No need to stow your rod and reel all winter. The growing sport of ice fishing has Valley outdoorsmen (and women) braving the cold
By Frank Miniter
Have you ever spotted someone out on a frozen lake hunched over a hole in the ice and thought, “What’s wrong with that lunatic?” Well, that lunatic may well have been me. Though I do concede it’s difficult to fathom why some people leave perfectly warm homes to hang out on the ice — often in “shanties,” which my dictionary defines as “a crudely built hut… of a low economic or social class” — ice fishing can be good fun. There is something about slipping a line through the ice to catch a fish that fosters a causal connection to nature and invokes a primal pleasure that is hard to explain. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so. According to Ice Team, a trade group of ice fishing gear manufacturers, this chilly sport has been the fastest growing segment of fishing for the past nine years.
The social aspect of ice fishing is one of its biggest draws. Ever see the flick Grumpy Old Men? Even as they bicker back and forth with each other, the characters played by Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon bond (after a fashion) out on the Minnesota ice. The sport is very popular in the upper Midwest. In fact, some big lakes — such as Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods — sprout whole towns of ice shanties complete with street signs and restaurants. I once fished a tournament in Wyoming where participants had TV sets and couches in their shanties. Out there, winter is so long that ice fishing has become a lifestyle and, often, a family affair.
Here in the Hudson Valley, ice fishing is more of a niche sport — but it’s still communal. Once, during an outing on Canopus Lake in Putnam County’s Fahnestock State Park, a family came to the edge of the lake and shouted, “Is it safe out there?” I looked at them in the blue light that comes before a winter day turns to twilight and replied, “Sure, come on out.” They all walked up to my hole in the ice; a girl, who was maybe eight, and a younger boy were enthralled when they saw the fish I had pulled out of the water. Then, with perfect timing uncharacteristic of fish, another fish grabbed my bait and the children took turns reeling it in. We all laughed as they unhooked a sunfish; though I knew they might never ice fish again, I was just as sure I’d changed their impression of the sport.
Another reason why ice fishing is growing in popularity: far from being boring, it’s a discipline, like fly-fishing. Yes, you can just auger out a hole, drop a line, and hope. But if you want to catch fish, you have to know a thing or two. First and foremost, what types of fish are in a particular lake? Fish don’t hibernate under the ice; they’re still moving and feeding. And different species feed on different things at different depths. Trout tend to live in cold water, while bass require warmer temperatures. Panfish and perch like shallow water, especially where there’s some vegetation or other cover. All fish seem to like rock piles, underwater ledges, and other formations. Predatory fish — big brown trout, bass, pickerel, and pike — often stay in deep water by day and then move into the flats in the evening to hunt for smaller fish.
The next thing to scope out is what the bottom of the lake looks like. Some, such as Lake George, have been topographically charted: you can buy a map of the bottom and target a shallow-water point or flat area for perch, or look for a funnel that pike might use, or locate a drop-off spot where trout could suspend themselves. Most small lakes, however, haven’t been professionally mapped. For this reason, many ice fishermen carry small depth-finders, which tell you how deep the water is, and often show bottom structures (logs, rocks) as well as fish. Numerous other factors, including water clarity and temperature, affect how and where fish feed. Which is why my favorite part about ice fishing is being sociable with other fishermen (and women). You never really know what’s up down there until you pick a few brains on top of the ice.
To begin a day of ice fishing, fishermen will often place baits at different depths or even use different baits in various holes. For example, I might put a minnow rig down to the bottom to see if any predatory fish are in the area while also using worms in a nearby hole (depending on the depth and species of fish present).
In shallow, clear water, I like to fish using a fly — often a bead-head nymph. (This popular fly-fishing lure resembles an insect; the head is made using a metal bead, making it heavy enough so that it will sink in the water.) I can position the fly near the bottom of the lake by jigging it up and down (which imitates the way a freshwater shrimp swims). This is effective on perch, panfish, and trout. Perch are perfect for beginners and children: once you find a school of fish, you’ll have endless action. And in my opinion, they’re also the best-tasting freshwater fish.
