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Ice Fishing Makes For Great Catches, Family Memories


Special to The Citizen When I was little, my family kept an ice shack on Chippewa Bay. My grandfather, the leader of our pack, built the shack not so much as a spot to sit and fish, but as a mobile warming station and snackbar, complete with a woodstove, pot of chili and all the North Country character you could ask for. He went out of his way to make ice fishing enjoyable for a huge crew of grandkids. He wanted us to love the outdoors like he did, focusing on the fun, and using nature as a way to “unscrew your head.” He passed away this week, and our family will miss him forever. Especially when we’re fishing! It's still relatively early in the ice fishing season, but we have been out a few times. It’s been good so far, and it’s only going to get better! North Country waters have been locked up for a few weeks, and some closer-by lakes in central New York and the Finger Lakes are getting there as well. For us, it’s been worth the trip. Some want it bad enough to venture out onto unsafe ice not yet ready for anglers — please don’t do that! Others, myself included, want it bad enough to travel. Twice this month I have driven from Geneva to the North Country, fished all day, and then driven back. That’s a long day in rubber boots! But, as the local lakes and bays begin to freeze, and a solid layer of safe ice presents itself, great ice fishing will be much closer! Perch, crappie, and other panfish The first target for us this year has been yellow perch and panfish. Why? Because they're my favorite fish to eat, they're incredibly fun to catch, and putting meat in the freezer was the first goal on my list for 2021. Yellow perch are abundant in many areas of New York, and a statewide daily bag limit of 50 fish makes for a nice bunch of fillets at the end of the day. Some areas of the state, like Jefferson County, have no limit, and plenty of fish. Baits like small jig heads and live minnows, Lindy Perch Talkers, and small spoons have brought us luck. Black crappie and bluegill have also found their way into our creel this year. These fish have different regulations than perch, but they can be targeted in many of the same waters. In my experience they prefer smaller baits, like tiny tungsten jig heads, grubs and small soft plastics. The state Department of Environmental Conservation recently released a draft Sunfish and Crappie Management Plan, and is accepting public comments through Feb. 15. The plan proposes somewhat stricter regulations throughout the state, aiming to increase the size and abundance of crappie and other panfish in certain waters. Pike and pickerel The classic ice fishing photo often includes a northern pike or pickerel. These fish are aggressive, abundant, exciting and delicious. They can be targeted on a jig rod, but are very popular tip-up species. A tip-up is an ice fishing implement that suspends live bait in the water column, and displays a flag when a fish takes a bite. On a good day of ice fishing, you’ll hear the beloved “FLAG!” over and over and over again. It’s half the fun of tip-up fishing if you ask me! Pike and pickerel are great species to target because they are relatively easy to catch, and they can offer a lot of meat and a lot of fun to the successful angler. Check the size and bag limit regulations, purchase the biggest minnows you can find, and bring a set of pliers to help with these toothy critters. Also, explore some videos and photos on how to properly fillet them, and you’ll be in business! Walleye Perhaps the most sacred gem of ice fishing in New York, the walleye, is a fish that you must work to master. I myself have caught a great deal of them, but never feel as though I quite have it figured out. Especially through the ice! They can be found throughout the state, and some of New York’s larger rivers and lakes offer some of the best walleye fishing in the world. The art of catching walleyes seems to depend a great deal more on depth, bottom contour, time of day and technique than other types of fishing. Some folks swear by glow-in-the-dark jig heads and live minnows, while others focus on various plastic baits and jigging spoons. In my experience, if you find a guy or gal who is consistently successful at ice fishing for walleyes, you’ve found the real-deal! Lake trout My first goal for the ice season was to put some fish in the freezer. Check! Next up: catch a lake trout on a jig rod. I didn't grow up around lake trout, and so every time I fish for them it is a complete adventure, a submersion into the unknown! I caught my first laker through the ice two years ago, on a tip-up. Since then, I have caught several while trolling in the summer months. I am anxious to get one on a jig rod, and I hope to do so this year! Lake trout are native in 12 New York watersheds, and have been introduced to a few others over the years. They are a hard fighting, coveted, coldwater species, and a great target for ice anglers looking to try something new. Often found in deep, clean, clear water, lakers can bring you to some beautiful places too! Safety, safety, safety! It should go without saying that safety should be the top priority for every angler. Sadly, each year we see examples of the opposite. Please be safe out there, and remember that no fish is worth risking harm to yourself and others. While some choose to fish on two or three inches of less than desirable ice, you should wait until there is a good, solid layer of safe ice. The NYSDEC has recommendations for safe ice thickness, and many local bait shops and online resources offer daily or weekly ice reports for nearby fisheries. Be safe and have fun! If you’re already out there, I hope you are finding success! If you’re going sometime soon, enjoy! If you’ve never been but would like to, I would encourage you to give it a try! The New York Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is hosting a Virtual Learn To Ice Fish event in late February, and the NYSDEC has resources for beginning ice-anglers as well. You won’t regret learning more and trying it for yourself. Portable shacks and venison hot dogs have replaced our family shack and my grandfather's chili. He would be glad to know that I’ll be up at 3:30 a.m. next weekend, driving three hours to the river that he loved, and using his favorite recipe to prepare our catch. His message was always that it’s most important to be with friends and family, enjoying time spent in the outdoors, and that if you’re going to go ice fishing, it’s important to be safe, have fun, and bring a good meal!

----------------- Nate Kennedy is a Liverpool resident who works in Waterloo. An Ogdensburg native, he is a lifelong hunter and angler who holds a master's degree in environmental communication from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and he is a 4-H educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Seneca County. Kennedy loves to write about and share his outdoor pursuits and his column appears the final Sunday of the month.

John B. Kennedy Jr., Columnist Nate Kennedy's late grandfather, stands outside his ice fishing shack.

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