First Time Ice Fishing

Taking on Ice Fishing in Saranac Lake

Ice fishing is a premier Adirondack sport, and Saranac Lake can lay claim to having some of the best. Our abundance of lakes and ponds, many of them easily accessible, puts us right at the top of hard water fishing places. We also get lots of great winter to freeze them up!

Despite the early freeze, I had managed to not go myself until just the other day. While I have friends who assure me it is fun, we had not yet coordinated a mutually good time to go. So sometimes, you just go for it.

My guide, Don, is from Forest is Home Guide Service. He picked a great day to be out on the ice. While the sky was mostly overcast, there were blue edges to it, and the temperature was just below freezing. Which is good!

a tip up, a bucket, and a dream

I know people look at me funny when I say that, but it's true. When freezing temperatures drop the water vapor out of the air, it also makes us feel warmer. Dry air is a terrible conductor of cold, while "wet" air is great at it. 

Pick a good spot

The spot we picked was Jones Pond. I had been there in the summer, when it is very popular for camping, swimming, and paddling. The same elements, like easy access, lush nature, and good fishing, still apply in winter. However, there was one vital element I had forgotten to get: a fishing license! So I was here to observe. I made a mental note to drop into Blue Line Sports before my next trip to get my New York State fishing license.

My guide had already drilled the holes and reported we had eleven inches of ice. At least five inches is favored for safety reasons. Everyone asks me, "How can you tell how thick the ice is?" Well, there's our answer. We drill a hole. The tip ups are baited with live fish, because there is no way to drag a lure through the water to imitate movement, as anglers do in fly fishing. Then they are placed over the drilled hole, and the flag is pulled over on its side and placed under a freely spinning fastener. When something takes the bait, the flag will fly up.

And now? Now, we wait.

Pick a good hat

The white landscape looks somewhat undisturbed when all the flags are down. Here is where we move into "hat time." My husband had thoughtfully gotten me one for this expedition, (though I had forgotten to bring it today.) Because wearing a hood will keep us warm, but cuts off peripheral vision. We want to keep a lookout for those flags, while our head is warm.

Historical reenactment. Stunt hat. Do not attempt.

One of my favorite parts of meeting new people on the ice is observing the wild variety of hat-wear. When everyone is all bundled up, our hat becomes our personal touch. Part of ice fishing's fun is how we always meet and greet. If anyone else is fishing around us, we chat, admire catches, and compare fish recipes.

Northern pike is a challenge, I gather. I hear talk of mincing and pressure cooking. This is one tough fish, inside and outside. A fellow angler opens the mouth of his catch so I can see that the entire surface is barbed and bony plates with rows and rows of teeth.

It looks like something the SIFI channel would make a movie about. 

what did we catch?

We have a hit!

Don and I tromp over and we pull up our catch. More than any other kind of fishing, ice fishing has suspense.

Because we have no idea what kind of fish took the bait, how big that fish might be, or even if it is actually hooked.

Our nearest neighbors are doing quite well. Northern pike are biting today. This is the biggest possible fish we can catch. A few years ago, a monster specimen that was 55 inches long (that's over four and a half feet!) weighing 28lbs, was caught in Cranberry Lake. This is a remote wilderness area, about 20 minutes west of Tupper Lake.

I asked what would happen if we caught a fish that was bigger than the hole. Eyes lit up! That, I was told, is well worth drilling a bigger hole. Most Northern pike are catch and release because they need to be eighteen inches long to be a "keeper" according to New York Department of Conservation regulations for Jones Pond.

Pick a good conversationalist

Socializing is as much as part of ice fishing as the fish. In summer, there is wildlife watching, boat handling, and some variety to the views. In winter, the landscape is just as beautiful, but the details are smoothed over by snow, and much of the wildlife is away, asleep, or less visible.

Times when it is just us, as when we arrive at a remote pond, means lots of time for conversation. It's highly recommended to go ice fishing with at least one other person, for safety. And also, for the stories.

Our Adirondack guides have long been famed for their versatility. They can guide through the wilderness, teach nature skills, build a fire in a blizzard, ensure their client's safety... and at the end of the day or during a rainstorm, they entertain. I loved Don's stories!

Not a keeper, but that was fun!

This first fish of the day is far short of that legal length. Don expertly extracts the hook and puts it back in the water. Northern pike are vigorous floppers. I can just imagine the fight a big one would put up.

After visiting all our tip ups it's time to make sure we have enough fuel to keep warm. A favorite topic, aside from cooking, is winter snacks. We should always bring snacks and water. If we are hungry and thirsty, we are going to have trouble keeping warm enough, too.

I notice the cold on my bare skin when I take my glove off to take pictures, but I warm right up again after I put the camera away and cover up again. In the future, I'm going to do the thin gloves/thick mittens thing I see many adopting around me. There's now "touch gloves" which allow us to operate our smart phones and tablets... even on the ice. In many places, we can take a picture and share it while still sitting on our bucket... or in our cozy tent. Talk about the best of both worlds.

I did not expect the time to fly by so fast. There were more flags to check on, though none of those fish were keepers, either. My guide was prepared for this, and had brought me a fish cake from home. He also had a stove to cook it on, but we wound up enjoying other things. Next time!

Because there will be a next time.

Dreaming of getting out on the ice? Check out the many choices on our Ice Fishing Pages. Want company and expert guidance? See our Guiding Page. Interested in what to wear, Tips Up and beginner essentials- Check out last weeks blog on Ice Fishing Essentials and get prepared!

Categories:Fishing, winter
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Basics for Ice Fishing Gear

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About The Author

Pamela Merritt's picture
Pamela Merritt finds a library's reading room as exciting as a hike through the forest. She met the Adirondacks in 1999 and declared it "home." She's been collecting stories ever since. She declares summer's hiking and kayaking blends beautifully into winter's snowshoeing and reading to create four great seasons of enjoyment. Her published works display her eclectic range, from How-To cat care manuals to literary short fiction.

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