Return of the Ice Palace pike

Local who caught fish shares story of reviving Winter Carnival tradition

Matt Pafundi holds the two pike he caught for the Winter Carnival Ice Palace on Jan. 31. He had caught fish for display in the Palace ice blocks in his childhood, and doing it again after moving back to town was a miraculous experience for him, he said. (Provided photo — Curt Staves)

SARANAC LAKE — A long-standing Winter Carnival Ice Palace tradition is back, and for one local, being part of it was a meaningful achievement.

On top of the southern wall of the palace, the two frozen fish can be seen leaping from the bricks, each with a perch in their mouth. Catching these fish was an adventure for Matt Pafundi, who owns Team Predator Scrap Metal and Junk Removal on Broadway. He said reviving a fishy tradition was an honor and something that stems back to his childhood.

IPW 101 Director Dean Baker said the tradition of putting a fish in an ice block began years ago — he can’t remember exactly when — when IPW volunteers found a dead fish that had frozen in the bottom of an ice block.

“It was a naturally dead fish. They died and they went belly up,” Baker said. “Well, that didn’t look so good, so we turned the block upside down.”

It was a hit, and for years afterward, Baker said people would donate fish for the Palace.

Pafundi said, for a young boy, having the responsibility of bringing the Palace Pike was a “dream come true” and he took pride in his work.

Childhood memories

Pafundi moved to town from Long Island at the age of 2 with his younger brother Joe and their mother to be closer to their dad after the two divorced. It only took a few years for him to catch the fishing bug at a young age.

Riding in the back seat on state Route 86 past Lake Colby when he was 5 or 6 years old, he rolled his window down to get a better view of dozens of people out ice fishing. It was the day of the Colby Classic Fishing Derby. He had never seen anything like that before and he was intrigued immediately.

The next day he demanded to go ice fishing. His family bought the bare essentials, bundled up and scratched through three feet of ice with a piece of steel to put lines in.

A couple years later, now in middle school, he began working for local contractors, including Tim Moody.

Winter Carnival rolled around and the Ice Palace started going up. That’s when Moody asked a young Pafundi to go out and catch them a pike for the Ice Palace builders.

He continued supplying the Palaces’ pikes through the 1990s. Then, he graduated in 2002 and got a job in Albany, but he always wondered if someone had followed in his footsteps catching fish for the Palace. Baker said the IPW would still get fish donations, but it was less consistent. He said there hadn’t been a fish for the past three years, mostly because the coronavirus pandemic changed a lot of things.

Bringing it back

Pafundi moved back to Saranac Lake around three years ago. Life has been busy, but ever since he got to town he’s had it in the back of his mind to renew the tradition. On Jan. 30, he had a small window of opportunity.

Driving down River Road, he was again caught by a sight through his window. The Ice Palace was going up. He had figured it would be a few more days before the ice was thick enough, so this came as a surprise. Within a couple hours, three layers of ice bricks were up.

That night, he went into “miracle mode” loading his truck with a snowmobile, bait and hooks. At 5 a.m. on Tuesday, he set out. But things weren’t so easy. The pull start on his snowmobile was frozen. He tied a rope around the flywheel to turn it manually.

Before the sun had fully risen, Pafundi was racing down the lake to a rock pile he knew could be a fruitful spot. In the morning light, he caught the first fish worthy of the Palace.

“I knew that I had pulled it off,” he said.

By 10 a.m., he hooked an even bigger one. Back to the Ice Palace he raced. His excitement was also tempered by some concern. He had not told anyone of his plan to bring back the Ice Palace pike. He had worked so hard for these fish, but if the IPW didn’t accept his offering, there would be no palace pike this year.

“I had pulled it off”

The IPW greeted his contribution with open arms.

“I was excited, but those guys were hooting and hollering and smiling,” Pafundi said. “They were really excited about it. They were scrambling and on their toes.”

They immediately started brainstorming how to display the pike while Pafundi stood in stunned silence. Pafundi said he’s traveled around a lot and “the people who volunteer for the Ice Palace are among the finest human beings I’ve ever met.”

When he saw Pafundi coming in with his catches, Baker said his first thought was, “He’s giving those away?”

“They were nice fish,” Baker said.

But Pafundi said donating them meant so much more to him than eating them.

In the past, the fish would be placed inside the blocks, as if they had been frozen into the lake as the ice grew. But the blocks were too thin for that this year, so they had the creative idea of placing the fish as if they were leaping from the ice when they were frozen in place, which Pafundi loved.

perch in their mouths

“Someone had the bright idea of ‘Pike chase perch, so put them in their mouth,'” Baker said. “I don’t know who did that but it was a good idea.”

Pafundi said he swelled with emotion to bring back the tradition he had been a part of through his childhood years.

“When I walked back to my truck I was in tears,” he said. “I had pulled it off.”


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