If you’re not used to the cold and darkness that winter brings across the northern fringe of the country, you might think it’s a depressing time of year to be around. You’d be wrong, since the frigid conditions also mean it’s time for ice fishing season! But how do you know you’re using the right ice fishing bait for whatever fish species you’re targeting?

Are You Packing the Best Ice Fishing Bait?

 First, start by reading this live bait guide, which is a great resource for several fish species (e.g., crappies, bass, trout, and walleye) throughout the year. And if you really want to key in on panfish this upcoming ice fishing season, start watching ice fishing videos and keep reading below for some ice fishing tips.

Types of Panfish Bait

These days, it’s easy to get confused about which bait you should use. Take a stroll through a sporting goods store and you’ll be overwhelmed by aisles of ice fishing supplies and specialty baits that all promise to help you catch fish. Plastic worms or grubs, artificial baits, and live baits are the three basic categories of ice fishing bait used by most anglers.  

The artificial fishing baits have some benefits over traditional live bait – namely, they are durable and can often be used for more than one bite. Plastic baits can be used dozens of times as long as they’re not damaged, but live minnows or worms don’t usually hold up well past a single strike. You can also keep a package of artificial ice fishing bait inside your coat pocket very easily to stay mobile.  

But there’s nothing more dependable on any body of water than ice fishing with live bait. Of the live bait for ice fishing (especially when targeting panfish), minnows are a perfect choice. On some occasions, wax worms also work well. But if you’re into mobile ice fishing, you probably hate being tethered to a big minnow bucket – it’s just too bulky to move things around efficiently. That’s where the Bait Up™ containers really shine.

Tips for Using a Live Bait Container

Depending on which fish species you’re after, the minnow choice should also change. For example, when you’re ice fishing for panfish, you should seek out shiners or fathead minnows. Generally speaking, minnows in the 1- to the 2-inch range are the right size for catching crappies or bluegills. Any bigger, and you’re getting into a minnow size that should be used for targeting walleye. 

Likewise, your bait container should also change depending on the size of the bait you use. The Bait Up 20 container holds 20 ounces of water and small bait options (or less of the larger sized baits). The Bait Up 35 container carries 35 ounces of water and can fit either more of the small ice fishing bait or a good amount of medium-sized live bait (usually 1 to 3 scoops of average crappie minnows). The floating basket raises the bait up out of the water so you don’t have to get your hands as wet and don’t need to carry a separate net/scoop. Then when the bait needs a change of water to re-oxygenate, simply invert the container and drain the water out the bottom without losing any bait. Then submerge it into the water of the ice fishing hole to refill it.  

As for ice fishing tips for crappie, simple is usually best. Sensitive ice poles and light 2- or 4- pound test lines are the perfect combination. Use a small float with a bobber stop set to the approximate depth you’d like to fish. Bait ice fishing lures for crappie or a plain hook with a minnow (hooked right under the dorsal fin). Add a split shot or two about one foot above the bait, and let it sink. If you’re using fishing electronics, you can adjust the depth to wherever you see the fish. If not, try setting your bait about 1 to 2 feet off the bottom as a starting point. Aggressive (and hungry) crappies tend to be suspended in the water column versus right on the bottom, but it’s a start. 

Ice Fishing Challenges

Unlike fall fishing conditions where you might have the lake to yourself, ice fishing seems to really stack people up on some water bodies. People always gravitate towards other anglers, especially if they’re fishing in the vicinity of a known piece of structure or honey hole. While many lakes can handle that fishing pressure, sometimes it can also really reduce the fish activity. In these cases, it’s better to strike off on your own and find a new honey hole. Slip your Bait Up container lanyard over your shoulder, grab your other ice fishing equipment, and use a lake contour map to find a new spot. Weed lines in shallower water are often overlooked by almost everyone who ice fishes, but they still hold good schools of crappies, especially earlier in the year when the vegetation is still healthy. So the next time you see a village of fish houses clustered over a deep hole in the lake, try fishing the perimeter of the lake instead. 

Another challenge with ice fishing is (spoiler alert): it’s cold outside. When you leave an uninsulated container of water on the ice, it usually doesn’t take long before ice starts to form inside it. While it doesn’t really affect the ice fishing bait in the short-term, it can affect how well the basket works. To solve that issue, simply keep your container within a backpack/cooler if you’re on the move or use a portable fish house. You can usually hang it from one of the metal supports along the ceiling of a fish shelter, which keeps it off the ice and up where the heat rises. It will never ice up in that location and you can keep an eye on when the bait needs a new dose of water. 

To learn about ice fishing gear essentials for every angler, click here

This winter, make sure you’re using the right ice fishing bait on the water. Artificial baits are usually made to mimic live baits. So why not go right to the source, the way nature intended them to look and smell? With the portable Bait Up containers, you can easily cover a larger area faster. And that usually results in more fish on the ice.