Photo care of Joe Landolfi
A Solid Ice Fishing Season for a Change
The milder weather in between the arctic air masses threatened to limit this winter’s ice fishing to a short season. Now it seems as if we will have a long opportunity to fish lasting into early March. This used to be typical, although the last few years have seen short stints.
Laurie Murphy of Dows Boat Rentals at Lake Hopatcong sent an email notice on January 28th. Six to 10 inches of ice was present throughout the lake, and the Knee Deep Club expects to host its ice fishing derby on February 16th.
I like to begin a discussion of ice fishing with safety, and I usually write on the black ice conditions of the season’s onset. Unless Round Valley Reservoir freezes over, and the ice thickens to five inches with no snow falling on it, then black ice conditions will not exist, because everywhere else is presently ice covered with snow on top. Be careful if you go out on the ice when it is melting. If you cut a test hole and find that a chunk has vertical striations throughout, this is weak and rotting ice. Unless at least four or five inches of clear, hard ice remain beneath the striated layer, it’s unsafe. And in any event of early or late season ice fishing, wear a pair of ice spikes around your neck. Countless lives could have been spared over the years if anglers simply grabbed hold of ice spike handles, forcing the metal points into the ice to pull themselves out.
The Highlands have many lakes, reservoirs, and ponds that feature ice fishing. These include Lake Hopatcong as first and foremost, Lake Musconetcong, Budd Lake, Greenwood Lake, Cranberry Lake, Lake Aeroflex, Wawayanda Lake, Monksville Reservoir, Spruce Run Reservoir, Mount Hope Pond, Steenykill Lake, and many others. Everything from panfish like yellow perch and bluegills to true strain muskellunge get pursued avidly. Pickerel popular in many waters, northern pike are raised onto ice at Budd Lake, Spruce Run Reservoir, and Pompton Lake. Trout come through the ice of lakes Aeroflex and Wawayanda. Largemouth bass are ubiquitous and willing to hit. Walleye get caught from the depths of Hopatcong and Greenwood lakes, and Monksville Reservoir. Hybrid stripers infrequently come through holes at Hopatcong and Spruce Run Reservoir.
You Tube videos can show you how to set tip-ups—the bait and hook devices—as well as how to deal with other equipment. I can tell you that it’s important to know the lake or pond you venture out upon. Fish species will frequent the same sorts of habitat they relate to in the late fall, and you need to know structures and spots in order to place these tip-up devices where they may be effective. The same with jigging spoons like Kastmasters or Little Cleos, tiny panfish jigs with mousy grubs, or Rapala Ice Jigs: cut your holes where you know it’s possible to catch something.
In 1979, I drove my Ford Fairlane station wagon to Lake Hopatcong with my two younger brothers. I had no idea where to fish. That we found a public entryway at all is astonishing. This was the first time any of us had seen the lake, and we came from almost two hours away in Mercer County. Thanks to my habit of lifting weights after school, cutting through 18 inches of ice with a splitting bar wasn’t very difficult, though the holes were no use. We stayed out for little over an hour. It felt like all day in 15-degree wind with colder chills.
We trudged in and I started the wagon’s engine. My brothers waited in the comfortable interior as I approached a Knee Deep Club derby weigh station with pen and notebook. I guess my real design for that outing was to get a story for the Trenton Times, in which I sometimes got published. I knew much better than to fish just anywhere.
To dare go ice fishing, you might surprise yourself. So long as you don’t fish blind, if you have the prerequisite knowledge about where the fish are, then the experience of an active pursuit is deeply rewarding. This is fishing like no other approach. Slow pace allows you to relax, and especially the freedom to walk in any leisurely direction you please is a release. And there’s nothing like walking on ice. It’s the closest thing on Earth to walking on the moon, besides the Sahara Desert. Deserts are full of life compared to the barren surface of a frozen lake, and to see a tip-up flag rise, indicating a strike from black depths, is a signal of life where it could easily be unexpected.