Ice fishing can be somewhat of a challenge when it comes to what types of live bait to use for what species of fish you want to catch.
It takes a lot of patience and practice to Be able to determine what works and what doesn’t work. And every lake you fish is going to be different. So there is no perfect solution to this dilemma.
Try this, try that, fish deeper, bring your line up fish more shallow. Fish can be tricky creatures when they are swimming under that ice sheet on top of them. You see the fish metabolism slows down in the winter months’ kind of hibernation type of effect that keeps them alive and their body temperature regulated for the cold water.
Fish will tend to go after smaller live bait
in the winter because of this metabolism change. They can’t digest the bigger live baits that they usually can in summer.
Thus, they go after the smaller live baits. In this article, I will introduce you to a few different live ice fishing baits that can be used for a variety of fish you might be fishing for. These live baits need to stay wiggling and alive not frozen and dead otherwise the fish will not respond to bait. The keyword here is LIVE bait.
The exception is when fishing with minnows sometimes you want them to be dead. I will explain later.
With these live baits you will want to try them on a plain hook and if that doesn’t work attach the bait to a jig or spoon of your choice. This way you will get an idea of what the fish are after for that particular lake. Individual fish will respond differently to your presentation of the live bait, so experiment, experiment, experiment to get the results you are looking for.
First in the lineup of live ice fishing bait is the:
Wax Worm or Waxies
This is probably the most popular live ice fishing bait that ice anglers use. They can buy these in most bait shops, and I see them a lot at gas stations in the little white fridges they have out by the check-out stand.
Waxies are affordable little bee moth larvae that can be found in abandoned beehive cells. But it’s much easier to pick them up at the store. That’s my opinion. Unless you are really into gathering live bait and picking them out personally.:)
Waxworms consume beeswax. That is why they are called Wax worms just a little trivia for you that you can use next time you want to impress your dinner guests. They are about a half-inch long or so and have a waxy look to them.
Waxies are used for catching many fish species like sunfish, crappies, lake trout, perch. Pretty much any of your smaller fish will go after this live bait in the winter. All these larvae live baits are not widely found in the fish’s natural habitats which makes it kind of a mystery as to why they go after them, but they do.
Mousies or Rat-Tailed Maggot
Next up in the live ice fishing bait discussion are what is called mousies or rat-tailed maggots. These ugly little things have a body that is about half-inch long with a stinger-type tail they use to breathe with.
These little creatures are bee-fly larvae. They are a little darker than the wax worm, and they come off the hook easily because their skin is so thin.
Types of fish to catch with mousies would be your smaller fish species such as crappies, panfish, perch, etc.
Spikes are round chubby looking little things. They are housefly maggots. They are very small even smaller than the wax worm.
Spikes are also called silver wigglers by some anglers. Their skin is thick and robust which keeps them from tearing off the hook so easily.
These are good for catching lake trout and your other smaller varieties of fish.
There are three main species of bait minnows. They are the bluntnose minnow, common shiner, and common emerald shiner. The common shiner is the bait that’s used by most anglers in North America especially when ice fishing.
When we are talking minnows for live ice fishing bait, we are talking about fishing for your more prominent species of fish, such as bass, walleye, northern pike, and muskies. You can also use minnows to catch crappies as well. For the larger fish especially walleyes you want to hook the minnow through the tail so that it is struggling, which will attract fish.
I have heard that dead minnows work well when ice fishing. That’s because fish like walleyes will be searching for these dead minnows in the sediment at the bottom of the lake bed.
Another way to hook a minnow is through the lips and dangle the minnow close to the bottom of the lake where most of the fish hang out in the winter season. You can hook minnows a spoon or jig for the bigger fish but also can be put on a regular hook. It all depends on what you’re fishing for and where you’re fishing. Again you have to experiment to find the right fit.
To keep the minnows from freezing, you will need an Aerated and insulated bait station.
Experiment, Experiment, Experiment
When fishing with all these different types of live ice fishing bait, you are going to need to experiment. A different day in the same fishing hole doesn’t mean the fish will react the same way they did the previous day. You need to try different presentations out.
