Ice Fishing: The time is right to hit the ‘hard water’

02/24/2015 3:00 PM |
Two ice fishermen hard at work, drilling holes in the ice atop Great Pond in Southold. (Credit: Garret Meade)

Two ice fishermen hard at work, drilling holes in the ice atop Great Pond in Southold. (Credit: Garret Meade)

In the year of the big freeze, Long Island’s East End presents myriad opportunities for a so-called third season, fishing what is known as “hard water.”

For those who venture out onto area ponds and small lakes, some basic tackle and a little common sense can produce excellent winter table fare and a way to get out of the doldrums.

Where to go is pretty simple. Almost any sizeable kettle hole has some panfish (yellow perch, white perch, crappie and sunfish) and the occasional chain pickerel. A few have trout, even walleye. Lake Ronkonkoma, Laurel Lake and Artist Lake in Middle Island immediately come to mind.

When to go may be a problem because you need four inches or more of solid ice for safety’s sake. An experienced ice fisher like Southold’s Tom Schlichter (www.outdoortom.com) recommends boring test holes as your work your way out onto the ice, fishing with a buddy or two, and tying a couple of ice picks on your person in case you have to pull yourself to safety after falling through. Also, courtesy dictates that any fishing holes you cut with your augers get filled back after a day’s fishing so that the ice re-forms overnight.

Although the Long Island ice fishing season locally lasts only a short time with a six-inch layer the mid-February norm, this year may be somewhat different, thanks to record low temperatures. Still, anglers will have to watch out for warming sunshine and melting in the final days of the month. The further north you go, the more you see snowmobiles, even pickups out on the ice but, on Long Island you would definitely want to stay with a light sled for your gear.

Tackle can be simple, with short rods, sensitive tips and small reels filled with light, thin lines for the ultra-clear water. Schlichter uses special four-pound braids designed for freezing water temperatures and three-to-five foot fluorocarbon leaders testing about six. Although some anglers still use commercial baitfish for the pikes, trout or walleye upstate, many locals simply use tiny jigs in 1/32-to-1/64-ounce sizes, tipped with meal worms or alternative wigglers. In a pinch, we used to squeeze a painted split-shot onto the front of a fine No. 10 or No. 12 hook and tip it with a tiny bit of worm tail.

Little ice jigs that position themselves horizontally for vertical fishing have been around for over 100 years, thanks to folks who specialize in the frozen game like the Russians and Finns. Presentation is key, because your quarry is apt to be very sluggish in water temperatures ranging from 32 degrees at the surface to 39 degrees on the bottom, so you should move the jig no more than an inch or so — and very slowly, too. No bluefish or fluke, here!

If you release your catch, especially the native chain pickerel, which are rather delicate to handle, a pair of long nose pliers is a handy tool. Naturally, if you’re keeping some trout or panfish, you won’t need a cooler chest; just slip your catch out onto the ice to be thawed for processing at home.

Dress seriously for these outings. Waterproof gloves, extra liners, so-called “glacier gloves” — all of these come into play. Schlichter told us that some outfits like Frabill and Ice Armor actually make suits designed to keep ice fishers warm with wind resistant garments and plenty of padding for the knees when you kneel down onto the surface. For those who don’t kneel while jigging, the upstaters we know usually slug along a compound bucket and cushion for their long days. As far as the human need to periodically eliminate all those hot liquids that sustain us under all those layers, well, hopefully, you’re not that far from your car and a Porta Potty!

There aren’t too many local places that cater to this year’s growing cadre of ice fishers, but the Fisherman’s Deli on Main Road in Riverhead is one that immediately comes to mind. Right there on Route 25, they’ve been around as long as we can remember with gear and bait.

If ever one would contemplate trying this ancient sport, 2015 is the year to do it. And from reports we’re hearing, many locals are doing exactly that.

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