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Looking for fish through a hole in the ice

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COPAKE –I used to think cabin fever or perhaps a nagging wife drove men out to fish on frozen lakes, but a trip on skis around Copake Lake and Lake Taghkanic on a recent sunny but cold Monday disabused me of that idea. These are people who love the outdoors as much as they like the taste of fresh fish.

The ice fishing season runs from January into March, depending on the weather and the thickness of the ice. This day it was 10 inches thick, but fishing sites say it’s safe to venture out on ice half that thick.

“Early ice is always the best,” said Dale Rowe from Mellenville, who was out with his friend Don Sartori on Copake Lake. Between the two of them they had caught 39 fish, mostly 6-inch yellow perch, but also a 3-lb. large-mouth bass using “mousies,” a type of fly larvae, for bait. You have to store mousies in the fridge, they told me, or they’ll hatch and start flying around. Don, a retired Metro North railroad man who fishes every nice day, buys mousies by the thousands and says they last him into trout season in April.

“The fish you catch ice fishing are the best fish you’ve ever eaten in your life. There’s no comparison. I fillet them so there’s no bones, dip them in seasoned egg batter and bread crumbs and fry them. They’re delicious. You can’t buy fish like that,” said Mr. Rowe. “The ice will be gone in a few weeks, but it’s a lot of fun while it lasts.”

The two were having a lot more luck than people fishing on the other side of the lake. They figured that snowmobile traffic may have driven the fish over to their side. There were no snowmobiles out on this day, but plenty of tracks indicated recent activity. Fish can hear and may not like the noise and vibration.

Scott Quinn who works for the state Department of Transportation, coaxed his father, Bill, onto the ice a couple of years ago. Now his dad, who has retired, is a convert. “I’d rather be out here than home watching the boob tube,” said Bill. They had caught a bullhead and 14 perch that they were looking forward to dipping in beer batter and deep frying that night at their Austerlitz home.

Over on Lake Taghkanic, the fish were biting too, and close to 20 people were out. Adults were fishing while kids frolicked when they weren’t fishing too.

Bob Poccia came from Ghent to fish with Andy Ciancio, who lives in Poughkeepsie, where the two grew up together fishing in all seasons. Bob still remembers when the lake he was standing on was called Charlotte Lake, before the arrival of the Taconic State Parkway.

Fishing in pairs is an important safety strategy recommended by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and other fishing experts. Other recommendations include dressing warmly in layers, and using good judgment about walking on the ice and dealing with the cold. Carrying a line of cord at least 35 feet long is a good idea in the event of a worst-case scenario where someone falls through the ice.

Many had brought along portable propane stoves to help fight the cold or to brew coffee. Sometimes you’ll even see an open fire on the ice. These fishermen know how to feel at home in the outdoors. Some had special ice fishing tents, lawn chairs, food, and most brought ice sleds–open boxes on runners–to transport their gear.

It was midday, the sun was shining, and they were almost too warm in the absence of wind. “This is as perfect as it gets,” said Andy, who used to grow worms in his basement to use as bait. That day they were using shiners, small silvery minnows both real and artificial, to fish for pickerel.

“Some fish are more active in winter,” he said. “Trout love the cold.”

Across the lake near the children’s beach, Nathan Miller was teaching his friend Mike Moore and his two young sons, Mickey and Sean, how to ice fish.

Nathan was using a hand auger to drill holes. Each person is allowed to fish seven holes, two for hand-held rods or jigging lines, and five for tip-ups, ingenious devices that allow the reel to be suspended below the ice where the fishing line won’t freeze. Jigging lines have a flag on a spring that snaps up when a fish bites. Nathan said it only takes a few minutes to drill through the 13 inches of ice by hand. Most people had the heavier and more expensive gasoline powered augers, which drill the same hole in seconds.

Down the lake Chuck Wolff of Clermont seemed the most scientific in his approach to the sport. He had chosen to fish about 20 yards off the weediest part of the shoreline. “They feed in the weedy shallows,” he said. “I try to figure out where the shallow area drops off.”

The fish respond to changes in the barometric pressure too. “A storm is coming; usually they like to feed beforehand,” he said.

His strategy was working. While we talked, a flag on one of his tip-ups went up, and he pulled an 18-inch pickerel out of the icy water, careful to avoid the fish’s needle sharp teeth as he removed the hook and the live minnow for reuse. This winter he had already caught bass between five and seven pounds, but state law dictates that those fish must be thrown back. If anecdotes are to be believed, it’s best to obey these laws. They are often enforced by officers with binoculars, and conviction can mean a fine and possibly loss of one’s fishing license.

Jerome Kumpfmiller, who lives in Taghkanic, had also caught several pickerel, which he planned to pickle, a process that softens the bones in an extremely boney fish, making eating it less of a problem. He said he likes the camaraderie of the sport. He had had fun that day talking with a large family he had never met before. This was his fourth day out this winter; he fishes more this season than in summer, although he is looking forward to fishing the small upland streams nearby for local brown trout come spring. 

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