“I sit in happy mediation on my rock, pondering, while my line dries again, upon the ways of trout and men. How like fish we are: ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river of time! And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook. Even so, I think there is some virtue to eagerness, whether its object prove true or false. How utterly dull would be a wholly prudent man, or trout, or world!”
The air is crisp and the ice is getting thicker by the day. Ice shanties are starting to sprout up on local lakes and ponds across the Adirondacks. From afar, the shanties look like colorful little skittles, sweet warm abodes on the ice. The scene captivated me and I wanted to know more about the elusive world of ice fishing. So I decided to ask Nikki Eddy-Benninger, an ice fisherwoman with a history in Saranac Lake and the Adirondacks, about her story.
Hitting the hardwater
How did you start ice fishing?
Nikki: I first discovered my love for ice fishing in the Adirondacks as a college student at Plattsburgh State University. I joined the fishing club and started competing in tournaments during the fall semester. When winter came around, I got the chance to ice fish on a regular basis. Even though I have been fishing since I was 8 years old, I realized ice fishing was a completely different animal.
What makes ice fishing a different experience compared to the warmer months?
Nikki: You aren’t driving around in a boat. It’s like being in a time-out and sometimes I think people need to be put in time-out, in order to force them to stop and do nothing. Ice fishing is quiet. Motors aren’t churning, birds aren’t chirping; there is way less traffic from both humans and animals. On occasion, the only thing that breaks up the silence is the sound of ice cracking. Winter is about stillness, calmness, and meditation, whereas summer is more energetic. I think ice fishing is more about getting outdoors and finding peace.
What types of fish can you try to catch in winter? Do you have a favorite?
Nikki: Anything you can catch in the summer, you can catch ice fishing, but you wouldn't necessarily target fish that are out of season. For example, smallmouth and largemouth bass are out of season in the winter. They are more lethargic than other fish, so they require more action in their bait, making them harder to catch. I would have a serious freakout moment if I caught a bass ice fishing. But otherwise, you can catch crappie, perch, pickerel, pike, rainbow trout, panfish, brook trout, and lake trout (my personal favorite). I love jigging for lake trout because they are really finicky and hard to catch. If you don’t display the lure the right way, they are not going for it. It's a special moment when you catch a stubborn lake trout.
When is it safe to go on the ice to fish?
Nikki: I don't go out on the ice unless there is at least 4-inches of ice, at a minimum. Safety is key because you don't want to fall through the ice. I always have a spud bar with me to test for ice stability, an ice auger for drilling a hole, and a scoop to measure the ice. Many locations have ice reports, which is helpful, but you always have to be mindful of the weather and the effect it has on the ice. When you hear ice cracking sounds, it means something is changing and you have to ask yourself why. I always make sure to carry a few important pieces of safety equipment like a life jacket to throw to somebody and a set of ice safety picks.
What makes a good fishing spot?
Nikki: I usually search for a cove-like area (C or U shape) and place myself in the center, then I triangulate from there. If I don’t know anything about an area, I look for a mix of rocks and vegetation. Water depth is an important factor to consider as well. I look for a place that is not too deep or too shallow (between 10-30 feet). Then, I make 6 holes in a hexagonal shape, usually 20-30 feet apart. The spacing depends on the fishing location. If it’s a smaller pond, I leave 10-15 feet of space between each hole. It becomes intuitive the more you do it.
Do you have a memorable ice fishing story to share?
Nikki: One day, I wanted to go fishing with my three of my guy friends, but they were worried about taking me out because it was a really cold and windy day. But since I was an experienced outdoorswoman, I eventually convinced them to take me along. We traveled to a remote lake, despite the wind chill bringing the temperature down to -10 degrees. Obviously the conditions weren't ideal, but I wanted to make the most of the situation. So I decided to build a shelter, since there was plenty of snow around from the dunes created by the wind. I started by turning my sled on its side and packing snow over the top of it, in the shape of a mound. Then, I cleared out the center of it and my wind shelter was complete. Next, I dug one hole with a flasher, which detected a lot of underwater activity. It didn't take long for me to catch a crappie. I would have been happy to continue fishing, but the guys were cold, so they wanted to call it a day. There was nothing I could do to convince them to stay. Not even offering to build them their own snow shelters.
Do you think their egos (the guys) were a little defeated after watching you tough out the conditions and catching a fish?
Nikki: No, they weren't defeated because they all have known me for a long time, so it wasn't something that surprised them. They usually see me as someone with experience and therefore an equal. Though, that didn't stop them at the beginning of the day from asking me, "Are you sure you want to go, it's really cold." What I want to know is why I was the only one in the group who was asked that question.
Is this story something you and your friends still joke about?
Nikki: It's funny because I ended up marrying Chris Benninger, one of the guys who went out on that extremely cold outing. Its definitely something that we still remember, but my experience of the day was wildly different from theirs. We all knew the weather conditions we were walking into, so it was more about the endeavor than actual fun. The day represents how I define myself as an angler, which is first and foremost about going out and being with nature. It doesn't matter if it's rain, shine, wind, or snow - I'm going. No matter what the weather conditions are, I can always manage it in some way, like I did with the snow shelter to protect myself from the wind. Adapting to different scenarios is a big part of fishing.
Can you tell me a little bit about fishing with your husband.
Nikki: When I go fishing with my husband Chris, he uses a different method. Typically, it’s more about the adventure and covering more ground, which usually means drilling more holes. Whenever he goes fishing, he can’t stay still, so he’s like a little kid in that way. However, I think fishing is about timing. Sitting and waiting in one spot works just as well if you have the right clothing to wear, which is much more efficient. I may drill out only 4-5 holes and stay for a prolonged period of time, whereas Chris might drill four times that. I guess my philosophy is different. Hooking a fish isn't really my objective. Sometimes doing nothing is everything.
You shared your story about fishing with your guy friends. Do you ever go ice fishing with any women?
Nikki: There are not a lot of women involved with the sport. I mainly fish with guys. I think one of the reasons for this disparity is due to the lack of women's specific equipment. There is not a huge market for ice suits for women. If the right tools were available, I think women would be all over it.
Why do you like fishing in Saranac Lake?
Nikki: Saranac Lake has life around it. Many of the lakes, ponds, and rivers are close to the village, so everything is very accessible. It’s the location I choose when I don’t have the time to commit to a more remote body of water. I also love having the option to warm up and grab some food at one of the local restaurants after ice fishing. You can have the best of both worlds, the feeling of remoteness and having access to local amenities.
Where to fish in Saranac Lake?
If you want to try your hand at ice fishing, Lake Colby is one place to fish that is just two miles away from the heart of downtown, and is home to the annual Colby Classic Ice Fishing Derby, an event held on the first weekend of March. To learn more about the event, contact the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club. Anglers must register before fishing, and the registration area is at the Lake Colby Beach.
Prizes at the Colby Classic are awarded for the heaviest fish in its category. There are four categories: perch, trout, salmon, and northern pike. All perch, trout, and salmon must be taken from Lake Colby. Since northern pike are not available in Lake Colby, pike may be fished in other local waters. There is also a door prize for all entrants.
All fish must be caught between 7:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Fish caught in Lake Colby are brought immediately to the weigh-in area to be judged and weighed. No frozen fish will be accepted!
Before the event, don't forget to stock up on bait, tackle, and other fishing gear from one of the local shops:
- Blue Line Sports, 81 Main Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983
- Woods and Waters, 255 Broadway, Saranac Lake, NY 12983
- Wiley’s Flies, 1179 Sara-Placid Road, Ray Brook, NY 12977