Hey, Hey, It’s Ice Fishing Day! Here’s Where to Try It—for Free

Several states want to help you dip your rod, no license required.

Maybe wear more clothes than this. | Iuliia Mikh/Shutterstock
Maybe wear more clothes than this. | Iuliia Mikh/Shutterstock

To the outsider, ice fishing can look complicated. Its practitioners seem both superhuman and, when it’s below freezing out, incredibly… let’s say… misguided. But it also looks like a ton of fun (just ask the folks at Busch Light). And did you know you could even do it in national parks? If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to prop yourself up at a fishing hole, beer in hand, with nothing but a five-gallon bucket between you and a chunk of frozen lake, this January 29th, Vermont’s Free Ice Fishing Day gives you the opportunity to try before you buy, no license—or Vermont residency—required.

They’re not the only state on top of the trend—ice fishing has soared in popularity the past few years thanks to technological innovations in collapsible tents, portable fish-finding electronics, and underwater cameras (cheating? debatable). Plus gear so insulating you barely notice it’s winter outside. It’s also accessible: no boat is needed; you just walk onto the ice if it’s thick enough. And when you get bored, there’s always ice skating or snowball fights.

"...as you sip the beer, the line goes up and down and that can be enough action to get yourself a walleye or something.”

To get newbies started, New Hampshire offers a free ice fishing day, as does New York, coming up February 19–20. And in Wisconsin, though the free fishing weekend passed earlier in January, it’s practically the state’s official winter sport every day, with ice fishing the method for a quarter of all fish caught recreationally in the Midwest.

When we spoke with Charlie Berens, Wisconsinite and author of The Midwest Survival Guide last year, he named it as his favorite cold-weather activity. “It doesn’t take much,” he said. “All you really need is an auger, which you can get at a discount at Goodwill. And a fishing pole. Then you’re just dropping a line down and jigging it up.” He even gave us a pro tip: “It can just even be a line you tied to your beer. And then as you sip the beer, the line goes up and down and that can be enough action to get yourself a walleye or something.”

Makin' himself a good hole. | shevtsovy/Shutterstock

A fishing license—easily obtainable on the state’s Department of Fish & Wildlife website—is usually required before you dip in Vermont (and everywhere else). But on the 29th, you’re good to go license-free. Pre-Covid there was also an accompanying ice-fishing festival, which drew about 750 people for their instructive clinics. Last year they put together a comprehensive—and useful—virtual clinic in lieu of the public gathering, with tips on safety (use a spud bar to test the thickness of the ice before you walk out on it), equipment (a sled doubles to both bring in equipment and remove tired children), primers on jigging, tip-ups, and even cooking tips for your catch (can’t go wrong with breading and frying). You’ll also learn very important lessons like, say, don’t drive out on the ice—or at least be absolutely sure you know how thick it is—lest you end up like this guy.

“We’re really trying to encourage people who really haven’t been the target of fishing advertising to come out, because everyone I’ve been with who’s done it enjoys it. We just wanna share that with as many people as we can,” explains Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Christopher Herrick. It’s also a good way to get fresh air and activity in these pandemic times. “Even in the middle of a harsh winter, you’re still outside.”

Bounty. | Alexander Lukatskiy/Shutterstock

If you miss the free fishing day on the 29th, or still feel unsure going at it on your own, Vermont also offers smaller free fishing clinics clinics—up to 30 people max—throughout winter, as part of their Let's Go Fishing program. Some are more specialized, like trout and smelt fishing, and they’ll guide you through the process. “We’ll have augers to drill the holes in the ice, we have the poles or the tip-ups that they need, we have the bait, the ice-scoopers to keep the ice open,” says Herrick. (Don’t worry: They’ll also tell you exactly what a tip-up is.)

They’ll even help you filet your catch if you ask. And who knows? Your new skill may come with new friends.

“I love the camaraderie of ice fishing, because you’re never out there alone,” says Herrick, who goes ice fishing regularly with a group. But if you’re a newbie going solo, Berens has tips for finding both fish and new buddies. “If you go to a fresh lake, look for the ladies or fellas out there ice fishing, and then just go about 20 feet from them,” he says. “You’ll wanna get some binoculars and watch them for about ten minutes to see if they’re pulling in fish. If they are, just go start a conversation. Become best friends, and then go drill a hole next to ‘em. They might be offended for a minute, but if you bring ‘em beer, they’ll happily share their fish.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Someone please take her ice fishing. She promises to bring beer.