Why Ice Fish?Mar 31, 2020 10:33AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
I've been thinking I want to try ice fishing. Problem is, I don’t know why. Heck, I don’t even know what it is other than what I can see from my car as I drive by Nessmuk Lake three months of the year. I’ve read about how people sit around in shelters in their T-shirts, grilling food and sometimes catching fish. It sounds like a tailgate party.
Mid-February I call Tackle Shack, a Tioga County institution, to ask Don Kelly if I can hire him to take me ice fishing. He explains that the ice won’t be good much longer and he’s busy at the shop with a nearby tournament coming up. “What tournament?” I ask.
It’s a fifteen degree pink pre-dawn when I almost pass Beechwood Lake, because a frozen and snowy lake looks a lot like a field. Trucks fill the small lot and line the access road to the sixty-seven-acre impoundment managed by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. I park behind the last one and head to the registration trailer.
Jason St. Peter welcomes me even though I explain I only want to see what ice fishing’s all about. Angie Gee offers me cookies, saying it’s the second year the club’s held this tournament. It was scheduled for earlier in February but a warm snap made the conditions unsafe. Teams are gathering outside with sleds and packs full of gear. That’s a lot of weight.
Hardwater angling—a term I recently came across—is a reminder that what you’re tramping across and drilling through is not a solid most of the time, at least in our part of the world. But we’re lucky. We get ice fishing every year, and right now no one’s got ice south of I-80.
The turnout is good. Forty-two two person teams or individuals are signed up. As the last team puts their poker chip in the red plastic coffee tub, which is how the start order is determined, I slip outside. Sleds hold buckets, collapsed shelters, chairs, and what could be corkscrews for giant wine bottles but are augers used to drill through the ice.
Not everyone has a sled. According to Don, ice fishing takes very little gear to get started, assuming you have cold weather clothing. “You don’t need a boat,” he says. “All you need is a way to cut through the ice.” Equipment wise, today’s crowd runs the gamut from just the basics to sophisticated electronics.
I sidle up to an older man waiting for Jason to start pulling poker chips. He’s from Harrisburg. I ask him how ice fishing compares with other types of fishing for him. “It’s my favorite. Ice fish taste better. Only kind of fish I'll eat.”
The first number called isn’t his, but I hush so he can concentrate. What begins is the slowest charge from a starting line I’ve witnessed. The draw means that even if you were last to register you might be first on the ice. Everyone has their strategy in mind—some want to set up over deeper parts, some in areas that’ll get the sun first. Jason tells me he doesn’t think many people will set up shelters because they’re more intent on catching their limit today than socializing. The winner is the team whose ten fish limit weighs the most. These are panfish—including crappie, perch, or bluegill/sunfish. For five dollars more than the twenty dollar entry fee, teams can compete for a lunker prize. One is for the largest panfish, and one for the largest bass, walleye, pickerel, or trout by weight. Lunker, Jason has to tell me, means big fish.
Despite Jason’s prediction, it doesn’t take long for red tents to pop up. “Must be colder than I thought,” he comments from the heated trailer. He assures me it’s not violating angler etiquette if I walk out and talk to people—you’re not going to scare the fish. Another point in ice fishing’s favor.
Team 7 is two young men kneeling beside holes much smaller than what I expected based on cartoons. Each man stares at fishfinder screens. One shows what’s immediately below, but the other picks up activity farther afield (alake?). It’s a breezy below-freezing on the ice, but they won’t use a shelter because they want to move around. The few fish in their bucket aren’t big, but they’ll give this spot a little longer.
Kyle Earley, thirteen, is well on his way to being a man of few words. “More relaxing,” is all he’ll say about why he prefers ice fishing. I try to write this down with fingers I can’t feel. Kyle silently stands before me, his parka unzipped and ski cap drooped over one eye, looking very relaxed indeed. He and his stepfather are from Blossburg. They haven’t caught anything yet.
Beyond them on the ice, I run into Jan and Colegan Stiner of Wellsboro. Colegan is already an impressive trout fisherman, his father proudly tells me. They do have some fish in a bucket, and as we talk Colegan pulls one in. “Usually we have a grill and set up the tent,” Jan tells me, “but today is serious.” His smile tells me the competition is still friendly. Dinate, his wife, is coming back from the coldest portapotty in the world. It’s a long walk—a point against ice fishing.
My cheeks and fingers are beyond numb, and I want to reach the trailer before that happens to my legs. Watching for frozen-over holes that pock the ice like spring pavement, I realize I still want to ice fish. Here’s why: It’s an activity that’ll get me outdoors in winter more reliably than those that require snow. There are more ways to stay warm than when sitting in a tree stand. I’ll be able to bring friends and not worry how loud we are. I can go by myself or with my kids. I can go with my husband, fish while he rides his fat tire bike on trails, and then if I catch anything have him clean them. I’ll bring home the panfish, fry them up in a pan, and never let him forget I’m the one who caught them. After all, ice fish taste better.