Saturday, January 4, 2020

False Starts

Connecticut’s ice fishing season has been a series of false starts so far. With our current weather pattern, it’s been a case of one step forward, two steps back. The first holes drilled in the state this fall were around November 17th on the usual small, shallow ponds in the northwest corner of the state. But, in what seems like a yearly occurrence now, it warmed up before the ice really took hold. This temperature tug-of-war didn’t change in December. It got could enough for more ponds, coves, and even some larger lakes to lock up, but not could enough to build a solid base of ice to survive the next warm spell and bouts of rain.

All that said, if you really wanted to fish hardwater in Connecticut right now you still can. There are a handful of water bodies tucked away in higher elevations of either corner of the state where fishable ice endured.  However, they have been pressured hard and, at least to me, aren’t worth using up the few free passes I’ll be given this winter. With the predicted long-term forecast, it’s going to be a while before anything exciting freezes over again. We could use an extended blast of cold air. I just don’t see it yet.

The first hole drilled of ice season
While watching the forecast and plotting my next move, I’ve been reliving the two times I was fortunate to get out this floundering ice season. Two weeks ago, my friend Jeff and I were the first ones to put holes on popular northern pike fishery, which had us brimming with confidence. We were treated to an incredible sunrise and three inches of gorgeous, black ice, but the pike bite never materialized, at least for us. Another group did quite a bit of flag chasing and landed their share of hammer handles using small live shiners. We were fine ruling out smaller fish that day in hopes of finding one large pike, but our dead baits sat mostly untouched. Fish or no fish, it was an awesome return to hardwater. I hadn’t laughed that hard or fished on ice that nice in some time.  

Into the black
The most important tool in ice fishing
Tecumseh at first light
Frozen in time
Oatmeal in the shelter

About a week later, a couple days after Christmas, we were lucky to get out again, this time on a different body of water with a few more friends. I’d fished there once before and knew it was in our best interest to ditch the dead baits for live shiners. Collectively for the group, it was a day on the ice to remember with both quality and quantity. The morning action was scorching hot; multiple times there were two or three flags up at once. The best part of my day, a moment now seared in my brain, came during a phone call home.

It was FaceTime call with my girls who were enjoying a lazy morning during Christmas break. I was jigging over a hole in the ice with a phone in one hand and a rod in my other. I had tied on a Hali tipped with a piece of smelt flesh, hoping to entice some keeper yellow perch or calico bass. There were a few marks on my electronics, but I was caught off-guard when my rod doubled over. This was no panfish and the kids could sense my excitement. When Jeff walked over, I passed the phone so he could give my wife and kids a live look at my first fish of the ice season, and what turned out to be my first-ever northern pike caught while jigging. A pretty cool moment for those on the couch and on the ice. 

A FaceTime pike on the jig!

It was that kind of day where things just went right. We were surprised to even be on fishable ice. There was about two inches of soft, grey ice on top and almost four inches of black ice underneath, but with temps in the high 40s, we lost ice throughout the day. That turned out to be the last day this spot was fished in 2019. Even cooler was that all five of us caught our first fish of the ice season that day, which would have been the highlight if it wasn’t for two brutes that capped off the trip.

Our host Mark hooked the first a little after 10 a.m. He’s not an avid angler and doesn’t own ice gear (yet), but his brother Frank insisted that he take a few of his flags that outing. Mark chose the right one to take and latched into a hell of a fish on light line and fought it very well. When it finally came topside, the pike measured about three feet in length and was thick all around; by far the best fish of Mark’s life. It was the high point of the day for sure until Buddy topped it no more than 20 minutes later with another girthy pike that went about a half inch longer. Both pike were released in incredible shape. With good genes and appetites, those fish are well on their way to becoming trophies. 

Mark with the best fish of his life

Buddy with best fish of the day.
Between the group we landed about 20 pike that trip, perhaps the most I’ve seen in one outing, with a crappie and smattering of perch mixed in. The majority of the pike were smaller in size, but all well-fed and growing, which leads me to believe this area is a healthy nursery for northern pike. It’s nice to know that there is always the prospect of very respectable fish moving through too. The two December ice trips were a great way to close out a year in angling. Now it’s a waiting game for the next ice trip, but there are plenty of open water opportunities to keep anglers busy until then. All the best to you and yours in 2020—tight lines!

Bye bye ice.
Last fish of 2019!
First fish of 2020!

