By Pete Angie
Winter weather means different things to different people. For some, it’s a time for movies, board games and other indoor activities. For others, embracing the traditionally colder conditions delivered by Mother Nature is the only way to proceed.
Firmly in the latter camp, there is a dedicated – and some might say, crazy – group of people for which winter means it is time to get out onto the slippery, wind-swept ice and sit in freezing temperatures for hours on end.
Simply put, it is time for ice fishing.
On the Ice
There are a number of places in Tompkins County, and some just outside it, where enthusiasts can bore a hole in the firm surface of a pond or lake, drop a line and wait for that sought after strike. Recently I ventured out onto Cayuta Lake in Schuyler County, which is also known as Little Lake. It was a sunny day in the mid-30s. Perfect for outdoor fun. The lake was dotted with people sitting on overturned buckets, in chairs, or kneeling beside holes in the ice. There were a handful of colorful tents bound to the ice with long screws, a few men pulling sleds of gear behind them, and a gaggle of kids boisterously sliding around.
I’d brought skates and glided toward a pair of men in camouflage bibs, who were setting up their gear.
Just as I approached, I heard a sudden, deep “pop,” and saw a crack form in the ice right between my feet. It must have been 50-feet long, and made me jump. I asked the bearded man in the pair if the ice was safe and he assured me it was eight inches thick and safe. However, he added with a smile, those cracks will play a “head game” with you.
That day, 10-year-old Lily Halpin, was out ice fishing for the first time with her grandfather, Jeff Soule. Mostly, Lily and the other kids were running around playing “soccer” by kicking chunks of ice, while Soule and his friend, Paul Pennock, worked their lines in a few holes. They would take breaks and go inside their red tent to cook food and make hot chocolate on a burner that doubled as a heater.
Lily shared that she’d heard the same cracking sound I had the first time she ever went on the ice. She was so scared she cried, but now it doesn’t bother her. Her younger brother James appeared equally at ease, and said he likes having his picture taken with the fish they catch. Pennock, with his 10-year-old daughter, Evie, beside him, recalled the first time he went ice-fishing was when he was about the same age as she is now. It was near Lake Ontario, during a blizzard.
“I remember the snow and the cold. I don’t remember so much about catching fish,” he said. “It beats sitting at home.”
“Just enjoy it,” advised Soule, offering a suggestion to anyone who wants to try the sport. “It’s a beautiful day.”
On the other end of the lake, away from the tents and crowd, knelt Kevin Rexford, pole in hand.
“Ah, it’s just so beautiful out here,” Rexford replied when asked what he likes about the sport. “It’s just so exotic to be out on the ice like this. I love playing on the ice too.”
He has a child’s sled that he kneels on, and with ice picks in his hands he propels himself and his gear around the lake, often drawing smiles and laughter from others. Rexford was fishing for perch, though he was giving them away, as his freezer still had some from last winter. Perch, sunfish, pickerel, Northern pike and walleye are the main fish caught in the winter, along with some trout and landlocked salmon.
When asked for a fishing story, Rexford told of another act of generosity, and pointed to his friend Roger Page, who was situated a little ways down the lake. He’d met Page a few times while fishing, and one summer day Rexford came home to find that Page had left his old ice auger and a sled on Rexford’s back porch, a gift.
Although the day I went out was in the mid-30s, which likely accounted for the number of people on the lake, many ice fishermen go out in all weather. For Rexford there is no temperature cold enough to keep him off the lake.
“I love the adversity of the cold,” he said. “It is awesome. You just dress right and you’ll be OK.”
Page had a slightly different set of standards, and stated he would go out in the single digits, but only if there wasn’t wind.
During my time on the ice, New York State Forest Ranger Will Roberts had stopped to chat with Page. He was patrolling the lake, checking for fishing licenses, and that number and size limits were being obeyed.
Regulations on the size of fish that can be kept, catch limits and season dates vary by fish, region, and sometimes by body of water. For example, the Finger Lakes and their tributaries have different regulations than other parts of the state.
Roberts offered this advice to anyone going out to fish: Avoid hypothermia and check the ice.
“Know the ice conditions, make sure it’s going to be safe, and dress for the conditions as well,” he said.
According to the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation, safe ice conditions are four inches of ice or more. Five inches can hold the weight of a snowmobile, and 12 inches can hold a truck. Ice is most reliably tested by drilling a hole through it with an auger or other tool, and measuring.
Roberts will not be checking licenses during President’s Day weekend – February 18-19 – because it is a free fishing weekend, when people curious about the sport can try it out without buying a license.
Full ice fishing regulations are posted on the New York State DEC website, www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor, along with where to buy fishing licenses, which are often for sale at sporting goods stores or bait shops.
Steven “Bear” Williamson owns and operates Bear’s Bait and Tackle Shop in Trumansburg.
“It’s getting a lot more popular than it ever has before,” he said of local ice fishing.
Williamson’s shop hosts one of 58 weigh-in stations across the state for the New York State Winter Classic fishing tournament, and is the only station in Tompkins County. The contest is in its third year, and runs from January 1 to February 28, offering weekly prizes and a cash grand prize. There are seven different categories of fish, and the contest is open in any body of water or waterway in New York State.
Williamson noted that anglers are still fishing the open waters of Cayuga Lake at Taughannock park, and launching boats from the marina there. For ice fishing, Williamson offered that Dryden Lake is known for having good blue-gills, and that Jennings Pond in Danby is also a place to catch panfish-like blue-gills, sunfish and perch. The southern end of Cayuga Lake often freezes over and is fished too, and Tri-County Pond in Caroline is only about two acres large, but is another destination for ice fishing in Tompkins County.
Jonathan Stank owns Hook, Line and Sinker Bait Shop in Ithaca. He specializes in live bait, such as flat heads, rosy red minnows, shiners, meal worms and oak leaf grubs. Stank noted that there is not as much business in the winter, but that the customers who buy bait in the coldest months are unique.
“It’s a special group of people,” Stank said. “They’re very passionate about ice fishing.”
Their enthusiasm can be seen in how quickly they get their lines in the water.
“There’s a group of people out there,” said Stank, “that once that ice is on the water, they’re ready to roll.”
He knows one man who fishes by moonlight, as it is the only time he can find in his hectic life of raising a family.
Leaving the peaceful lake behind to return to other responsibilities was difficult that day. I felt that it was a special place, where the very stuff under my feet shifted and made noise, where I could chat with friendly people enjoying the outdoors, or be alone. The ice was clear, showing the dark water underneath, but it was also full of beautiful variations like bubbles, cracks and swirly, braided strands of white. Traces of snow on the ice looked like cottony cirrus clouds as I glided over the smooth surface.
From the words and manners of those I’d spoken with, and even those I only waved to as I passed, I could feel the energy and expectation they felt dipping a jig or minnow below that surface, seeking the elusive fish that swam beneath.