ALERT: Full hookup sites now available at Arrowhead Park, Botna Bend Park, and Hitchcock Nature Center for $30 per night.
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Hardwater Fishing

Posted on 2/9/2021
by Bob Hladik, Part Time Environmental Education Staff & Lifelong Fisherman
Fishing can be fun all year long!

We skate on it, play sports on it, and even drive on it, but how many people fish on it?  Winter in the Midwest has provided us with a wealth of ice-covered ponds and lakes & I urge you to consider ice fishing.  

The right equipment is the first important choice you will make.  Ice fishing poles, which are much shorter than regular fishing rods, and/or tip-ups are first on the list. Visit your local outdoor store (or even a hardware store) to select these items.  In addition to the pole, an ice spud is essential to check the strength of the ice ahead of you. Ice must be at least 4 to 6 inches thick, so the spud will tell you when to stop if the ice is thin!  To stay upright on the ice, winter boots with ice cleats are a great addition to your clothing.  Two five-gallon plastic buckets, one to hold your gear and one as a seat, will come in handy.  Pick up a small sled, you can load it with your gear & haul it all at once. Finally, and most importantly, a winter coat, water-proof gloves, and cap will help you stay warm. 

Where to find fish?  Any lake that supports fishing during the warmer months is a likely spot. A map of any local bodies of water including depth is a great tool, a gradual drop off is a great place to start your fishing adventure. Check with local agencies to find what species live in the lake. And don't forget, word of mouth is the best source.  Ask relatives, friends, and neighbors who fish, they will be more than happy to direct you to area lakes and will even tell you the kinds fish you can catch in those lakes. If you are really in need of help check out local lakes to see if you spot any anglers on the ice catching fish.

Here are some of the types of fish you might catch as you ice fish.

Bluegill, Courtesy of the USFWS

Bluegill, a popular fish in this area, are found in many lakes/ponds. They usually begin to feed an hour or two after sunrise so midday is a great time for them.  Try a teardrop lure with a #8 or #10 fishhook and a grub, like waxworm or mousse.  Place a small bobber on the line so you can "read" the strike.  They like to stay near the bottom in 5 to 15 feet of water.  If there is "structure"--brush, trees, or other submerged cover--bluegill may be lurking somewhere nearby. 

Crappie, Courtesy of the USFWS

Crappie is another larger finned critter sought after by ice-fishers.  Crappie stay in schools, so once they are located, you have a better chance to catch several. Look for this fish later in the day, they tend to be nocturnal feeders.  Rock faces of dams and flooded trees along creek channels are good places to drill a hole.  They are usually found in 10 to 25 feet of water and swim at various depths. Use an ice rod with a #4 or #6 light wire hook.  Add a small split shot weight.  Place a small minnow on a hook and wait for action. 

If the lakes are stocked, you might be able to catch perch, bass, pike, walleye, or trout.  Where and how to catch them is its own story. Watch for another blog post coming soon. 

Safety while fishing on ice is more important than catching fish!!!  The safe load ice will bear is NOT dependent entirely on its thickness.  Before going out, keep in mind that a MINIMUM of 3" but preferable 4" of clear, blue lake will support one angler.  Beginners should always fish with a buddy.  Ice with a depth of five or more inches will hold several anglers arranged in single-file.  NOTE:  Any lake with moving water whether from an aerator, inlet canal, springs, groundwater seepage or an outlet should be entered with more caution than jumping out of an airplane without a parachute!

Precautions for ice fishing include more than checking ice depth and having a friend with you. I have a friend who wears a life jacket while ice fishing in case of a worst-case scenario. In addition to the spud, life jacket, and a fishing buddy, bring a long safety rope and ice picks which are usually worn around the neck and can be of great help if you end up in the water.

When you get on the lake ice, use the spud to cut an opening big enough to pull a fish through, and use an ice scoop to clear pieces of ice from the hole.  Make sure a rope is attached to the spud, just in case it goes through the ice and into the lake.  Thick ice can be cut with an ice drill.  Check your local hardware/outdoor sports store for prices.  Some folks shop for ice fishing gear online, but I really recommend that first-time ice fishers see and handle the gear before buying.  If you get hooked on hard water fishing you may want to invest in a few other pieces of gear to make your experience even better. Tools like an electronic fish finder, ice shelter, heaters and a gas-powered ice auger are expensive but a great investment in your new hobby.  

Follow the “R’s” when finding gear.  Thrift stores may have sleds and buckets. A fishing friend purchased ready-to-use tip-ups at a garage sale.  Catch and release is good way to enjoy the sport and share the joy of catching a whopper through the ice.

Pottawattamie Conservation parks and habitat areas offer several areas for fishing. Consider checking out Arrowhead Park in Neola, the Crescent Wildlife Area in Crescent, or Farm Creek Wildlife Area outside of Carson for some great fishing. For more information, check out our website at

Author, Bob Hladik & his grandsons

Sources: Nebraskaland Magazine's Ice Fishing Guide 1993, The Total Outdoorsman Manual, Weldon Owen Inc, copyright 2011, Nebraskaland Magazine, January-February 2018.

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