How To Ice Fish At Night (Detailed Guide)
UPDATED 18 MAY 2023
by Robert Ceran
While most ice anglers go home in the evening, a few dedicated ones continue ice fishing during the night shift, and swear by the results they achieve with this.
Night fishing is not only an adventure, but can also be a lot more productive for catching some species, compared to ice fishing during the day.
But if you want to take advantage of the night time bite, it’s essential to be adequately prepared for conditions that are very different from daytime fishing.
In this article we’ll walk you through the most important things you need to know – which species and locations to target, as well as the best techniques and baits for ice fishing at night.
Is ice fishing at night worth it?
Ice fishing at night is absolutely worth it if you target the right species, and use the right techniques.
That being said, it is not good for all species at all times – we’ll cover the full details of what fish are best to target with night ice fishing below.
Here are the key benefits of ice fishing at night:
- Less competition from other anglers: Most ice anglers go home at sunset, so you’ll have fewer of them to compete with at night. This means you’ll have the cream of the crop when it comes to picking the best ice fishing spots, and an additional benefit of having less people around is that many fish are less shy at night, and therefore easier to catch.
- Some species are more active at night: Several fish species specialize in feeding more actively at night, and it stands to reason that you’ll have better chances of catching them if you fish during the hours of darkness.
- Fish move into shallower water at night: While many fish retreat to deep water during the day, the ones that are active at night push into shallower zones during the hours of darkness to feed on invertebrates and small fish. So if you know where these “honey holes” are, this makes it easier to find fish at night, and you can end up catching a lot more fish than during the day shift.
It’s important to note that these benefits don’t apply equally to all species.
So now let’s take a look at which species are most active at night in the winter, and are therefore a good choice to target with nicht ice fishing.
What species can you catch with ice fishing at night?
The best species to target with night ice fishing are walleye, crappie, and burbot, since each of these is highly adapted to feeding in the dark.
For example, walleye have extra large, light-sensitive eyes, allowing them to see better at night than their prey.
As a result, walleye feed more actively during the night, since this enables them to exploit their superior sense of vision when hunting baitfish.
Similarly, crappie have a highly sensitive lateral line organ that allows them to detect the slightest vibrations in the water, and coupled with their keen eyesight, this enables them to feed actively at night even when other fish stop feeding.
So, due to their special adaptations to feeding under low light conditions, you can expect to catch walleye, crappie, and burbot most of the time while ice fishing at night.
In addition to these night fishing “regulars”, you can also catch other species that are sometimes active at night, but not always. Fish that fall in this second category are trout, bluegill, pike, muskie, and bass.
These species are visual hunters that are better adapted to daylight conditions, and they don’t seem to be active during very dark nights.
However, during a full moon (and especially when there’s a clear sky), they definitely feed during the night as well.
In fact, when stable high pressure periods in midwinter coincide with a full moon, the daytime bite can die down almost completely, as all the fish switch to feeding at night instead.
Ice fishing at night for walleye
Walleye are the most popular species targeted with night ice fishing.
The reason for this is that they are more nocturnal than all other species caught through the ice, and so you can expect to catch more fish at night than during the day.
In addition to this, if you’re looking to target trophy walleye on ice, the night shift regularly produces the biggest fish every winter.
If you plan to ice fish at night for walleye, always make sure to set up in the afternoon, as you’ll be able to take advantage of the evening bite, which is often the peak feeding hour for walleye.
Also, if you don’t want to stay the whole night, you can just stay for an hour or two after sunset, and often end up catching more walleye during the last couple of hours than during the whole day before that.
If you decide to fish for walleye during the whole night, be prepared for their feeding activity to slow down for a while after the evening peak, followed by several active periods during the course of the night, as well as another one around dawn.
Many experienced walleye anglers report that the walleyes they catch early during the night tend to be smaller ones, while the bigger ones show up later, around midnight.
A great strategy for ice fishing for walleye at night is to set up a series of tip ups or deadsticks baited with live minnows, while at the same time jigging for walleye under the ice with an active rod.
By actively jigging a lure you can attract the attention of walleyes that pass by, and some of them will then fall for one of your live minnows.
Ice fishing at night for crappie
Together with walleye, crappie are the most commonly caught species with ice fishing at night.
The best locations to catch crappie at night are in and around weed beds that are between 10 and 15 feet deep.
