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Flag up! Have fun, stay safe when ice fishing

A man holds up a northern pike caught through the ice. (Provided photo — New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation)

Very few northern New Yorkers believe that cold weather is a reason to stay indoors. In fact, for most North Country families, winter is fun! For kids, it’s the season of snowballs, snow forts, snowmen, snow sculptures, snow angels, sledding, tobogganing, tubing and ice skating. And for family activities, there’s snowmobiling, snowshoeing, snowboarding, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, winter hiking, winter camping, winter carnivals, dog sledding and ice fishing.

Ice fishing is a great way to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends. You can even bring the dogs. Think of it as a day at (or should I say on) the lake, a picnic or a tailgate party. Just bring a grill or a camp stove, some food and your favorite beverages (hot and/or cold), lawn chairs, and a heater or portable fire pit. A tent is optional.

There’s plenty of room for everyone on a frozen lake or pond. Just be sure that you dress warmly, in layers, from head to toe. You can always take things off later. Wear the warmest gloves or mittens, boots and socks that you can find.

If you’ve been feeling cooped up and enjoy being outdoors, a day fishing out on the ice can be a remarkably relaxing and rewarding way to make the most of getting out of the house. And if you’ve never been ice fishing before, it’s more than likely that you’ll find it an easy sport to master.

Hopefully you’ll get the chance to learn from someone with experience and then apply what works best for you. Many anglers use jigging poles and lures (jigging spoons), but most of the people I know (myself included) would rather fish with tip-ups, using live bait (minnows or worms) and bobbers. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation regulations let anglers fish with as many as seven tip-ups at once, which can either keep you busy or free you up to do other things. However, you must remain near your holes.

If you’re not fishing with someone who has the necessary gear, you’ll need to purchase an ice auger and a few basic ice fishing tools (e.g., a sled [even a child’s plastic sled will work just fine], skimmer [ice scoop], tip-ups and/or jig poles, bait and a 5-gallon pail).

And, of course, you’ll need a fishing license if you don’t already have one. That is, unless you hit the ice on Saturday, Feb. 13 and/or Sunday, Feb. 14, when, as part of the state’s’ Free Fishing Days, no license will be required. It’s an excellent opportunity for would-be first-time ice anglers to check ice fishing out, or for devoted ice fishing enthusiasts to introduce their friends to the sport. Bring your valentine!

Advances in ice fishing

Ice fishing has grown well beyond the days of cutting holes with chisels and using lead weights to estimate depths. There are those who insist on fishing using only the latest advances in technology. They set up command centers comprised of fish finders and underwater cameras that help them locate fish, including at what depth they can be found. And GPS allows them to log the exact location of their fishing hot spots with precise detail for future outings.

Modern anglers can even fish from the comfort of pull-behind wheel houses that come complete with contemporary kitchenettes, large-screen HD TVs, comfy couches and king-sized beds.

I go to the lake hoping to catch my limit of fish. But I also enjoy the freedom, the serenity, the camaraderie and the recreation that are part of the experience. Hey. It’s fishing. Some days are better than others.

A few words about ice

Caution is a must whenever venturing out on the ice. Remember, you’re walking on water. Frozen water, yes. But water nonetheless.

To be safe, DEC recommends ice thickness of 4 inches or more, as the rule of thumb for someone on foot. They also recommend sticking to established, well-worn paths when venturing out. The rule of thumb for a snowmobile or ATV is 5 inches, 8 to 12 inches for a car or small pickup, 12 to 15 inches for a medium-size pickup or similar truck. Note that these guidelines are for new, clear, solid ice on non-running waters. Double the thickness is recommended when on “white,” “snow” or “slush” ice, which is only about half as strong as new, clear ice.

Bear in mind, too, that ice seldom freezes uniformly. It can be a foot thick in one location and only a few inches thick just 3 or 4 feet away. Ice that has formed over flowing water (currents and channels) may have undermining, destabilizing effects as well. And, while 4 inches of clear, newly formed ice may support a person on foot, 12 inches or more of old, partially thawed ice may not.

Consider too, that the insulating effect of snow may slow down or even reverse the freezing process. And snow weight reduces how much additional weight the ice sheet will support. Also, ice near shore can be weaker than ice that’s farther out.

Conditions can change quickly. So use good judgment. And remember, you’re responsible for your own safety.

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