A New Version of March Madness – Ice Fishing in the Great White North
“Are you crazy,” a couple people asked – rhetorically, of course – when I announced plans to escape a balmy Virginia early spring for an expedition to the frozen, white north a scant, few miles from the Quebec border.
To locals who were coming off one of Virginia’s coldest Februarys on record and looking at a major warm up heralding the advent of spring, my retreat into the frigid jaws of a New England winter marked with brutality surely reflected that I was suffering from an undiscovered form of “March Madness.”
But there I was, sitting on a 5-gallon bucket, the occasional yellow perch flopping up inside and slapping my “derriére,” as they say in French Canada. It was a Friday the 13th, but luck smiled on our fishing party as we yanked dozens of tasty yellow perch through 6-inch diameter holes cut in the nearly 3-foot-thick ice.
We were fishing Lake Champlain, specifically an area known as the Champlain Islands, large islands splitting the northern part of lake: Vermont to the east, New York west, and Canada north. The destination is about an 11-hour drive from the Fredericksburg area.
Ice fishing is cool – pun intended. The last two weeks of March is rock and roll time on the northern ice. That’s when big perch, their bellies yellow and laden with eggs, start moving into shallower water before spawning.
Thousands of people congregated in the big lake’s many bays, enjoying a centuries-old tradition.
If you haven’t tasted yellow perch, you’ve missed out on a fish many declare the sweetest and most succulent of anything hooked during piscatorial pursuits.
You can catch them in Virginia. In Eastern Virginia and Maryland tidal waters, the Mattaponi, Pamunkey and Nanjemoy Rivers sometimes offer excellent perch fishing. Yellow perch are semi-anadromous, living most of the year in brackish water before making a late winter spawning (late-February to early March) run.
Nowhere, though, are perch as prolific as in cold northern lakes. Proficient perch anglers, on a good day, can sit over a few holes in the ice and fill a bucket or more.
I fished with my brother Dana, his son Luke, and my brother-in-law Bruce Collopy. Dana had a power auger that speedily cut holes in the ice. Our first location was a spot on the broad lake off Grand Isle. Big perch were hugging the bottom 24 feet down. We used short ice fishing rods were spooled with light 4-pound line. The bait was heavy jigs the locals call ‘bibits,” painted in a variety of patterns. Some fishermen were hammering perch with white and green or orange-sparkles patterns.
Before bibits, many northern ice fishermen used perch eyes exclusively to catch fish. The salty flavors can prove deadly in enticing perch bites.Old-timers sometimes popped frozen eyes into their mouth to warm them before skewering them on a hook. Another current favorite for accenting bibits are tiny, live maggots, carried in flip-top vials filled with sawdust. Maggots are effective with perch, pumpkinseed sunfish and bluegills.
Our second morning saw me experiencing difficulty cracking the fish-catching code. With a measly 4 fish in the bag, I hunched over the slush-laden hole and muttered while another angler 40 yards away steadily load his bucket.
“I’m here to spy on you,” I announced as I walked over. “What’s the secret, if you don’t mind? Any certain color you’re using?” The fisherman, Dave Delibac, graciously explained he was using a bibit that glowed in the dark. He wasn’t tipping it with anything and the lure was barbless so he could easily flick the fish off and quickly get the bait back down to the bottom.
Perch are schooling fish. When you catch one nice one, the goal is to catch as many as possible before the move away. I retrieved a couple of Collopy’s bibits and asked Delibac if he thought any might work. He cupped his hand over one and gazed in to verify it glowed, then suggested I grab his auger and cut a hole 20 yards away. I happily complied and, within minutes, yanked a few more plump perch through the ice.
That afternoon, we caught a couple hundred perch in a location called “The Gut.” The trouble was most were dinky fish and we caught 15 for every one big enough to merit cleaning and eating.
Ice Shanty Haven
The final outing was for northern pike. Several locations along the lake rent ice shanties. I booked mine with Holiday Harbor Lodge in North Hero.
These shelters, most with wood burning stoves, are indispensable when weather plays rough – and Sunday was rough. Temperatures dipped into the low 20s, with sustained northwest 25-mile-per-hour winds. It snowed horizontally for 8 hours. Little snow collected on the ice, except near the 20 “tip-up” rigs we had set up and baited with large shiners.
When a pike takes the bait and runs, the tip-up’s spring-loaded rod with a flag releases to signal “Fish on!”
The ice was thick enough that we drove our trucks on the lake and parked next to the shanty. The little ice hut became a haven, with people coming and going all day long. I whipped up wild hog fajitas in a skillet on the wood stove and more than a couple bottles of Canadian and local microbrew beer washed it all down in the finest ice shanty tradition.
In the end, we caught one barely legal pike. To some who’ve never spent a day like this, such an effort can appear a little crazy; but for those who enjoyed that shanty as a base of operations and social center, it epitomized what winter fishing in the great white north is all about – good times.
A version of this article appeared in my outdoors column in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. To see it there, click here.