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Ice Fishing – A Smorgasbord of Fish and Fun

By Bob Papson
Principal Fisheries Biologist
December, 2004
What better way to spend a calm January day after the hectic holiday season than on a quiet frozen lake – ice fishing. In the 1950s and 60s this winter activity was very popular and hundreds of ice fishermen, including entire families, could be seen on weekends at Lake Hopatcong and other lakes pursuing their favorite quarry, the chain pickerel. After a number of years of declining participation there appears to be a resurgent interest in ice fishing.

Obviously, winter weather patterns play a major role in the amount of time there is safe ice in any particular year. This is especially true in New Jersey. Therefore, the length of the ice fishing season can vary greatly from year to year. Freezing temperatures arriving in late December can result in safe ice forming on a good many ponds and lakes and ice anglers gearing up for action by early January. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

Ice fishing is a very safe sport but common sense can go a long way to ensure this. A minimum thickness of four inches is the rule of thumb for safe ice for individual anglers. Areas near underwater springs and bubblers around docks result in thinner ice and should be avoided.

Author with 2 walleyes
The author with two nice Greenwood Lake walleyes.
“Smorgasbord of Fish Species”
Ice fishing is an enjoyable and challenging angling activity. It also can be very productive. Many species of fish, including warm water species such as largemouth bass, sunfish, crappie and yellow perch are active and susceptible to ice fishing techniques.
Dad, daughter and yellow perch   Dad, daughter and pickerel
A productive day for sisters and dad - a perch and a pickerel!
Two of the more popular and widely distributed species are the chain pickerel and yellow perch. Both species are generally found in shallow depths (less than 15 feet) associated with aquatic vegetation. Yellow perch are a schooling fish and once located the action can be fast and furious. Sunfish and crappie also school up and can be caught in good numbers. Large predators like smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are also on the prowl and provide a little more challenge.
Several popular coolwater fish species found in the northern U.S. and Canada have been stocked in recent years by the Division of Fish and Wildlife and angler organizations. These fish can provide the ultimate challenge for those ice fishermen looking for trophy size fish. These species include walleye, northern pike, tiger muskies and muskellunge.

Last but not least is the true “cold water” fish, the trout. There are several lakes where holdover trout are available and others that are stocked by angler organizations in the fall. The Division has also increased the opportunity to catch trout through the ice with the relatively new Winter Trout Stocked Lakes Program.

As with many sports, ice fishing has become more technical. In many cases ice chisels have been replaced by super sharp hand and gas-powered augers, home made wooden tip-ups by high tech plastic tip-ups and a weight with string attached to determine depths by electronic depth finders. Although these and other products, like portable ice shelters, sleds and light weight warm clothing, have made ice fishing more comfortable and efficient, simple basic equipment is all that is needed to have fun and be successful.
Basic equipment consists of an ice chisel or hand auger, several tip-ups and /or jigging pole, hooks, weight (split shot, egg sinkers), live bait, jigging lures, ice ladle and a five gallon plastic bucket to carry all of it.

In New Jersey ice anglers may use no more than five devices, i.e. a combination of tip-ups and /or jigging poles. All devices not hand-held must bear the name and address of the user and can’t be left unattended. For more information, consult the Fish and Wildlife DIGEST, available at license agents (a good source for current fishing conditions) and this Web site.

Whether using tip-ups or a jigging pole, the bait or jig should be fished at or near the bottom most of the time. Water reaches its highest density at 39 degrees; therefore, this relatively warmer water is at the bottom of the lake. However, some species, like crappie or trout, have a tendency to suspend within the water column, making locating them a little more difficult. Most suspended fish can be found off steep drop-offs, points or vertical structure such as standing timber.

Friends with nice northern pike
Friends with nice northern pike!

Favorite baits for panfish are grubs (mousies, mealworms, wax worms) used on a small jig and fathead minnows or small golden shiners used with a plain hook and a tip-up. Larger jigs/lures and tip-ups baited with large golden shiners, chubs or suckers are the ticket for bigger fish such as bass, pickerel, pike and walleye. Some of the more popular jigs/lures are the very small panfish jigs, the Kastmaster, Swedish Pimple and Rapala swimming minnow.

Some folks may be skeptical about being comfortable while fishing during the coldest period of the year while standing on ice. With today’s quality warm clothing and boots, and the ability to walk around as you fish, a person can feel quite comfortable, especially on days when the wind is light. In fact, in February when the sun begins to rise higher in the sky and afternoon temperatures rise above freezing, conditions can feel spring-like, even downright balmy!
Father, son and muskie
Father and son with nice muskie, later released

The Social Sport
One aspect of ice fishing that makes it so enjoyable is the camaraderie found on the ice, from alerting nearby anglers of a unseen flag or exchanging fishing tips to welcoming other anglers to join in on some grilled venison or hot soup. Ice fishing lends itself to family or group participation. Cooking on the ice with propane camp stoves and portable gas grills has become very popular. There’s nothing better than the taste of a fresh grilled hot dog or venison taken that previous hunting season during a well-deserved break from working the holes.

This season more than any is when freshwater anglers keep a portion of their catch for eating. Practice “selective harvest” by harvesting the more abundant panfish species and releasing the larger sized individuals of bass, pickerel and other sportfish species. The fillets of perch, crappie and sunfish are delicious. As for walleyes, when it comes to eating quality, well they’re like a giant perch – excellent! Also, remember to keep only the amount of fish you intend to eat. Selective harvest will go a long way in maintaining desirable fisheries.

Where To Go
Ice fishing takes place on ponds and lakes of all sizes with larger water bodies providing a wider diversity of fishing opportunities. Most state-owned lakes allow ice fishing, whereas county or municipally-owned waters may prohibit this activity. It is always good to check with the responsible authority to make sure ice is safe and fishing allowed.

Popular north Jersey lakes include the following:

Sussex County: Hopatcong, Swartswood, Little Swartswood, Wawayanda, Musconetcong, Aeroflex, Cranberry and Jefferson
Passaic County: Monksville Reservoir, Greenwood, Shepherd, Green Turtle Pond and Pompton
Morris County: Budd Lake
Warren County: Furnace, White, Mountain, Delaware (Columbia WMA) and Deer Park Pond
Hunterdon County: Spruce Run Reservoir

During cold winters Central Jersey lakes such as Farrington (Middlesex County), Assunpink, Rising Sun and Stone Tavern (Assunpink WMA, Monmouth County) attract a lot of attention.

Maps for most of the above waters, showing bottom depths and other features, are available on line in PDF format. See the Lake Maps page for available maps and information on obtaining those not yet online.

Despite concerns about a warming climate ice still forms on New Jersey waters and anglers still can enjoy this age-old sport – and we expect they will for years to come. Early winter is just the right time to make plans to partake in one of winter’s most enjoyable and gratifying outdoor sports – ice fishing!


Winter Trout Fishing in Lakes and Ponds
Winter Trout Stocked Lakes Program - November, 2000
Success! The Winter Trout Stocked Lakes Program - April 2001
Freshwater Fishing
Wildlife Management Areas
Feature Articles
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Last Updated: December 23, 2004