As Ivan Eego and a group of friends joined for an ice fishing expedition on Oneida Lake in New York last year, things didn’t go as they expected.
“The weather was horrific, fishing was bad, I broke through the ice after dark and had an ATV break down a mile out and had to retrace my tracks to get a tow vehicle,” the Sunbury resident remembered. “Yet, I had a blast! I had a large sturgeon roll up on the camera, caught some walleye and perch, enjoyed some local dining and, of course, the camaraderie of friends made for a memorable experience.
“I think that’s what ice fishing is all about. Not the catch, but the adventure and shared memories.”
What is the best way to judge the ice for first-timers?
“Make it a point to go out with experienced people, and at the very least, don’t venture out alone where nobody has been yet,” Eego said. “Walking on ice takes some getting used to, especially the noises and tremors you experience.”
The Tackle Shack has become a “must-visit for those seeking gear,” Eego said. “Its owner is not just knowledgeable ad helpful, but also an avid fisherman.”
Staying ahead of the industry trends helps Kelly best serve his clientele, and ice fishing is definitely trending in the right direction, he admits.
“In my opinion, ice fishing is the one of the fasted-growing sectors in the fishing industry,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the main ones is that there have been so many advancements in the past 10 years in both sonar and clothing.”
Among the improvements in clothing are companies such as Under Armor developing base layer element that are both warm and thin.
“It’s not like it was 50 years ago, sitting on a bucket and freezing your butt off,” Kelly said. “Twenty years ago, you’d be out there bundled up like the Michelin Man, but now you can stay warm and still have flexibility. Some of the ice fishing suits add buoyancy, which is a huge benefit for safety if you do happen to go through.”
Witmer encourages each person he takes out to invest in a suit beforehand.
“They make a big difference,” he said. “Once you are cold, you are uncomfortable and don having fun. Those who go out in a suit are much more likely to enjoy their ice fishing experience.”
Eego admits that he is better funded these days with less responsibilities than in his younger years, and he has enjoyed some of the improvements in ice fishing accessories.
“Gear has become far more sophisticated than the hatchet and hope I wielded as a kid,” he said. “Electronics like sonar and cameras, huts and heaters, safety equipment like spikes and spud bars, lightweight augers – they all can make a trip more like a biologist’s expedition and can up the odds of success and comfort greatly.”
Must-haves, according to Eego, start with safety.
“A spud bar, cleats and spokes, although I admit I never had that stuff when I started,” he said. “An auger and fishing device of some sort are necessary, too, including either set lines like tip-ups or hand-held rods. And, of course baits, which should include a mix of both natural and artificial.”
A sled to haul all the gear is helpful, as well, he added. “I remember repurposing my kids’ snow sled before I bought one designed for ice fishing.”
Bait options are plentiful, Kelly admitted.
“There are tens of thousands of jigs. Some days, the fish just seem to all be eating and a variety of things work, and then there are das when a certain item works,” he said.
Well-weighted smaller jigs and those with a teardrop shape seem to be effective, as do a variety of live baits, including wax worms and live minnows.
“One of the big points I try to make with people is that anything you can catch in the summer, you can also catch in the winter,” he said. “The approach and tactics may be different, but suggestions like certain fish species burrow down and disappear in the winter is basically a myth.”
Panfish such as bluegills, crappies and perch are the most common on still waters ideal for ice fishing, while certain rigs can help land a nice-sized bass or pickerel, Kelly said.
While many people enjoy ice fishing for the tasty meal it can provide, Eego generally doesn’t cook what he catches anymore.
“Being a middle-aged bachelor, I’ve devoted myself to the catching aspect, and if I get hungry, there’s always takeout,” he joked. For him, the lure of ice fishing comes mostly in the types of people he encounters on the ice.
“People are usually more friendly in that environment, and willing to share with a stranger. At time, it can resemble tailgating at an arena. We’re all there for the team,” he said. “But when ice is scarce, it can be competitive and tempers can flare. Ever watch ‘Grumpy Old Men?’ Yeah, it’s a collective good time.”
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.