When temperatures drop, Montana’s areas of open water become an icy paradise for fishing. But when you’re just starting out, the sport of ice fishing can be a bit intimidating. Get all the details for a fishing trip to remember. Here’s your guide to ice fishing in the treasure state.
Ice fishing can be bare bones or high tech: how much you invest in gear is up to you. A gas or electric-powered auger makes drilling holes easy, but a hand auger gets your workout in and keeps you occupied between bites. Then method comes in: rod and reel is the most common, but you can also go for a hand line or even spear fishing.
If you’re out on a sunny day with no wind, you might be able to stop at a bucket to sit on and some warm clothes to bundle up. When wind whips through, though, you’ll want to stay warm and sheltered in a hut, and it never hurts to invest in a sled to help you haul your gear across the ice. A fish finder can let you know where the fish are, but seasoned pros can do the same thing.
You’ll also need to draw the fish in, and depending on the species you might need to stock up on maggots, worms, smelt (chunks of bait fish), artificial lures, or even sausages. It’s okay to have some fun with it, but it doesn’t hurt to hit up local outdoor stores for recommendations and the gear to get you out there.
In cold conditions, on ice above a frozen coating covering icy depths, it’s good to give extra consideration to safety. Thickness of ice should be a no-brainer, but it’s common to see eager ice fishers out in questionable conditions. As a general rule, you don’t want to head out on any ice thinner than two inches, though three to four is much better. Be alert to changing conditions, since a warm day can work fast on melting ice. Hearing the whoomphing of ice settling or sharp cracking could be a sign to head to shore quick. On the other hand, hypothermia and frostbite aren’t risks to overlook. Be sure to dress for the conditions and pay attention for signs and symptoms of each.
What makes a good lake for ice fishing? It’s not quite the same as the waters you want to fish in warmer weather. What species do you want to catch? Where are the public access points, and are there any closures in place? In winter, road conditions, or the length of hike to get to your spot, are also considerations to keep in mind. You’ll want to note where the inlet and outlet for the lake are, and keep in mind that ice could be thinner near those spots.
Published fishing regulations are your first checkpoint to learn all you need to know about Montana ice fishing. FishMT gives stocking info and species found in every water body. Facebook has local ice fishing groups. Local outfitters are a wealth of information, keeping up on ice, fishing conditions, and what they’re biting. Head into a local fishing shop and support local business while you’re at it.
In Eastern Montana, walleye, northern pike, perch, lake trout (in Fort Peck) rule the lakes. Central Montana boasts walleye, Kokanee salmon, perch, and trout for fishing fun. And in Western Montana drop a line for trout, salmon, perch and pike. But whatever you’re fishing for, and no matter how many bites you get, the time in nature, peering into an icy hole into the depths of the lake, will give you a taste of winter adventure.
To set your home base of exploration for winter fun in Montana, find a Highline Adventures property to cozy up in. Then get out there!