to work for her parents in 2013. They now own 3 Drive-In Fishing Resorts, 17 Fly-In Fishing Outposts, a large live bait business, and a retail store. Meagan helps where she can with all of the businesses, but mainly focuses on the Resorts & Outposts and the company’s online presence. Her favorite part about working in the industry is the opportunity to be outdoors and sharing the beauty that Northwestern Ontario has to offer with the tourists that travel from all over. While her summers are extremely busy, she enjoys her quieter winters when she gets to devote her time to her daughter, Ella and husband, Devin.

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