The Cost of Getting into Ice Fishing

By Steve Weisman

Last year’s pandemic was a boon for people heading to the outdoors. It was the one place that was safe. Fishing numbers and licenses in the state of Iowa were up by over 50 percent. Some were anglers getting back into the sport of fishing, while others were “newbies.” Whatever it was, the license increase rippled through the retail fishing industry.

For those wanting to get into ice fishing, the question is how much is this going to cost? Well, that depends on what level of entry you are looking for. You can get enough equipment (mostly used) to get going for a few hundred dollars, or you can go all out and spend $40,000 to $50,000 for all of the bells and whistles. Even that price tag is a lot less than a new 20’ walleye rig costing $60,000 to over $90,000. So, it’s really all relative.

Checking it out
Ice fishing is as simple or as complex, as inexpensive or expensive as your desire and pocketbook can handle.

First, let’s talk simple. If you have a buddy that ice fishes, this would be a good place to start. I know that I have taken people out ice fishing, and I supplied the rods, reels, lures and bait. We also used my two-person Yukon portable shack, heater and ice auger. So, really, it was all about the experience, and the cost was nothing for my partner.

Those who know me know that I am a bluegill fanatic and also enjoy fishing perch. I also walleye fish, but that’s not nearly as much. So, over the years, I’ve introduced several “newbies” to the sport of ice fishing for panfish.

Another possibility would be to hire a reputable ice fishing guide. They do have all of the bells and whistles and will work hard to get you on fish and provide everything you need. A guided trip will probably run $200 to $300. For some people, a once-a-year guided ice fishing trip is enough.

Getting started
So, you’ve had your experience and want to get started in the sport. One of the best places to begin is by going on YouTube and Googling ice fishing to just see what it’s all about. Two places I frequent are Clam Outdoors (clamoutdoors.com) and Ice Team (iceteam.com). Lots of “how-to” videos and lots and lots of gear and sponsors at both. Ice Team is a great resource. This is their number one goal: “to educate and be the resource for all anglers, no matter the age or skill level. Novices, experts, kids, families, everyone and anyone who is or wants to be part of ice fishing…We welcome you!” The ice team website offers the latest news, across the ice belt tips, Ice Team Forum, sponsors and digital magazine.

Right before the season, many of the big stores like Scheels and Cabela’s will have ice fishing seminars and “ice fishing” weekends. Area baitshops have also gone to this format, so you can most likely find an ice fishing day or weekend in your area. These “ice fishing” weekends will give you a good visual of what is out there and what you will need based on the species of fish you will be targeting.

Equipment to get started
Panfishing in the winter is incredibly popular. So, I will use that as a basis. Let’s take inventory of the basics you will need. First off, if you fish during the summer and use spinning reels, you can use some of these reels. If not, you can pick up some functional reels for $20 or so. You will want to match it with an ice rod. I like to “see” the bite before I feel it, so I will add a light spring bobber to “see” the bite. Some rods can be purchased with a spring bobber already attached. Again, you can get a decent rod for $20 to $30. It’s nice to have 2-3 combos so you can switch things up and not have to re-tie every time you want something different.

For panfishing, you will want at the most four-pound test line. I usually downsize to two-pound test. You can use the line you used during the summer, or use ice fishing line, which adjusts to the cold conditions better. A spool of ice fishing line (110 yards) runs $5 or so.

Since we are panfishing, if you used tiny tungsten jigs during the summer, they can also be utilized. I personally use Clam’s tungsten Drop and Dingle Drop jigs in assorted colors. The tungsten gets down quickly and is heavy enough to make sure that the line doesn’t have kinks in it. There are lots of tungsten jigs options out there. Some even have a glow to them. They are costly at $2-$3 each, but sometimes you can find a starter kit that will make the individual cost go down. Check with your local baitshop to see what jigs will work best in your area. To be safe, you want to have a basic assortment of maybe 15-20 jigs to start, so that will be $40-$50 each. A full assortment would probably be $100 to $200. These can be kept in a small plastic tackle box costing $10 or more depending on how fancy. As you get into the season, you’ll find your “favorite” lures.

