January 2017: Once the ice on Lake Champlain formed this winter and I started to see groups of ice fishing shelters scattered across Bulwagga Bay in Port Henry, I remembered that I had planned to get my own ice fishing gear and join them immediately after my surprisingly fun guided experience described below.
I guess I've been too busy since then to follow through - it's been a couple of winters already. But after re-reading this story, my enthusiasm is renewed. I think I'll confer with my guide to make sure I acquire the winningest fishing rod available via today's technology, then I'll head out onto the frozen surface of the lake for a perches-eye view of the Adirondack Coast.
Look out perch; the jig is up.
On the nonexistent list of things I do NOT like, being cold and touching fish would be in the top 14. It seems odd then, that I would proactively seek out an adventure that included the potential for both.
Apparently, with the recent cold temperatures, the one thing we can count on this winter is ice, and plenty of it. I know my skater friends have been enjoying the results of the polar vortex, and I figured the cold weather anglers would be happy about it, too.
When I was young, our neighbor was an avid fisherman; he always seemed to be either fly fishing, trolling with his small outboard or ice fishing. He stored his ice fishing shanty on my parents’ property because we had a great launching spot right on Lake Champlain. My sister and I used it as a playhouse in the summer, and I remember enjoying my time tagging along when he went ice fishing in the shanty in winter, too, though I don’t remember actually fishing myself. I figured now that I’m a fairly coordinated adult, it must be easy. I was slightly mistaken.
Gear and Guides
Of course, I don’t have any gear or know where to go, and I am averse to actually touching fish. So, I contacted one of the most active licensed guides I know to see if he’d be interested in bringing a newbie out on the big lake for an introduction to the sport.
Bryce Collins owns Eastern View Outfitters, and since we’re friends on Facebook, I know that he does a LOT of guided fowl, hunting, and fishing, among other outdoor pursuits. He agreed to take me out to try ice fishing, and he agreed to my terms about the fish-touching. (He very considerately added bait to the list of items my bare hands would avoid.) He said we’d be fishing for perch.
The day came and I wore a one-piece Gore-tex suit that my husband used to wear ice climbing, assuming that it would be appropriate for all ice-related ventures, and packed a water bottle and some fruit. Bryce had packed a bit heavier. I met him at his truck that next chilly yet sunny morning in one of the northern bays along the Adirondack Coast, and he had all of our gear ready and waiting on top of what looked like a big sled.
The sun was reflecting off the shiny ice toward the East, and I could see some dots in the distance that were actually other fishermen. We headed out on foot, Bryce dragging the “sled” along behind him easily. The ice here in the bay had formed early nearer to shore, and was visibly a couple of feet thick. We finally reached some newer ice in deeper water and selected a place to stop.
Bryce dismantled the bundled gear on top of the sled, including a hand ice auger. He made quick work of drilling two 5 inch diameter holes through what seemed to be about 8-10 inches of ice. He then converted the “sled” into a shanty by moving a couple of aluminum tubes inside, and moved the whole thing over the holes.
One of the other things in the bundle was a folded up cushiony chair - and he set it in place on the far side of the shanty for me. I got in and sat down while he set up. First, he brought a couple of buckets - one that doubled as a receptacle for fish and a seat for him - and one with bait and little fishing rods in it. Then he added a small gas heater unit in and turned it on, and zipped us into the small enclosed space.
Drop Me a Line
In front of us, he opened two floor hatches and voila - there were the holes he had drilled. He handed me a miniature fishing rod - it was a fiberglass rod of about 20-25 inches long with a reel and what he described as monofilament line that was rated for the weight of, but not visible to our perch targets.
He grabbed a minnow from the bait bucket and skewered it onto the hook at the end of my line. Just above it, there was another hook. The next hook up had a tied fly (like those for fly fishing).
I loosened the line by moving a metal ring on the reel, and dropped it and its minnow down through the hole. Bryce told me to let it get to the bottom and then flip the ring back so that I could reel in a half turn; just above the floor of the lake.
