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If there’s one thing I look forward to more than fall hunting, it’s the first few trips onto the ice in January. The choices are endless (salmon, trout, pickerel, perch, bass, cusk and togue, even pike and muskies if you want to travel to the Belgrade region!).
I’m not so much looking for a huge catch of fish as I am the unique experience of standing in the middle of a frozen lake just in time to catch the sunrise over the eastern hills. For a few precious moments, all is quiet and serene, nothing but the crackle of forming ice and the distant croak of an early-rising raven.
There’s something remarkably clean and pristine about a snow-covered lake just after a winter storm. I like to be in places where the only tracks are mine, the only noises are the ones I make and the only holes in the ice are the ones I’m about to cut. You don’t get that opportunity very often, especially as the season wears on and more anglers hit the ice, so I try to be out there with auger in hand as soon as the ice is safe enough to allow it.
Most of the time, I pick small, unsung lakes and ponds for my ice-fishing forays, mostly because I seek peace and quiet as much as a feed of fish. I’ll hit the bigger lakes when I want trout, salmon or togue, but I’ll get out there early and try to be done and off the ice before the recreational crowd takes over.
Even in January, when most waters are open to trout and salmon fishing, I’ll head for the nearest pickerel or perch pond because, all things considered, I love to watch the flags fly. When the panfish are biting, you can’t keep a bait on the hook, and there are days when all five flags will be flying at once.
This is the best way to introduce a young angler to the sport. The ice won’t be too thick, the fish will keep things lively, and you can all but sit back and let the youngster take over. Kids are anxious to see what’s on the other end of the line, and in most small ponds the variety is both amusing and educational. On a rare day you can catch pickerel, white and yellow perch, bluegills, horned pout and even bass out of the same hole, and all of them are great in the frying pan. They’ll all take the same (cheap!) small minnows fished at around the same depths (just over the bottom weeds in most cases) and the daily bag limits are generous – 10 pickerel, one bass and all the perch, pout or bluegills you want to clean. For specific regulations for the water you plan to fish, log onto The rules vary from county to county and water to water, so check first before you drop a line.
If I had to pick one species to go after, I think I’d focus on perch (white or yellow, it doesn’t matter). These tasty fish travel in schools and are voracious eaters of small minnows, garden worms and even cut bait. I have caught them on corn kernels and oddball offerings including maggots, wax worms and even the eyeballs of caught fish!
To catch these fish, start out in shallow water with your bait suspended just over the tops of the weeds. You’re allowed five tip-ups on most waters, so set one bait nearer the bottom and one closer to the top. Vary your depths, and then when a fish bites, set the other baits at the same depth. On a good day, you can fill a 5-gallon bucket with fish and have to quit only because you’re out of bait!
To make the best of every outing, wear the proper clothing (and plan for the worst, because a sunny, calm morning can turn into a Nor’easter by mid-afternoon). You may carry all your gear onto the ice in buckets and packs, or you can stack it all on a sled and tow it out there. You can also use a 4-wheeler or snowmobile to transport your gear, a good idea when challenging the larger lakes in our region.
When conditions allow, I like to get my traps set and my baits down, and then I’ll build a fire on the ice. This accomplishes two things – it keeps me warm between flags and also gives me something to do on the slower days. All you need are the small, easily cracked branches of fallen, dead trees. An armload of small wood will last an hour or so, which gives you plenty of time to check your traps, skim your holes and look around for more firewood.
Of course, it’s not legal to cut living trees (nor would you want to – frozen, wet wood doesn’t burn very well!), but you can gather all the deadwood you can carry unless the shoreline is otherwise posted. Many times my decision on where to fish on a given day is governed by how much deadwood I can see nearby, especially when I’m fishing for trout or salmon. I know I’m going to be out there a long time between bites, so I want to be sure I have enough wood to last all day.
Normally, one good, dry deadfall will provide all the kindling and wood you’ll need for a day’s outing. I don’t go overboard with a gigantic bonfire that’s visible for miles. Instead, I just keep a good, small fire going, one that allows me to warm up a few sandwiches and keep a pail of tea going. I just bring a one-pound tin can with a wire bail attached and keep the water boiling all day. When I want some tea, I’ll just tip the can over my tin cup and sit back to enjoy the parade of flags before me.
Stop counting the days till spring and make the most of what winter has to offer. The peace and quiet will be good for you. You’ll come home renewed and refreshed, ready to dig into a big bowl of homemade fish chowder!
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