Because attaining all this knowledge takes time, it can make sense to start with a guide. Craig Apolito, who runs Catskill Outback Adventures in Big Indian (845-254-9888; www.catskilloutback.com), takes people snowshoeing, fly-fishing, hiking, and yes, ice fishing. He heads to various private and public lakes, including his all-time favorite, Big Pond in Delaware County. “It’s one of the biggest lakes in the Catskills,” Apolito says. “And it’s very deep, so it holds bass and trout in the same habitat. That’s very rare.” On nearby Alder Lake, another gem located in Ulster County, “there’s nothing but brook trout,” he says. Apolito has accompanied many first-timers (one client gleefully declared
“I feel very primitive now” as he held up a fish). Father-and-son pairings are common, and he often hosts corporate groups looking for a unique way to work on team-building. “This is an anybody-can-do adventure,” he says. “It’s not very strenuous, and you go out for as long as you feel you can handle it. People find that ice fishing isn’t just sitting, looking at a hole in the ice. It’s a nature lesson, an adventure, and a social gathering wrapped in one. And besides, they always love it when I light a fire for them right out on the lake, which makes it a barbecue as well.”
To find good ice-fishing waters, log on to www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/7733.html. Click on your county and you’ll find a list of public areas, their locations, species of fish available, and specific regulations.
Auger: So how do you cut a hole in the ice? The simplest and cheapest tool is the old-fashioned “spud bar” (a five- to six-foot-long metal bar with a flat end), but hand-powered augers are easier to operate and offer the best compromise for most ice conditions (from $55 at www.cabelas.com). Most serious ice fishermen use motor-powered augers that cut ice like butter, but these start at about $300. Once you have made a hole, use a ladle to spoon out the small bits of ice.
Rods and tackle: There are specialized rods made for ice fishing. They are short and made for jigging, not casting. (For the uninitiated, jigging involves using a hand-held line with a jig on the end, which darts around underwater when the line is moved up and down by the angler.) Tackle — such as sinkers, spoons, jigs, as well as an assortment of hooks — is also needed. But if you just want to give the sport a try, you can use your regular rod and tackle.
Bait: Start by using worms or other live bait. Many people use a jig “sweetened” with PowerBait (a plastic “minnow” or other lure that has a special fish-attracting scent), worms, leaches, or something else that smells like food to the fish. Drop it to the bottom, reel it back a few turns, and then gently jig it up and down.
Determining that the ice is safe is the first — and most important — detail when ice fishing. The only way to know for sure is to cut through it and measure its thickness. In general, the ice needs to be at least three inches thick to be safe. Be sure the temperature has not gone above freezing during the previous few days. Ice is not static, it’s always moving; look for open water and cracks in the ice, and listen for cracking, grinding sounds. Popular areas, such as Onteora Lake in Ulster County and Round Lake in Orange County, often have enough experienced ice fishermen on them to steer you in the right direction.
New York State Department of Environmental
Conservation Ice-Safety Guidelines
â€¢ 2 inches: one person on foot
â€¢ 3 inches: group in single file
â€¢ 7.5 inches: one car (2 tons)
â€¢ 8 inches: light truck (2.5 tons)
â€¢ 10 inches: truck (3.5 tons)
The U.S. Army has the best explanation of determining ice safety that I’ve ever seen: http://www.crrel.usace.army.mil/ierd/ice_safety/safety.html.
Know the Regulations
In New York State, general regulations in most waters limit anglers to two jigging (or hand-held) lines and five “tip-ups” (lines attached to a stationary apparatus with a flag that goes up when a fish is on). Ice fishing requires a New York State fishing license (which costs $15 and can be found at many stores that sell sporting-goods, including Wal-Mart), but note that special regulations apply on many lakes and reservoirs.