He had his line in the water too in the adjacent hole, and we waited, chatting, and moving our rods ever so slightly up and down to emulate perch food, I guess. He explained that for bigger fish, like pike or lake trout, fishermen often use tip-ups, which can be set up over bigger holes that we had drilled, and the fisherman can walk away from it until the flag “tips up”, alerting him/her to the fact they’ve caught a fish. Bryce said that he prefers “jigging” as we were, as it’s more participatory.
We waited. And waited. The little heater kept it nice and warm in the shelter, but the ice was making loud cracking noises, and at times it felt as if it moved under our feet. I must have appeared nervous, although I understood that it was due to these extreme cold temperatures, because he kept reiterating that “it’s just the ice getting thicker!”
We waited some more. He explained that schools of perch make their rounds and that we hoped to entice them on their way through. After about 10-15 minutes, I asked him if this was maybe not a school day. He told me that we’d give it a few more minutes, and if we still had no bites, we could move to another site.
Suddenly, Bryce jerked his hand upward, and began reeling in. “It’s a big one,” he said before we saw it. And it was, as he pulled up a perch that measured about 10 inches long. A keeper for sure. He recovered his bait and quickly dropped the line back down into the water. The trick to getting a lot of fish, he told me, is to get your line back down while the fish are there - as the school could move on before circling back where we were waiting.
He pulled up another. And another. I watched his style - “setting the hook” with that jerk upward, bringing up the fish and then either throwing it back if it was too small (there were only a couple of those) or taking it off the hook and putting in the bucket he was sitting on. He showed me how the perch have pointy spines and fins to protect themselves from predators. They worked to keep THIS predator from touching them, that’s for sure.
I could tell he was worried that I hadn’t caught any - after all, my line was only a couple of feet away from his. He gallantly switched rods with me; so I cast out again with the winning rod he had been successfully using.
He caught another one - with my loser rod. But now, he was carefully watching the tip of my rod. He kept saying that these thin, lightweight rods were very sensitive; it is almost imperceptible when a fish bites. He was right.
“There, you had a nibble!” he said. “I did?” I did. I saw it now…the tip of my rod moved ever so slightly. I waited until I saw it again and I jerked the rod up fast. “You’ve got a big one!,” he predicted. I reeled it in, careful having watched him to try to avoid catching the hooks and the fish on the bottom of the ice hole. Indeed, I DID have a fish. I pulled it up through the hole and Bryce, as promised, grabbed it. “I need a picture of this - it’s a big one!” I held onto the line just above the fish and smiled for the camera. Then I waited for my guide to take the fish off the hook and put my bounty in the bucket, and then re-bait my line.
Now this was getting fun. I was clearly not the most skilled fisherperson - but I was beginning to see when the fish were nibbling. For a while, my theory was to assume there was always a fish on the line and jerk my rod up over and over. This wasn’t the best approach. I watched what Bryce did and tried my best to emulate his movements. That worked better. Once I had caught a few fish, and Bryce had swiftly removed them from the hook for me, I really began to get the feel of it. I was enjoying the challenge of trying to interpret the slight difference between movement from the weight of the line in the water and the truly almost impossible-to-feel bite of the perch.
Before long, but not before we had caught a half bucket of fish, it was time to leave. We exited the little shanty and Bryce poured our catch out onto the ice for a photo op, so I took pile-o-perch pictures while Bryce packed things up. Then we walked back to the shore over the ice.
I asked Bryce if, as a guide, he guarantees that his clients will catch or shoot what they hire him to hunt. After all, I’ve seen a lot of pictures of snow geese on his Facebook page, with happy client faces. He told me that for targets such as snow geese, he can’t absolutely guarantee that a client will shoot a snow goose, and any guide who says they will is not being realistic.
For fishing, though, he said the rules are different: ”Lake Champlain is a safe bet for fishing any time of year.”
It was an awesome day; comfortable shelter, good conversation with a knowledgeable partner and the thrill of the catch. Afterward, I seriously found myself investigating ice fishing equipment online - and for the first time it occurred to me that I COULD ice fish on my own in the future: they make ice fishing GLOVES!
You’ll need a NYS fishing license or a New York/Vermont reciprocal license. Here’s a link to the NYS DEC page with all the options.
And here's a list of licensed guides in the Lake Champlain Region!
This week in related ADK ice fishing news: