A fundamental requirement for ice fishing is, of course, a body of water with a frozen surface. Right now, as I write, that is not the case on Lake Champlain, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen soon. Here it is near the end of December and Lake Champlain is, for the most part, wide open. In fact I saw boats on the water just yesterday, pretty much unheard of at this time of year. I asked a few of our local veteran fishermen about their predictions for our ice fishing season and received a growl and a scowl. “Some ice would be nice,” I was told.
These fishermen are anxious to get out on the lake and are getting impatient. This might be because, post recent holiday, they have new tackle, ice shelters or augers to test. Or perhaps because this season has been a bit of a tease. It actually started out early and well, but then turned around abruptly. Some lower temperatures in November froze shorelines, bays and protected areas of the lake and did give some good ice cover on our regional ponds. Anxious fishermen ventured out and claimed the perch and lake-trout takes were very good. Mild temperatures in late December, a snowfall, then plenty of rain, destroyed the early ice cover and drove everyone back to shore where some obviously un-wrapped the boat.
Nevertheless, it is early yet and we certainly have plenty of winter weather ahead of us. Last night hit the single digits and the shorelines are skimming over once again. Some of the best weather for getting out on the frozen water is not seen until February and early March when the sun is a little higher in the sky, so there is plenty of time despite the grumbles of those I queried. A friend who is very much into Nordic skating has been watching the forecast faithfully. He claims we will have ice, enough for his sport anyway, by the weekend. Experts claim you need a minimum of 3 to 4 inches of clear, hard ice to support an average person. This can happen quickly if the temperatures stay low enough and we don’t get wind, rain or a significant snowfall to affect the ice integrity. I doubt that it will be long before the morning commute reveals the telltale mounds on the surface of Bulwagga Bay, indicating there is sufficient ice. I’m referring to today’s popular portable shelters that can appear overnight like a fresh mushroom crop.
Some Ice Fishing History
The Village of Port Henry, and the entire town of Moriah, has a long history entwined with ice fishing. This winter time activity is actually a part of the local culture and is taken very seriously. Record amounts of some of the most tasty smelt (locally referred to as “ice fish”) have been taken directly off their shores. Historically, the population of the town and village dramatically expanded during ice fishing season as hundreds of hard water anglers flooded into town. It was great for local businesses and the economy in general. Many local anglers would augment their income by selling their catch. Port Henry, at one time, was recognized as a major supplier of smelt to fine dining establishments in New York and Manhattan where it was considered quite the delicacy. Huge ice-cubes of smelt were packed in sawdust and loaded on the southbound trains, tons of them I am told.
A Social Season
In past years as soon as there was sufficient ice, clusters containing hundreds of shanties would pop up on the lakes frozen surface. These little villages had names: The Hole, Bryantville, East Channel, West Channel. Most often the location of these clusters was determined by where the fish were biting, or where a particular species of fish were biting, but sometimes a new addition to a community cluster was more of a social thing. It was winter after all. Socializing is hindered by harsh weather. This fishing season is used as an opportunity to get together with friends and family, all in close proximity. I’m certain that for some it is not about the “catch.” For certain individuals, Henry David Thoreau’s quote is most applicable, “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
Entertainment On Ice
A good ice fishing season is filled with activity. Within the Village of Port Henry houses dot the hillsides overlooking the lake. Therefore, almost every household has a view over the lake and the various shanty villages in winter months. So this season can also be very entertaining even for those at home who may never be directly involved in the fishing. On-ice activity is 24/7. Most shanties are built on skids, so frequently Port Henry residents are able to see a new addition to a “village” zoom across the ice pulled by a snowmobile or four-wheeler. Or, they can watch as a shanty rides out in the bed of a pickup truck and witness the clever off-loading procedure. At night, the lake surface is dotted with the lights coming from inside the shanties. Headlights are visible as vehicles drive on one of the many ice roads, so are the bobbing flashlights of those checking their tip-ups. Watching all the goings-on is even better than having an aquarium!
Ice Fishing Pride
Amongst seasoned ice fisherman comes much competition and pride - not only for the knowledge of fish hot spots or the catch, but for the style of jigging, the batter for a fry, and the well-outfitted shanty. A jig is a small fishing pole, so to speak. The baited hook on the line is dropped into the hole and bobbed around a bit to attract the fish’s attention, but there is a particular style of doing so. Skilled ice fishermen can jig with both hands using exaggerated side-to-side and up and down motion. It almost looks like they are gracefully conducting an orchestra playing a waltz. Once they have a bite on the line, both hands go to work rapidly drawing the line up, systematically wrapping it onto both jigs without creating a knotted mess. It’s absolutely amazing and something I have never mastered, I might add.
Part of the whole social program in the shanty villages are the fish fries. It’s not uncommon for fishermen to go shanty-to-shanty offering a taste of their freshly fried fish in their personal batter creation, or to invite the neighbors over for a bite. The best batter for a fish fry, I suppose, is a matter of personal preference, but one of my most memorable taste-tests involved a four or five step battering process and included some special spices and crushed cornflakes. I should have taken notes.
Some of these shanties are not exactly what you’d expect. There are a few, I’m sure, that could win a Better Homes and Gardens Award for organization and creative use of space. I have seen cozy miniature houses with total cooking capabilities, sleeping quarters, television, a well-stocked bar and even window treatments! Some veterans have spent years getting everything just right while keeping in mind that lightweight composition and construction is ideal. It has to be a challenge, but this is their “home away from home” during ice fishing season.
Milder winters of recent years have imposed a few variations on what used to be a “typical” ice fishing season in the Port Henry area. The sport still flourishes, but some features, like pizza-to-shanty delivery, do remain waiting in the wings for a good solid season. We’ve seen fewer of those “all decked out shanties” resting on the frozen surface and more of the pop-up portable shelters intended for day use. Some also blame the milder winters for smaller smelt catches, but those fishing for perch, lake trout, salmon or bluegill have been boasting of their total catch.
It remains to be seen how this winter’s ice fishing season will work out. Talk to some of our local fishing experts, but until the lake solidifies anticipate a grumble. Check with a local bait and tackle shop for the latest on conditions and up to date information on “what’s biting where.” Stay safe and enjoy your time on ice.