Ice fishing is fun. It is probably one of the few outdoor, unorganized group sports. We seldom go ice fishing by ourselves, and yet we don't go out and form teams with coaches, uniforms and stands of spectators. It is kind of a rural, small-town activity that attracts the hardy souls in a community. If you ice fish, you probably spend at least three or four weekends a year on the lake.
The "dyed in the wool" ice fishermen are split into two categories: the Ice Shanty folks verses the Nomads of the Ice folks. The Ice Shanty group picks a spot and stakes it out, kind of like a gold miner making a claim: "I know the fish are here!" They have faith in their spot and will hang out for awhile, usually only moving once or twice a season, making only short distance adjustments.
Colors, shapes and sizes of these dwellings make interesting fishing villages on the ice for the eyes of passing motorists on the shore. Kids love them because it's like building a fort on the ice. For those youngsters lucky enough to visit the shanties, adventures lie deep in the ice holes with thoughts of monsters under the ice, and in minnow buckets, full of exciting wiggles of baitfish. You never forget the warmth of the heater or stove, and the smell of stew or coffee simmering over them.
Older fisher folk sit for hours in these shacks and relive the stories of past adventures. Their hands weave patterns with jigging sticks that move dancing bait for hungry fish under the ice. Every few minutes, their eyes stare out the tiny windows to spot the sprung flag of a tip-up, or to note the advancing wind or snowflakes of a pending storm.
Meanwhile, the Nomads of the Ice are those who are always thinking that the fish are biting somewhere else in the lake from where they are standing. By foot, snowmobile or ATV they tend to move, following that school of fish they cannot see. They often change locations daily, and sometimes more frequently. Sometimes they place tip-ups in several locations around a lake and then, every hour or so, make a circuit, visiting the various locations. One friend of mine who fishes for northern pike in shallow water sets out a line of tip-ups along the shore. About every hour he picks up his first tip-up and moves it up past his last tip-up and thus slowly fishes the shoreline around the lake.
Out in the elements, the Nomads tend to be more active because of the cold weather. Most of the time is spent cleaning ice out of tip-up holes and moving from one jigging hole to another. Keeping warm is a key factor in lasting the day. Portable sled-type structures that fold out into tent-type structures are popular. I have found that ground blinds for hunting game make great temporary ice fishing shelters. I simply take a small electric drill, make some holes in the ice, put some tent pegs in and add some water that freezes quickly. Plus, it is a lot safer to put up a temporary shelter than to sit in a pickup and begin to hear the ice crack!
The highlight of the fishing season has to be the ice fishing derby, which is carnival time for ice fisher folk. There are a lot of derbies today, and they provide great fun. You get a chance to meet other fishermen, fish different waters, take a road trip and win some prizes. All the derbies have different rules, entry fees and lots of prizes. This is good family fun at its best and gives a chance to non-fishing families to stop and see the fun without feeling like they are intruding. You also get a chance to see what fish are brought in to enter the contest, and you have a better idea of what types and sizes of fish are in the lake. You can also see some interesting adventures, such as tip-up flags going off and grown men running to hook the big one.
The funniest incident I have ever witnessed at an ice derby was at the Colby Classic in Saranac Lake several years ago. It was a beautiful day on the first weekend in March. The weather was sunny and warm enough that almost everyone was dressed in a light sweater or jacket, and fishermen had brought light camp chairs to sit out on the ice. There were about 150 fishermen all sitting out and talking, watching about 600 tip-ups. It was early afternoon, and the chairwoman in charge of the derby could finally get out of the headquarters to take a break. She owned three Labrador retrievers that were in the back of her pickup truck, and she had decided it was time to take them for a walk.
She put a leash on each one and proceeded to walk out on the ice. The dogs saw all of the contestants and activity. After being penned up in the car all morning, it must have been time for some exercise. They kind of pulled on their leashes at the same instant, and being on ice it was difficult for the chairwoman to control the tugging, which caused her to slip and, in trying to gain her balance, let go of all three leashes. Now let me tell you, these friendly dogs, which had been cooped up all morning, wanted to meet as many of these friendly fisher folks as they could. Each one of them must have been looking at a different fisherman, because they split up in different directions to greet these good old boys. The problem was that they each had an 8-foot leash that was swinging like a lasso.
The fishermen tried to get up out of their chairs to greet them, but what they saw was hundreds of tip-up flags popping up all over the lake as these dogs came running toward them. The fishermen were now not in the petting mood, and the dogs were coming toward them at an excessive speed. Spreading out, the dogs were setting off more flags. In the distance came the chairwoman in a panic, and the fishermen did not realize she was in charge of the derby. Their responses, in very loud voices, are not printable in this article. They basically said that they would report this to the chairman of the event. To which she replied, "I am the chairman!" Lesson learned: Don't mix dogs and tip-ups!
Robert E. Brown lives in Saranac Lake.