Be it hooking the bait differently, how you jig the bait, how deep you present to the fish, and the type of fish you are fishing for. It will be different each time and in each different lake that you fish in. So be patient, and you will find what type of live ice fishing bait to use for your specific situation.
I like to bring all these baits with me when I go ice fishing and try them all out in various ways to see what works and what doesn’t for that particular day and that particular lake and of course, that specific fish. So get out ice fishing today and try these techniques out. The fish are waiting for you.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.
Check out another one of our articles:
Cory is a content writer-editor and founder of Tackle Box Talk. Favorite Quote: "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."
12 thoughts on “Live Ice Fishing Bait – Show Me The Fish”
Hi, this is good to know due to me not having much experience in ice fishing.
I love the cold season, being the only one on a lake and passionately trying to catch some fish. The live bait I have not tried in winter so far but next time I surely will.
I wanna try minnows the next time, getting some bigger fish 🙂 do I have to buy them ore catch these first in the same lake I wnt to use them for bait?
You can buy them and use them in any lake you want. Just make sure you get an insulated bait station to keep them in so they don’t freeze solid on you when you are ice fishing.
The fact that people actually ice fish has always fascinated me. I’m from a warm climate (Deep South) and I get freezing cold at just 40 degrees!
Even though I won’t be embarking on any ice fishing journeys anytime soon, it’s nice to keep these tips in mind just in case my partner wants to travel to some freezing cold place (I live in New York now and I can hardly stand the winters!) and go ice fishing, I’ll at least have some clue as to how to do it somewhat gracefully.
It makes perfect sense that fish would go after small bait first since in the animal kingdom, smaller means weaker and animals don’t naturally like to attack something that appears bigger than they are unless they’re in a desperate situation and feel threatened. I didn’t think of this before, but since you mentioned it, it does make perfect sense!
I have ice fished a few times but never heard any luck. I see a lot of people come out with huge fish and always got discouraged. I would never have thought to change bait or even the way you book it would make that much difference. It makes sense that the metabolism of fish slows in the winter and they respond better to smaller bait.
Being that it is now winter I am excited to try my hand at ice fishing again. My kids are now old enough to join me so it could be a whole new experience.
Thanks for sharing this article, I’m going to Canada this year for Christmas and Ice fishing is on the list of our activities I’ve never been before so at least I can now send less like a “newbie” and can recommend some suitable bait. I’ll give a couple of these baits a go and let you know how I get on.
Can’t wait to hear about your fishing adventure.
I was fishing from time to time during holidays in my country-house but I had never tried ice fishing. It’s amazing how many baits there are and how much of a difference each one can make. Fishing is a whole science and you need to know exactly what to use to have best results. Love your article and I enjoyed very much all the info you provided.
Thank you Stratos. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I have never done ice fishing before except under the sun whereby I would think handling baits are much easier than in icey environment. It does make me wonder how long the wax worm, mousies or rat-tailed maggots can last as a live bait under the iced water. Does it still attract the fishes even if it is not alive anymore?
They still can attract the fish if they are not alive but more so if they are alive. I recemend switching the bait out once in a while maybe every half hour or so.
Hi! This is an interesting post!
My father does a ton of fishing and I’ve been trying to find something more unusual for him this holiday. I’m a procrastinator I know. He’s been trying his hand at ice fishing this winter and I’ve been meaning to go with him. We are going to be leaving in a week to visit for Christmas and my plan was to go with him over the holidays. This info will help me to know at least a little bit about what I am doing. Or at least to know what kind of bait we are looking for. He’ll be impressed. 🙂
You mentioned a aerated and insulated bait station. Do you have a recommendation on a good one to buy?
That might be just the present I’m looking for. Thanks for the info!
I would recommend the Frabill MIN-O-LIFE 8 quart Bait station It comes with a special latch to prevent spilling, lift out net liner and durable insulation. This is a great choice for keeping your live bait alive.
Glad to help with the present idea. Have a good trip with your dad!