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.