Keep in mind that crappie move up in the water column at night, as they follow the movement of zooplankton.
It’s important to target the edge zones of the weeds, so you don’t drop your bait right into the thick of the vegetation, where it won’t be found by crappie.
In order to get this just right, it’s best if you use a sonar and/or underwater camera to scout out the conditions underwater.
Glow lights work extremely well for attracting crappie ice fishing, and we’ll cover that in more detail below.
One challenge when ice fishing for crappie at night is detecting their bites, which can be very subtle.
The best tool for this is an ice rod with a very sensitive tip that quivers when a fish takes the bait (you can also use a spring bobber to make it even more sensitive).
Sometimes crappie bites actually make your line go slack, as they lift the lure slightly up in the water, and it takes some skill to detect these types of bites.
When it comes to bait, the most productive tactics usually involve combining an ultra light jig head (such as a 1/64 oz or 1/32 oz half ant drop) with soft plastic lures, or baiting them with live bait such as waxworms, maggots, or minnows.
Compared to larger lures that can work for crappie during the day, it’s usually better to go more finesse with your lures at night, probably because crappie are focused on eating zooplankton during the hours of darkness.
Red colors often work best, and it’s definitely worth trying out some glow lures.
Ice fishing at night for trout
Rainbow trout are the most commonly caught trout species while ice fishing at night.
Trout are not consistent night feeders, however, so you can get variable results from one lake to the next, and also from night to night.
In general, trout are more likely to be active at night if there is a bright moon and less cloud cover.
During these conditions, they will feed on small aquatic invertebrates and small fish in the top half of the water column, so make sure to present your trout bait sufficiently high in the water.
You can improve your odds of catching trout at night by using green glow lights, which attract zooplankton to your ice fishing hole, and this in turn brings in the trout.
Similar to crappie, the best strategy is to rig several deadsticks around a central glowlight suspended just below the ice.
Ice fishing at night with lights
Glow lights are great tools to improve your night ice fishing results, especially if you’re targeting crappie.
But they can also work well for several other species, including trout, bluegill, burbot, and catfish.
Do lights attract fish during ice fishing?
Lights don’t attract fish directly during ice fishing, but they do attract zooplankton and other small aquatic animals, and these in turn attract fish that feed on them at night.
This is why glow lights work so effectively for crappie, as they actively feed on zooplankton at night during the night.
The best strategy is usually to drill a central hole for your glow light, and then to position several additional holes in a circle around the central one.
Green glow lights seem to work best, and a great option is the Hydro Glow produced by Navionics.
Suspend the glow light just below the surface of the ice, as this is ideal for attracting plankton (and thus crappie) within a radius of ten feet or more.
Essential tips for ice fishing at night
Learn the basics of ice fishing first: Before you go on the ice at night, make sure you’ve got the basics of ice fishing covered well enough that you can do them on autopilot.
This will free up your mind to deal with the additional challenges of fishing in the dark. If you’re new to ice fishing, take a look at our beginner’s quickstart guide to ice fishing first.
Choose your fishing spots in advance: Darkness makes all navigation more difficult, so it’s better to pick the locations in advance where you’re going to ice fish during the night.
A great way to do this is to use a lake map to identify promising spots, such as drop offs, underwater hills, and weed flats that hold plenty of forage for fish to feed on at night.
Once you have an idea where to look, then scout out these locations during the day, and check them out with a fish finder and/or underwater camera to see what they look like.
Ideally, you want to find shallow spots that are rich in food, but close enough to deeper water to be easily accessible to fish that like to hold in deeper water during the day.
If you use a camera, make sure to look for the presence of vegetation and plenty of small baitfish, as these are exactly the types of locations that attract bigger fish at night.
Stay mobile: While our tip number two above should help you target the best locations for the night, you may still find yourself fishing in an unproductive location for several hours without getting any bites, and in a case like that it’s best to pack up and move on to a different location.
This is why it’s good to prepare a list of the best spots that you can then try out during the night. Keep on moving until you get some good results.
Set up before nightfall: Setting up your ice fishing gear before nightfall has several key benefits: firstly, you can take advantage of daylight to set up everything more easily, and secondly, you can take advantage of the evening bite, which is one of the prime hours for catching many fish (especially walleye).
