Things that go ‘bump’ on the ice: An angler’s guide to ice fishing bites

Ice fishing bites can be tricky to detect. Even big fish — like these jumbo perch from Lake Cascade — are notorious for light bites through the ice.
Ice fishing bites can be tricky to detect. Even big fish — like these jumbo perch from Lake Cascade — are notorious for light bites through the ice. Courtesy of Jordan Rodriguez

Getting a bite is arguably the most exciting part of fishing. “The tug is the drug,” as they say, and there’s nothing quite like feeling — or seeing — a fish take your bait.

In many scenarios, the bite is unmistakable. There’s the visual thrill of watching a trout slurp a dry fly; the powerful slam of a bass whacking a spinnerbait; and the jump-out-of-your-seat excitement of seeing a trolling rod pop off the downrigger.

Ice fishing is a different animal. Fish are cold-blooded creatures, and their habits change once lakes freeze over. Sometimes, the fish seem ghostlike, nosing multiple baits but refusing to take one long enough for you to set the hook.

If you ice fish, I’m sure you can relate. Which is why I’m dedicating this column to four different kinds of ice fishing bites — along with tips for how to increase your hardwater catch rates.

The Whisper Hit: As the name suggests, these are the quietest of the bunch. On windy days, it’s difficult to tell if it was even a fish that made your line move. Whisper Hits usually occur on “dead sticks,” or unattended rods. It can be maddeningly difficult to hook these light-biting fish, but here’s my advice: Watch your line, and take your shot. Sometimes, fish mouth the bait, but don’t run with it. If you see your line moving laterally, set the hook! Otherwise, hold the rod and go by feel. When the next nibble comes, take your shot. It might feel counterintuitive to jerk before you feel the weight of the fish, but on some days, it’s your only chance to get a hook in one.

The Bump and Run: Similar to the Whisper Hit (and equally frustrating), the Bump and Run occurs when a fish clearly strikes your bait once, but never returns. If this is happening on a dead stick, try actively jigging that rod to see if it attracts a more aggressive strike. You can also try outfitting your poles with spring bobbers — hyper-sensitive rod tips that make it easier to detect bites. These can turn Bump and Runs into more prolonged Whisper Hits, increasing your chances to set the hook.

The Bounce: There’s no mistaking this one — a fish has your bait, and your rod is actively bouncing. Treat these like you would a bait bite from shore — get to the rod as quickly as possible, eliminate any slack line and set the hook. If you are getting consistent Bounce bites, enjoy it! Those are the special days every ice angler looks forward to.

The Runaway Pole: Easily the rarest type of bite, the Runaway Pole occurs when a fish grabs your bait and takes off, threatening to drag your rod to a watery grave. This is the reason I keep all my ice rods in rod holders, but I’ve seen them get knocked over and nearly pulled under before, so stay on your toes! Once you have the pole in hand, a quick but firm jerk should ensure your would-be thief stays hooked.

Keep your eyes sharp, keep your hooks sharper, and enjoy this awesome, crazy time of year we call ice fishing season. Tight Lines!

Jordan Rodriguez has been fishing Idaho waters since he was a teen. Share your fish stories, adventures, tips and tricks at