Most of these jigs will be tipped with either live bait like silver wigglers and wax worms for $2 for a double plastic container or tiny plastics from such manufacturers as Maki, Berkley, Custom Jigs and Spins and 13 Fishing to name a few. You can get an assortment of plastics for $10 or so. It all comes down to match the food the fish are feeding on.

You’ll also want a bucket to haul your ice rods out and to sit on, and maybe a second one for the fish you keep, also a plastic ice skimmer to take the slush out of the drilled hole. Everybody seems to have buckets around in the garage, and a plastic ice skimmer will run under $10. A plastic sled with a rope attached will help you drag your equipment out on the ice. You might already have one in the garage. Buying one will be $20-$50 dollars.

How about opening the hole? There are lots of options. Hand augers will run $50-$100, while a gas/oil power auger will run $300-$400. An extremely popular choice now is the electric (battery operated) drill. By the time you buy the battery-operated drill, attachments and auger, you will be in the $400 range, too. However, they are significantly lighter. Because lots of anglers are moving this way, you can find used gas-powered augers for well under $200, maybe even an “or best offer”.

Cold weather clothes are important, but lots of people already have outfits they use to take walks in the winter. However, over the years, I have accumulated a Clam IceArmor suit ($250+ new), a good pair of mittens ($30) and a pair of cold weather boots ($100 to $200). When you have glare ice, you’ll want to have a good pair of ice cleats to keep you steady and upright ($40 to $80). Don’t forget a good cap, hat or stocking cap. On sunny days, make sure to bring your sunglasses!

Some anglers sit on their bucket out in the elements. However, I determined years and years ago that I wanted to fish in comfort, so I purchased a portable shelter. I now have both a Clam single and two-person Yukon shelter. Cost will be $300 to pushing $600. Several manufacturers offer portable shelters. The nice thing about the portable shelter is that you can put all of your gear in it and pull it out.

You might also consider a portable propane heater ($90-$150) to keep the chill out of the shelter.

Do you want to see what’s beneath the ice? In clear water conditions like I have here on the bays of West Okoboji, I can actually look down the hole and see up to 15-20 feet down. However, there are electronic eyes, too: flashers and underwater cameras (anywhere from $300 to $500 and beyond).

On early ice, I will walk. It’s safer and good exercise. However, when several inches of snow come, walking and pulling your shack and equipment gets pretty tough. At age 73, I can no longer do that. So, I will wait until the ice gets over a foot thick in the bays and begin driving my vehicle out on the ice, although there is always a certain risk involved with this.

Others will use an ATV or snowmobile to do this. I’ve had both over the years, but then you need a trailer, which can also add cost. When making the choice, one popular theory is to go with an ATV, because the ATV can be used year around. The pandemic has increased both price and caused late delivery for both ATVs and snowmobiles, which has in turn increased the price of used equipment. Cost for a used ATV or snowmobile can be, say, $3000 for an older model, increasing in price up to $15,000+ as you move to newer models. A good, well taken care of ATV or snowmobile is often a good route to go. Of course, the larger ATV and snowmobile will cost more, too.

Finally, if you have lots of extra money, you could go for one of the new permanent ice fishing houses. Manufacturers are scattered across the snowbelt with most of them in Minnesota. They are built and then sent out to distributors for sale. Cost new (based on luxury) will be anywhere from $10,000 to over $50,000. Used are definitely less. Most of these are drop axle units. Lots of anglers have built their own and saved money. Less expensive ones are built on skids and need a trailer to transport to the lake.

The bottom line
Like any hobby, there is an expense involved. In some respects, that is where we came up with the term “big boys’ toys.” Purchasing the top of the line will bring a $40,000 to $50,000 price tag.

On the low end, purchasing everything new, the cost will be $1315 to $2315. By purchasing product on sale, before and after the season, or even used on classifieds, you can definitely get in for under $1000. Take a look at my list above.