Also, if you’re targeting a relatively shallow area, you won’t spook the fish by drilling holes with your ice auger after dark. Intead, you’ll drill your holes well in advance, and wait there for the fish to show up after the sun sets.
Prepare for the cold: If you’re used to ice fishing during the day, you may be surprised by how cold it can get at night.
So you need to come prepared for this, with extra layers of thermal clothing, hot beverages, food, and a shelter to keep you warm.
While an ice fishing shelter is not essential for fishing during the day, it does become essential at night.
The easiest option is to set up an Otter, and heat it with a Buddy heater..
Use several rods to catch more fish: If your local regulations allow you to set up more than one rod (or even a bunch of tip ups), make sure you take advantage of this option.
A great strategy is to place a series of tip ups around your shelter, and then fish with two rods inside the shelter (an active jigging rod and a deadstick baited with live bait).
Since you won’t be able to see the flag of your tip up in the dark, you should attach a bell and/or a glow light to the flag, to help you detect bites at night.
If you’re using deadsticks instead of tip ups, a good option is to use baitrunner reels that make a clicking sound when a fish takes the bait.
A third option is to use a tip down with a bell attached to the tip of your rod to act as an audible bite detector, or a rattle reel, which makes a rattling sound when a fish takes the bait.
Take advantage of ice fishing electronics: Using electronics to scout the underwater environment and to detect any fish they pass by gives you a huge advantage when ice fishing at night.
Basically, this will allow you to see exactly how deep the fish are suspended, how they relate to any vegetation that might be nearby, and how close to your lure or bait they are.
You can either use an ice fishing sonar, or an underwater camera to monitor what’s happening underneath your ice hole, and many dedicated ice anglers nowadays use both of these at the same time.
It’s usually best to drill a separate hole for your fish finder transducer and for the camera. That way you don’t have to pull them out of the hole every time you want to land a fish.
Fish shallower at night: Many fish that hold in deeper water during the day move into more shallow areas to feed at night.
For example, during midwinter, walleye are often found at a depth of 20 to 40 feet, but during the night they push up onto flats, underwater hills and points that are between 10 and 20 feet deep.
These shallow areas often hold the highest concentrations of baitfish, which is why walleye show up in these locations after dark.
With crappie, expect them to move higher up in the water column when ice fishing at night, as they follow the movement of small larvae, invertebrates, and other types of zooplankton that move up towards the water surface at night.
So even though you may find crappie in the same spots at night as during the daytime, they’ll be suspended higher in the water at night, and you’ll need to adjust your fishing depth accordingly. This is another reason why ice fishing electronics are so important for night time ice fishing.
Monitor how fish react to your lure: If you have an ice fishing fish finder or an underwater camera, keep a close eye on how fish respond to your lure or bait.
Are they moving towards it, or do they get spooked by it? Often you can use this feedback to adjust the color or size of your lure, and even the speed and cadence of your jigging movements to trigger more bites.
Also, if you see a fish marking your lure on the flasher screen, you can sometimes trigger a strike by pulling the lure up a foot or two, as that forces the fish to make a decision to commit.
Sweeten your lures with bait: When you see a fish marking your lure, but not committing to eating it, a great trick you can use is to bait the hook with a minnow head, mealworm, or other live bait.
The combination of the visual stimulus of your jigging lure with the scent of fresh bait often suffices to trigger finicky fish to bite.
Track your results for future reference: One of the greatest assets when it comes to ice fishing at night is experience, and every time you go out on the ice you’ll come back with more information than before.
So make sure to track this information in whatever way works best for you.
You can use waypoints on your mapping software to record good spots, and also take note of locations that don’t produce fish, so you can avoid them next time you go out.
In addition, use a journal to track the moon phase, date, weather, etc., and over time you’ll build up an excellent database to help you catch more fish.
Keep an eye on the moon phase: As mentioned above, some fish that normally only feed during daylight become active at night when there is a full moon.
In fact, during midwinter it’s quite common for the daytime bite to become really bad during a full moon week, since all the fish switch over to feeding at night.
So if you notice these conditions, you can expect to catch a lot more fish at night (as well as species that you normally wouldn’t catch at night).
Try out glow lures: glow lures don’t always work, but sometimes they’ll make the difference between an average night and a hot bite, so it’s definitely worth testing them.
Most glow lures can be charged by holding them under your flashlight for a couple of minutes, and if you do find that they attract more bites, make sure to recharge them regularly.