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!