Monday, November 25, 2019

First Ice

Around the time the mums begin to wither and oaks are the only trees left with leaves, diehard ice anglers experience a concoction of feelings—equal parts eagerness and excitement peppered with a dash of agita. These feelings wash over like a wave with the first true cold snap of fall. Akin to a bat signal, it sends hardwater fanatics across the north to basements and garages to tie leaders, tinker with tip-ups, and dust-off augers. We set up crude tanks and trek to streams or ponds to catch bait. We interpret long-range weather forecasts and Farmers’ Almanacs. We look to nature for signs of a pending hard winter: an unusual abundance of acorns; early departure of waterfowl; the width of the brown bands on woolly bear caterpillars. We wait for ice.

Ice fishing is unique and highly anticipated for a bevy of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that the allotted time anglers are able to partake in it each year is very unpredictable. We have zero idea when the season will begin or end any given winter. In comparison, I know exactly when blackfish season starts; I can set my watch by when migratory striped bass show up; I can go to my local tailwater and catch trout all year long. For ice fisherman, Mother Nature is the ultimate decider when our season starts and stops. We must be patient. 

Here in southern New England, in our coldest winters, the fishable ice window is about three months long, four if we are lucky. Some years things don’t always pan out that way. I’ve experienced more than one season that started with an early freeze and came to a halt with a midwinter thaw. I’ve also witnessed ice seasons that never got going until the late innings with only a handful of bodies of water locking up. While walking on water is more of a certainty to our north, it’s still not a guarantee on large and popular lakes like Sebago and George. As the old adage goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder and ice fishing’s indefinite and limited timeframe each winter certainly helps me appreciate it more. 

Though I get jazzed up for any kind of fishing, the lead up to first ice—that brief period when lakes and ponds initially freeze over with clear, hard ice—is tough to beat. When our quarry, unpressured for weeks, sometimes months, are still active and sense the coming doldrums ahead. This can translate into fast action—whether jigging up a pile of panfish or chasing flags all day—and it’s not unheard of to pull your best fish of the season during this early part of the season. It’s not some magical time where fish are committing hara-kiri on the end of your line but I’ve doing this long enough to know that you want to be on the ice as early as you can once it starts.

There are no hard and fast rules with first ice. For example, we know it begins when liquid finally becomes solid, but it’s less precise when it ends. First ice doesn’t necessarily happen all at once either. Your shallower lakes and ponds lock up first, naturally. That’s why bass, pike, and pickerel are usually first on many anglers’ target list. As the season progresses, deeper bodies of water follow suit and ice anglers start spreading out to target different species like trout, walleye, and crappie. 

There is nothing in the world like walking on a sheet of black ice before any snow covers it. It’s a thing of beauty—the consistency and hardness of it and its lack of imperfections; the way shanty anchors bite into it and the crunching sounds boot studs make on it. The optics of black ice are surreal. When walking over shallows, you can make out every piece of structure from boulders to weed lines to stumps. If you’re really lucky and hook into something under black ice, you get a first-row seat to the tug-of-war right underneath your feet. It’s a wild experience.

As in any type of fishing, having a small circle of friends that you trust and share information with pays dividends, but it’s tough relying solely on second-hand ice reports. Checking the ice’s thickness and quality yourself is the only way to know for sure. I live at least an hour’s drive from my favorite ice spots, so scouting is both time consuming and costly, yet those who scout are usually on the ice first, long before anything trickles down to social media. There’s been times I’ve bailed from work early to check spots that I had hoped to walk on the following day only to find wide-open with white caps. I’ve also gambled without scouting and drove 90 minutes only to be been turned away from crap ice, all before the sunup. First ice will always be a risk/reward scenario—wait until word gets out or be one of the first groups out there. 

I don’t have the flexibility at home or at work as I once did, so I try to make the most of every opportunity and relish the days or nights on the ice when they come. I’ve come to accept that that feeling in the pit of my stomach won’t ever go away when I am stuck at work knowing other anglers, friends or not, are drilling holes on fresh ice. I know they feel the same way when the tables are turned. Just fish when you can.

Here I am, more than 20 years after being introduced to hardwater, and those feelings of excitement and anxiousness as the season approaches haven’t faded a bit. My sled is packed and ready by the basement door like a bird dog waiting for the next upland hunting trip. Until then I’m keeping an eye on the weather and hoping for a string of calm, cold nights. If we’re fortunate to get some good ice this winter, have fun out there and stay on top.