Ice Fishing Holes 101 – Patterns, How Far Apart & How Big Should Ice Fishing Holes Be?


Unlike in summer, when you can read the water, ice fishing in winter is a whole new ball game. You’ll be presented with a flat sheet of ice that you have to cut through to get to the fish. How, where, and why you drill your ice fishing holes will have a direct bearing on your success.

But where to start? Don’t worry, guys and girls, I’ve got you.

Drilling holes in the ice is easy, provided you follow a few simple rules.

Today I’ll tell you everything you need to know about holes for ice fishing and what you need to do.

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Ice Fishing Holes – The Ultimate Guide

So, you’ve arrived on the ice and can’t wait to get down to all those fish.

You might suddenly be surprised at how much thought needs to go into drilling those holes. It isn’t just a case of banging through the ice.

a man is fishing on the ice in the winter

A decent ice hole for fishing has to be:

  • Safe – The ice is the only thing supporting you from falling in. so you don’t want to compromise its integrity too much.
  • The right size – The hole needs to be big enough to allow you to fish comfortably and get big fish out of the water, but not so big that it represents a hazard.
  • In the correct place – Ice-covered lakes can be deceptive. What if you happen to drill your hole over a sandbank a couple of inches beneath the surface.
  • Kept clear of snow and ice – When is a hole not a hole? When it keeps freezing up! Which can happen regularly if you don’t take steps to deal with it.

With all of the above in mind, let’s look at how we can achieve all of the above and more.

How Do You Drill Holes in Ice Fishing?

There are actually a few ways you can make a hole to fish in the ice.

Back in the day, guys would use an axe or iron bar or a good quality ice chisel to pick away at the ice until they broke through. Some people still use that technique. Like this lady, it looks like it is really warm work!

If that looks like hard work, the easiest way to make a hole is to use an auger.

An auger is a fancy name for a metal corkscrew that cuts and bores fishing holes in the ice. There are a few options available to you:

  • A hand ice auger (back-breaking and tiring).
  • A gas-driven ice auger (super-efficient, but a nuisance to start).
  • An electric ice auger (really convenient and actually pretty easy).

Gas-powered ice augers are ok, but they tend to be heavy and are really temperamental, especially when cold.

If you are looking for the easiest and most practical solution, an electric ice auger is the way to go! I’ve got a detailed guide on them right here.

To use them, all you do is start them, press the tip of the auger where you want the hole, and press the ‘go button’.

Do you want more detail?

Alright, you’ve got it! Here’s a quick step by step guide to drilling holes in the ice ready for fishing:

Drilling Ice Holes – a 5 Step Guide

  • Step 1) Make your mark – Using an ice chisel or spud bar, make a small hole in the spot where you are going to drill. This will ensure that your auger is controllable.
  • Step 2) Plant your feet – You will be holding a huge drill with a whirring blade, so you will need a stable platform. If you are standing on sheet ice, consider roughing up the surface with a spud bar to afford extra grip… A great pair of ice fishing boots can work well too.
  • Step 3) Place your auger tip into the small hole you created (with the auger off). Press gently and then hit the throttle.
  • Step 4) Let the auger work – This isn’t a strength exercise, and there shouldn’t be any pushing. Let the weight of the auger and the sharp blades cut and take care of the ice. There is no rush, and you could fall over if you push and then breach the ice.
  • Step 5) Keep your hole tidy – if you’ve got time, try making your hole neat. It will prevent the line from catching on uneven edges later.

If you want to see somebody doing it in real life, here’s a really informative video from the Vermont fish and wildlife department.

How Wide are Ice Fishing Holes? What’s the Best Size?

In reality, and given enough time, you could make a hole in the ice as big as you’d like.

But.

Ideally, you want your ice hole to be between 8 and 12 inches? Or, to put it another way, no greater than a foot in diameter.

Why?

Well, first of all, it is doubtful you’ll catch anything wider than a foot (and if you have, tell me your fishing spot and which bait you used, I’ll keep it secret, I promise!). Secondly, you are far less likely to fall into your fishing hole.

That said… Check this video out!

Anything bigger than 12 inches is actually going to be dangerous, so don’t overdo it.

There’s another reason to keep your holes this size.

Over the years, you’ll find that ice fishing equipment, such as ice fishing tip ups, has been designed to be used in holes of around this size. The same is true of ice hole plugs used to stop them from freezing over.

Should you always drill the same size of ice hole for ice fishing?

Actually, it isn’t recommended.

Remember when I said that ice holes should be safe?

This is the kind of thing I am talking about. Here’s a general rule of thumb.

The thinner the ice, the smaller the diameter of the hole.

Here’s a rough and ready guide:

  • 4 – 6 inches of ice = Max ice hole size 8 inches.
  • 6 – 18 inches of ice = Max ice hole size 10 inches.
  • 18 – 24+ inches of ice = Max ice hole size 12 inches.

angler creating fishing hole on frozen lake in winter

How Far Apart Should Ice Fishing Holes Be?

