story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
Who in their right mind would get up at 5 a.m. so they could sit on an upside down bucket in the middle of a dark frozen lake with the temperature hovering around 10 degrees as howling squalls blast across 5 miles of open ice directly at you? And let me offer you another scenario. What right-thinking high school kid who has been dating an attractive blond classmate would try to woo her (yes, “woo”) by asking her to join him sitting around a hole in the ice in the middle of nowhere?
You can’t answer these questions without first taking to the ice. The transformation of water into ice (and normal people into ice addicts) starts in earnest with insistent and incessant cold. Once the water hits 32 degrees it changes. Its molecules rearrange and reconnect to become crystals that soon interconnect invisibly but endlessly, continuously aligning themselves into an ever expanding structure that first shows up along the shore as Saran-wrap thin sheets of ice that soon grow into the thickness of a comic book, then the thickness of a paperback that can stretch without breaking across puddles, ponds and small lakes, then a hard cover, and when it finally achieves the thickness of an unabridged dictionary, it’s ready for human feet.
Ready for the one group that has eagerly awaited this day. This is the group that sees winter as a colder continuation of summer, and autumn as an unwanted interruption. This is the group that calls “ice” something else. They call it “hard water.” These are the diehard fishing folk.
Why ice fishing
Besides being an alternative to lover’s lane, what are the attractions of ice fishing? There are more than you might think. Unlike area golfers who are seasonally stranded by winter, ice gives the few fishing folk who enjoy the cold a way to keep enjoying the outdoors.
Ice fishing also offers one compelling attraction not available in fair weather fishing: the cachet of doing something that many consider an extreme activity. Nearly all ice fishing folk seem to take some pride in being recognized for belonging to the hardy breed who not only flourishes in extreme conditions but relishes them.
What other reasons draw people to fish the ice? Fresh food. As fresh as it can get. Maybe at its tastiest. Brett Bulmer (50 years of ice fishing under his belt) proclaims that the cold water firms up the flesh to make for exquisite eating. Brett says, “The blue gills get so tasty that I’ve tried them sushi style. In winter, their flesh is very firm. In the summer it gets mushy.”
Although many ice people wouldn’t describe it this way, it’s bonding time. Between friends. Between fathers and daughters. Between fathers and sons. It’s been almost a year since Tim Hawley took his son Skyler ice fishing. Tim reports that Skyler, who is anxious to get back to the ice, said, “This year I really want to catch a muskie and a pike through the ice!”
Somewhat surprisingly quite a few couples like to ice fish. When a squall sweeps in, they happily retreat to their tents.
And then there’s that guy who asked his high school girlfriend to go out on an ice fishing date. A risky strategy but he wanted to find out if she liked ice fishing. She agreed. But she was clueless. Out on the slushy ice her simple rain boots quickly soaked through: “I thought I was going to get frostbite and wanted to go home.” Date over? Relationship kaput? No, our fast thinker gave her his insulated waterproof boots and stood on the ice in his wool socks. Forty years later, Brett and Julie Bulmer still ice fish together.
Ice fishing is fun when you’ve got warm boots on. The young guys especially know how to enjoy it. The Springville Musketeers (as I think of them) would be typical. They drove 75 miles to the south end of Honeoye Lake and set up their shelter and heater. I peeked into their shelter and saw they were cooking hot dogs by weaving them through the grill of their propane heater.
Similarly, a few dozen Mennonites showed up on the north end of Keuka Lake on a sunny, calm 15-degree day. Many of the young ladies, wearing traditional skirts over fleece pants, donned ice skates and combined skating with ice fishing as they glided across the ice, skirts billowing, to check their tip-up rods.
And, most surprisingly, on a warmish Sunday, a group of soccer-mom-and-dad-families, noisily chatting and hauling a bunch of gear, showed up on the ice of Irondequoit Bay. They set up their chairs and arranged their snacks as if they were doing a scaled down tailgating before the big game (and maybe they were as it was late morning on a February Sunday).
For some, ice fishing rises to its best when the challenge of blustery winds and a cold front lets them prove their mettle and self-reliance, whether retreating to a shelter shaking and shimmying under the attacking winds or toughing it out in the open. It’s one thing to enjoy the ice on a balmy day, it’s quite another to match wits with Mother Nature and come out on top — with a nice catch to boot. Just don’t forget to stake down your shelter or you’ll be chasing it down the lake.
When it comes to ice fishing, preparation and prevention trump everything, including the simple skills needed to fish through a hole in the ice.
What is the most critical skill? It’s simple: survival. Follow a few rules and ice fishing is quite safe. Follow a few more and it’s comfortable. Follow them all and you’ll be enjoying fresh fish for years to come.
