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Technology and clothing upgrades fuel ice fishing surge

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette In this 2019 file photo, Andrew Morgan of Salladasburg resets his “tip up” fishing rig after a fish set it off while fishing at Rose Valley Lake.

As Ivan Eego and a group of friends joined for an ice fishing expedition on Oneida Lake in New York last year, things didn’t go as they expected.

“The weather was horrific, fishing was bad, I broke through the ice after dark and had an ATV break down a mile out and had to retrace my tracks to get a tow vehicle,” the Sunbury resident remembered. “Yet, I had a blast! I had a large sturgeon roll up on the camera, caught some walleye and perch, enjoyed some local dining and, of course, the camaraderie of friends made for a memorable experience.

“I think that’s what ice fishing is all about. Not the catch, but the adventure and shared memories.”

Don Kelly, the owner of Tackle Shack in Wellsboro, agreed.

“Compared to other types of fishing, there is a certain camaraderie aspect,” he said. “I know a lot of guys that look forward to going to camp, bring out their grill and make it an all-day event. There’s also the novelty aspect – while the lake may always be there, the ice is only a short-term thing. It can be exciting to take those first steps out onto the ice.”

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette In this 2018 file photo a family of fishermen move their tent out onto the ice at Rose Valley Lake for a day of fishing.

Those steps can also be fairly intimidating considering the uncertainty of the ice below.

“In my opinion, no ice is safe ice,” warned longtime ice anger Donald Witmer, of Middleburg. “I’m a bigger guy, so I like at least four inches of clear ice. I stay away from cracks and milky ice. I also always wear my safety picks around my neck and carry a rope in my sled.”

Kelly admitted there are a number of potential hazards that go with standing on frozen water.

“For the past few years, people have been fishing on relatively thin ice considering the temperatures, although spots up here in the Northern Tier allow for about a month and a half of action each winter,” he said. “Four inches of black, clear ice is ideal. You can get six to seven inches of frozen snow packed down and that may seem OK, but it isn’t as sturdy.”

Eego’s unexpected Oneida Lake plunge last year turned out to be more “funny than fearful for me. I knew there was weak stuff about, and I misjudged it a bit,” he said. “I suffered more shame than injury, but then again, I had the right gear and my clothing kept me dry.”

His experiences while less prepared and younger weren’t as positive.

“I went in twice as a teen up to my waist, and I can assure you that being wet in freezing temperatures can be much less than comfortable, to put it mildly,” he said. “Every year, you hear of an accident, although I don’t fully believe in accidents — just ignorance and folly. In all my experiences, both were attributes.”

“Make it a point to go out with experienced people, and at the very least, don’t venture out alone where nobody has been yet,” Eego said. “Walking on ice takes some getting used to, especially the noises and tremors you experience.”

Angling upwards

The Tackle Shack has become a “must-visit for those seeking gear,” Eego said. “Its owner is not just knowledgeable ad helpful, but also an avid fisherman.”

Staying ahead of the industry trends helps Kelly best serve his clientele, and ice fishing is definitely trending in the right direction, he admits.

“In my opinion, ice fishing is the one of the fastest-growing sectors in the fishing industry,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the main ones is that there have been so many advancements in the past 10 years in both sonar and clothing.”

Among the improvements in clothing are companies such as Under Armor developing base layer elements which are both warm and thin.

“It’s not like it was 50 years ago, sitting on a bucket and freezing your butt off,” Kelly said. “Twenty years ago, you’d be out there bundled up like the Michelin Man, but now you can stay warm and still have flexibility. Some of the ice fishing suits add buoyancy, which is a huge benefit for safety if you do happen to go through.”

Witmer encourages each person he takes out to invest in a suit beforehand.

“They make a big difference,” he said. “Once you are cold, you are uncomfortable and done having fun. Those who go out in a suit are much more likely to enjoy their ice-fishing experience.”

Eego admits that he is better funded these days with less responsibilities than in his younger years, and he has enjoyed some of the improvements in ice fishing accessories.

“Gear has become far more sophisticated than the hatchet and hope I wielded as a kid,” he said. “Electronics like sonar and cameras, huts and heaters, safety equipment like spikes and spud bars, lightweight augers — they all can make a trip more like a biologist’s expedition and can up the odds of success and comfort greatly.”

Must-haves, according to Eego, start with safety.

“A spud bar, cleats and spokes, although I admit I never had that stuff when I started,” he said. “An auger and fishing device of some sort are necessary, too, including either set lines like tip-ups or hand-held rods. And, of course baits, which should include a mix of both natural and artificial.”

A sled to haul all the gear is helpful, as well, he added. “I remember repurposing my kids’ snow sled before I bought one designed for ice fishing.”

Bait options are plentiful, Kelly said.

“There are tens of thousands of jigs. Some days, the fish just seem to all be eating and a variety of things work, and then there are days when a certain item works,” he said.

Well-weighted smaller jigs and those with a teardrop shape seem to be effective, as do a variety of live baits, including wax worms and live minnows.

“One of the big points I try to make with people is that anything you can catch in the summer, you can also catch in the winter,” he said. “The approach and tactics may be different, but suggestions like certain fish species burrow down and disappear in the winter is basically a myth.”

Panfish such as bluegills, crappies and perch are the most common on still waters ideal for ice fishing, while certain rigs can help land a nice-sized bass or pickerel, Kelly said.

While many people enjoy ice fishing for the tasty meal it can provide, Eego generally doesn’t cook what he catches anymore.

“Being a middle-aged bachelor, I’ve devoted myself to the catching aspect, and if I get hungry, there’s always takeout,” he joked. For him, the lure of ice fishing comes mostly in the types of people he encounters on the ice.

“People are usually more friendly in that environment, and willing to share with a stranger. At time, it can resemble tailgating at an arena. We’re all there for the team,” Eego said. “But when ice is scarce, it can be competitive and tempers can flare. Ever watch ‘Grumpy Old Men?’ Yeah, it’s a collective good time.”

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