Fishing the cure for cabin fever
BY Linda Freeman
CORRESPONDENT | January 19,2014
Photo by Shawn Good, Vermont Fish & Wildlife
Pictured is a typical ice-fishing scene on Larrabee Point, Lake Champlain.
Sub-zero temps, even though interspersed with above freezing days, are enough to freeze water. Your dog’s water bowl is one thing, Lake Champlain is another. On sidewalks, streets and even recreational ski slopes, ice is bad. To skate, climb or fish, ice is good, very good.
If you do not fish, and you picture an icy scene: a grizzled form with frosted beard, sitting on an overturned bucket by a hole in the ice, covered from head to toe in a bulky snow suit, pole in hand, still for hours and possibly frozen ... Wrong.
Shawn Good, Pittsford, is a fisheries biologist for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. He is young, fit, articulate, and a fisherman. His job is “more than just about fishing,” Good said. Primarily it’s about managing, conserving and protecting local fish populations of both game fish and fish who serve as important parts of the aquatic community.
Why would anyone want to ice fish? “You can really pick and choose your days,” Good said. “Sun warms. It is an excellent way to enjoy the outdoors and break cabin fever.”
Ice fishing is a process that includes ample action. While some may be excluded from summer fishing because they have no boat or cannot find public land from which to fish, there is plenty of opportunity to fish when public-accessible ponds and lakes freeze.
Ice fishing is a sport for friends and families. Never fish alone. With a modest amount of equipment and know-how, or an experienced friend with whom to fish, a venture onto safe ice is fun and rewarding.
With fishing license in your pack, a simple sled to carry your gear, dressed in layers under snow pants and insulated boots, packing a drill or auger, possibly tip-ups, ice fishing rod, bait or jigs, a bucket, sieve and most likely hot liquids and food, you’ve got enough to spend several hours on the ice.
Your day would go something like this.
Arrive at lake. Load sled or toboggan. Test ice.
“Look for evidence that others are out,” Good said. “Test ice by drilling a hold to check thickness and integrity. Not all ice is the same. The best ice is clear. Ice builds from the bottom down and the slower it freezes, the clearer and harder it is, ‘black ice.’ You can look down through it which can be unnerving.” Punky, slush ice, is weaker and unreliable.
Though guidelines suggest safe thicknesses for various weights, quality is as significant as quantity. Conditions affect quality. It is said that “no ice is safe ice,” so be cautious.
Next, “you can be as active or as immobile as you want to be on the ice,” Good said. You might begin near the shore and space holes out in increasingly deeper waters. Preparing multiple holes is “a workout in itself,” he said.
Technology has come to the sport: Sonar, GPS, fish-finders, underwater cameras ... Good, however, chooses to use tip-ups. These innovative devices can be easily spotted by the orange flags sticking up above the surface. The reel is underwater with bait suspended below the ice. When a fish snags the bait and swims off, the flag tips. Shouts of “I’ve got a flag” can be heard as the fisherman hurries to the hole.
The lure is artificial; the action is the fisherman’s who may be watching as many tip-ups as allowed on the body of water on which he is fishing.
It is at this point that one is “engaged as an angler,” Good said. With the tip-up out of the way, the duel begins. Much of the line is a special, coated, braided cord with only the last 12 to 18 inches to the fish’s mouth made of monofilament.
It is now time to play the line without a rod, a different experience since a rod absorbs fight and pull. Hand-held, “you hook the fish and it is fighting directly against you,” Good said. “It is your job to set the hook.” The battle is on: the fish tires then, with a burst of energy, tries to swim away. “There is more direct feedback than with any other type of fishing,” Good said. When the fish is near the hole, the final catch is “make or break” without severing the line. (Note: fluorocarbon alternatives do exist.)
Then there’s jigging. A short rod is used, there is no casting, but you sit on a bucket or chair in front of a hole and “jig.” Jigs themselves are colorful, small, weighted lures with a hook, usually tipped with a piece of something delectable to the fish. Again, it takes patience and skill to keep the lure moving convincingly and then reel in the catch.
However, you don’t just sit there all day. “It’s like fishing in the summer,” Good said. “You go where the fish are. Be willing to be mobile.”
Go to www.vtfishandwildlife.com for detailed descriptions, pictures, notes on fish and fish seasons, laws, and more about ice fishing in Vermont.
“Fishing is only part of the ice fishing experience,” Good said. “Some bring skates, build snow forts, have snowball fights and even cookouts.” It is a family and social activity that is particularly well-suited to children.
A traditional shanty is an often-homemade wooden shelter. Alternative portable, fold-up, lightweight varieties are commonly used today.
One story Good tells is arresting. An ice hole, within the dark interior of a shanty is magical. With daylight blocked, water beneath the surface becomes clear, almost illuminated.
As a child, Good would watch with fascination as fish went about their daily business in their natural environment. Might this have been the catalyst to a career as a fisheries biologist?
Neither noise nor motion seems to bother the fish, so keeping kids engaged is valid and important. “Keep in mind that taking kids out there won’t be 100% about fishing,” Good said. Kids love to spot the tipped orange flag or to try their hand at pulling in the line. When Good fishes with his son, now 7, he plans to stay only a few hours and packs food, football and Frisbee with his gear.
When an event is dubbed a “First Annual,” it is done so with a mixture of confidence and optimism. Next Saturday, January 25, Vermont’s First Annual Free Ice Fishing Day kicks off with a celebration at Larrabee Point Fishing Access on Lake Champlain in Shoreham, 1-4:30 p.m. At the southern tip of the Lake, this location offers ample space for parking and fishing for the participants, and an attractive habitat for the fish who like to congregate in the weeds growing under the ice. Activities range from fun and games to skills clinics and, of course, prizes.
The event itself is worth the trip. However, “we want this day to turn into a reason to introduce others to ice fishing and to show how much fun it can be,” Good said. “Come to learn, but if you can’t get there, track down a friend and get them to take you out. We want experienced anglers to take this as an opportunity to share the experience of the sport.”
Who knows, you might even bring home something to eat that is “local, homegrown, organic and nutritious,” Good said. Create your own sport. It is a full-spectrum opportunity.”
If the climate cooperates and ice forms each January, this is one “first annual” that could become a Vermont tradition.