Look, you aren’t trying to create some beehive pattern on the ice. By drilling holes too close together, you are actually creating a dangerous situation where you (or somebody else) could step and fall through.

What counts as ‘too close’?

As a minimum, you want the edge of each ice fishing hole to be at least 4 feet away from the next hole along.

Again, let me give you another great rule of thumb.

The thinner the ice, the further apart the ice hole spacing.

Safety reasons aside, there are a few other reasons you don’t want your holes too close together.

If you have holes on top of each other, there’s a good chance you will be fishing over pretty much the same spot in the water. Mix it up a bit and try walking a short distance to vary the terrain you are fishing over.

Second, if you happen to be ice fishing near another angler, give them some room. I’d recommend at least 10 feet to avoid underwater tangles.

What Are Common Hole Patterns for Ice Fishing?

Now, this is a good bit about ice fishing. If you were fishing from the bank in summer, the only way you’d reach these spots is with a super accurate cast.

Here’s what’s great.

You can literally walk over your chosen spot. However, just like casting, you will want to be a little bit methodical with your approach. Here are some of the most common ice hole patterns for fishing:

two men on a winter fishing drill hole with electric ice auger

The Line

This is a great (and highly methodical) ice hole pattern if you are new to a water.

Just start a few yards from the bank and walk in a straight line. Every 5 yards or so, drill a hole. This allows you to fish a variety of depths and gain your bearings with relation to the bank and other features, so if you are successful, you can find the same spot again and again.

The Zig Zag

This is similar to the Line, except it allows you to fish multiple depths and locations simultaneously.

Start by making one line with a few holes, then go about 5 – 10 yards left or right of this line and drill another row of holes. Stagger the ice holes, so they aren’t parallel.

Voila! A nice zig-zag.

Cluster Drilling

This is a good technique if you want to try a few spots simultaneously and is much more suitable if you have a general idea of what is under the surface.

You’ll separate a few sections of the lake or pond into ‘zones’. In each zone, you are going to drill 3 – 5 clusters. This technique allows you to fish in multiple locations, perhaps using different techniques and fishing at different depths.

Grids and Squares

This is one of my all-time favorite ice-hole drilling pattens.

It allows you to easily cover a huge body of water until you find the fish. Think of it a little like driving to different locations in a boat.

The size of your ‘grid’ is up to you. I normally commit to drilling 9 holes over a 50-yard‘ grid’. I imagine the surface as a tic-tac-toe grid and place a hole in the middle of each square.

I spend 5 minutes fishing in each before moving into the next square.

The Fan

This is similar to what you would achieve if you were casting from the bank. You start at a point close to the shore and then drill about 10 yards out in a semi-circle of 5 or so holes.

No luck…

Walk another 10 yards and do the same again. Keep going until you catch the fish.

Shotgun

Sometimes I just love a day out enjoying the novelty of walking on the ice.

Shotgun is another way of trying lots of different spots. Walk onto the ice, and when you get to a random spot that you fancy fishing, just drill a hole.

With the shotgun approach, you are covering large water areas, and while it is a little random, it is a fun way to fish!

close-up ice auger drill and fishing rod near the hole on the ice

How Can I Stop My Ice Fishing Holes from Freezing Over?

Ah, this is the bane of all ice fishermen’s existence (along with gas-powered ice augers that won’t start)…

Fortunately, there are a few ways to keep your ice holes from freezing over. You can use the following methods:

  • Use an ice scoop or ice chisel to keep the hole clear.
  • Use a heated can.
  • Use insulated ice hole covers.
  • Keep it warm in an ice shanty.
  • Or even good old hot water.

In fact, it bothered me so much I wrote a dedicated article on it. You can find out how to keep ice holes clear right here.

And as for ice augers not starting, have a look at my list of ice augers here. All of these are properly reliable!

man is fishing from a hole on ice

What Kind of Fish Can I Expect to Catch Through Ice Holes?

In short?

If you have caught them on the lake in the summer, there is an excellent chance that you can also catch them when ice fishing in the winter.

Here are the most popular species you can catch when fishing through ice holes:

  • Panfish
  • Crappies
  • Perch
  • Pike
  • Walleye
  • Trout
  • Bass (occasionally)

The techniques you’ll need to use differ slightly. Be sure to check my article on the best ice fishing lures for panfish, or if you are looking for a real fight, the best lures to use when ice fishing for pike.

Ice Fishing Holes – Final Thoughts

Listen, drilling holes in the ice isn’t rocket science, and the fish don’t follow a set pattern (even if your ice holes do). Just as when there is no ice, be smart, think where the fish are likely to be, then head out and drill your holes accordingly (and safely).

What method do you use to find the fish? Let me know in the comments.

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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