Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

Ice fishing family fun


Ice fishing: A hole lotta fun for the whole family

If you are looking for an outdoor adventure that ends with a tasty indoor meal, you’re in the right place. 

Washington is home to numerous tried and true ice fishing spots where kids are sure to experience both the joy of the cold and the excitement of the catch. This sport is wonderful “starter course” for kids interested in fishing — they get a taste of waiting for the bite but they don’t need to learn to cast in order to catch a fish through an ice hole. Equally important when it comes to kids, cold-water fish are tastier than warmer water fish. That is, they taste less “fishy.” Not to mention that some species, including trout, are easier to catch in the winter.

With the right equipment, you and your child can easily cut through thick layers of ice to gain access to a world of yellow perch, rainbow trout and kokanee in the river or lake below. Compared to summer fishing, the equipment and technique needed for ice fishing are straightforward and inexpensive. You don’t need a boat. You don’t need high-end fly-fishing gear. And, unlike a lot of summer fishing, you do get to keep what you catch.

Its not so difficult

Fishing on a frozen body of water is a simple process. 

First, drill a hole with an auger. Drilling through thick ice, even with a hand-cranked auger, is surprisingly quick. A sharp auger will make a hole through more than a foot of ice in less than a minute. Most ice fishers make a hole six to eight inches in diameter. That’s generally big enough to see the action above and below the surface and bring up fish easily without compromising the ice.

Next, scoop out the snow and ice to make the hole uniform and tie live bait and/or a shiny lure onto your fishing line. Parents may need to help young fishers with this task.

Finally, drop the line into the hole and wait. (Note: many people bring a bucket to turn over as a seat while fishing and then to carry home the catch at the end of the day).

Feel a tug on the line? Pull that fish straight up through the hole instead of reeling it in.

Ice Safety

A little precaution goes a long way when it comes to ice fishing. These three things are critical to a safe ice-fishing adventure:

  1. Check ice thickness. Make sure the ice is thick enough to support you before you head out to the middle of a lake. Drill a hole with an auger a foot or two from shore and measure the thickness of the ice, then test it again in the middle of the lake – 4 to 6 inches is generally considered safe. Keep in mind that ice is not uniform – it may be a foot thick in one area but only a few inches nearby. 
  2. Look for new, clear ice. Clear ice tends to be more solid; ice that is off-color is usually weaker. New ice is generally stronger than ice that has been around for a while – 4 inches of clear, newly formed ice may support one person, while a foot of older ice that has thawed and refrozen may not. Remember that snow insulates the ice, meaning it will freeze more slowly.
  3. Carry ice-rescue claws. Claws will enable you to climb out if you fall through the ice. You can make claws from pieces of wood or a broomstick with nails embedded in the ends, or from sharpened screwdrivers. Google: DIY Ice Claw Instructable

The best time for ice fishing is sunny winter days. While temperatures will be chilly, the sun generally makes things comfortable enough to catch a few fish before dusk. But consider bringing a wheelbarrow or metal trough to build a fire or a tent for shelter on exceptionally cold days.

Where to go

In general, the eastern and north central regions of the state are best for ice fishing due to colder temperatures, higher snow levels and high number of lakes. 

Numerous ice-fishing aficionados point to Patterson Lake, located just west of the idyllic town of Winthrop and about four hours from Seattle, as a go-to spot. It’s a great spot for yellow perch, rainbow trout, kokanee salmon and bass

Fish Lake lies about 15 minutes outside Leavenworth, about a 3-hour drive from Seattle. Yellow perch is the main find here, although the occasional rainbow trout leaps onto the line.

According to the writers at, Moses Lake, about three hours east of Seattle, has a “healthy population of Rainbow Trout and Yellow Perch.”  Every now and then, say authors of Washignton State Ice Fishing Secrets, a Walleye will show up on the line.

Campbell Lake and Davis Lake in the Methow Valley (four hours northeast of Seattle) are great spots for catching rainbow trout through the ice.

Bonaparte Lake in Okanogan County is the place to find 10-12-inch kokanee salmon, triploid eastern brook trout, tiger trout and smallmouth bass, while nearby Leader Lake (just over the Loup Loup summit) is best for bass, black crappie and bluegill. Perch, rainbow trout and brown bullhead may also swim by on Leader Lake.

Palmer Lake, also in Okanogan County, offers a diverse fish population, including yellow perch (6-10 inches), largemouth and smallmouth bass (1-3 pounds), black crappie, burbot and mountain whitefish. 

For more information on ice fishing and other great locations, check out the Washington Departmet of Fish and Wildlife website which includes a list of fishing lakes in many eastern Washington counties.

What you’ll need

Ice fishing is not an expensive activity. In fact, you should be able to gear up your family for less than $100. Here’s the must-have list.

  • a short pole (even a stick and some fishing line will work once you make a hole)
  • an ice auger (to drill a hole)
  • a scoop (to keep the hole free of snow and slush)
  • a bucket (to support the rod, to sit on, and to carry your catch; a lawn chair also works)
  • live bait, a shiny lure or artificial maggots
  • A fishing license from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Call (360) 902-2464 or go to
Nice to have but not absolutely necessary:
  • a jig (to sink the lure or bait straight down in the water) 
  • a wheelbarrow or metal trough (for a fire)
  • a tent or other shelter in case of extreme weather or restless kids
  • an electric or flag sensor that beeps or lights up to let you know when you have a fish
  • an underwater camera or sonar (to help find fish and also to review later for the beauty of it all)
Catch limit

Note the limits on your license. The limit on most species is five a day.

This article was originally published in the Methow Valley News and is reprinted here with permission.

More on Seattle’s Child:

“Find razor clams by moonlight”

About the Author

Marcy Stamper

Marcy Stamper is a reporter for the Methow Valley News, which has been the voice of the Methow Valley since 1903.