The most important rule to observe is ice safety. In other words, don’t slip on the ice and break a leg, and don’t break through the ice and drown. Wear ice cleats over your boots (even if you’re just spectating) to keep from falling on the ice. To keep from falling through the ice, find ice that’s at least 4 inches thick, and preferably of good quality. But don’t assume ice thickness or quality is uniform. One fisherman told me, “You gotta be careful where you go on Honeoye ‘cause there can be soft spots.” Fishing with a partner gives you backup.
The second most important rule is to prepare and equip yourself with gear that keeps you dry and warm.
Gear up for safety and success
With so much gear to choose from, you can easily find boots (and cleats), gloves and mittens, caps, breathable layers, jackets, and bibs that are winterized and waterproofed for ice fishing. Some jackets even come with flotation technology. And should the snow fly, you can duck into your pop-up, an insulated ice shelter that expands from its built-in sled that you pulled to your fishing spot. Some include pop-up seats. You’ll want a heater. Dana Warner who ice fishes several times a week says, “With a heater in my tent it can get quite warm. Sometimes I’m sitting in there with just a T-shirt on.”
Of course, you’ll need a bucket to hold your catch, a good supply of food and refreshments, bait container, rod and reel, lures, and a sled (if not using a pop-up) to pull everything out to your fishing spot. And you should probably keep a couple retractable ice picks handy in the unlikely event you fall through the ice. With them you can pull yourself out of the water.
Since ice fishing occurs at a hole, a tool is needed to create it and a ladle to remove the icy slush that forms in it. Giant drills called augers come in manual, electric, and gas-powered models. The gas-powered augers are noisy.
And what’s fishing without a fish detection device? Most basic is the human eye: lay on the ice and look through the hole for fish. Or use a fish sonar finder/flasher or a viewer. A fish viewer lets you dangle a camera into the water and watch a display to see what’s swimming about.
The fishing is actually simple. You drill a hole and drop your line down. Since you aren’t casting, you’ll be using a short rod (about two and a half feet long). It may look like a toy but it can bring in almost anything that bites; and its shortness lets you fish inside your shelter. You don’t have to master the intricacies of fly or pinpoint casting. You do need to master jigging, which is wiggling the wrist up and down or sideways to move your bait (minnows or fly larvae) or lure in a way to seduce your target fish into biting.
You can simultaneously simplify and multiply your chances of success by using tip-ups in multiple holes. From the DEC website: “The tip-up is basically a spool on a stick holding a baited line suspended through a hole in the ice. When the bait is taken by a fish, the pull on the line releases a signal, usually a red flag.”
That means you can catch fish while chatting with a neighbor on the ice — just keep an eye out for a red flag popping up.
Out on the ice
At the north end of Honeoye Lake, a family of four parks and unloads their SUV. On foot, they trudge southward. Toward the squalls. The father pulls a heavily-loaded sled, helped by a young son. The mother and quite young daughter hold hands. What are they looking for out there? A hundred yards out. Two hundred yards. Still trudging. A quarter mile, and they’re still moving away. Why so far? Now small and remote but distinctly visible against the snow-covered plain of ice, they’re towered over by a mountain.
Perhaps they are seeking the greatest attraction of ice fishing: peace and tranquility. Out on the ice the silence settles in. The world calms. Restoration begins. Out on the ice, the eye can wander for miles as if the Great Plains have donated their endless horizons to the Finger Lakes. Out on the ice, the wind can whip and lash you, or keep its distance and put on a show of great twisting clouds of snow that spin like cotton candy against the hills bearded with bare trees.
Out on the ice, nature permeates the world and sometimes works a little magic. If you choose the right day and stay until dusk, you can watch the yellow full moon slip over the horizon. Its soft glow spills across the ice plain filling you with wonder. Suddenly and hauntingly, howls split the air. You’re not alone. The coyotes in the hills to the east have responded to the moon by singing their winter chorus.
It’s up to you to decide if you’ll howl back.
Best Lakes For Fishing
In the Finger Lakes good ice is always nearby. Just about anybody can hop in the car and get to a good ice fishing spot, including ponds and small lakes, within half an hour. One spot stands out (for fishing or watching): Lakeville’s Vitale Park at the north end of Conesus Lake. It offers free parking and clean, heated restrooms, perhaps the only place in the Finger Lakes that does so. And it’s right next to the lake.
Keep in mind, the bigger and deeper lakes take longer to produce ice. Seneca Lake’s circulating deep “warm” waters prevent most of the lake from freezing. But in cold years, almost all the other lakes provide enough ice for fishing. The smaller lakes may freeze completely over while the larger lakes often freeze at the shallow north and south ends.
And both Irondequoit and Sodus Bays can offer lots of ice for fishing. For ice fishing locations, conditions, available fish, and advice, go to
dec.ny.gov and search on “ice fishing.”