‘Come to the light’ – Ice Fishing: the Cold, Windy and Surreal on Lake Champlain
Updated: Feb 24
Some of my southern outdoors brethren think I’m nuts to love ice fishing, but the affliction is genuine. Growing up in northern Vermont, the frozen windy bays of Lake Champlain often offered fun-filled days sitting on a bucket or in a wooden “shanty, feeding monofilament from a handline down through a 6 to 8-inch hole in the sometimes 2-foot-thick ice.
When the water was clear - the usual situation – you could often watch the fish eyeballing your eyeball before slurping it in and taking the hook. The eyeballs of yellow perch were our preferred baits. I still remember the first time I saw my neighbor from across the street, Mervil Coolidge, deftly pop the eyes from a frozen perch. He put one on the hook and popped the other into his mouth, to soften it for when he needed to rebait, he said. I’m pretty sure the maneuver was designed to simply elicit an “Ewww” from us youngsters.
From one end of the lake to another, the ice fishing can be grand. At the southern end, crappie can often be found in abundance. To the north, yellow perch are the primary quarry. A couple years ago, I had an interesting experience fishing with guide James Vladyka in an area called Lapham Bay near Shoreham. It was a most memorable trip to Vermont on a lot of counts.
“Come to the light,” Vladyka (www.fishhounds.net) jokingly murmured, delivering a line from the movie
“Poltergeist.” Vladyka, was encouraging crappie to congregate near holes in the ice where he had placed Hydro Glow Fishing Lights. The lights attract baitfish which attract bigger fish. Beyond the hookups, it also creates a surreal fishing experience with the green light illuminating the ice from the bottom up, creating an eerie, soft backlighting for the fishing.
That was my first time fishing that area, joining Stafford County, Virginia, resident and longtime ice fisherman Doug Chyz and some buddies on an expedition. Chyz is a retired Navy employee who likes to make his own custom fishing rods, including ice fishing rigs. He grew up in western Massachusetts and enjoys ice fishing or, as he calls it, “hard water.” His pitch went something like, “We catch so many big crappie, we throw back the 10-inchers.”
Chyz, his cousin Joey Sojka of Massachusetts, and any number of family and friends of camp owner John Chmielewski, gather annually to celebrate winter fishing traditions, swap stories and, generally, hang out on the frozen lake. Chmielewski, a retired insurance executive and a longtime leader in Ducks Unlimited, graciously shares his camp and relishes in whipping together some of the finest camp grub you’d ever find, much of it laced with Polish culinary flavors and techniques.
The water down at the southern skinny end of the lake can be challenging. The best fishing is closer to the deeper channel near the lake’s center. It almost starts behaving like a big river there, with considerable current at times. Shallow bays without a lot of moving water were generally safe to fish, but the main lake channel near Shoreham, almost in the middle between Vermont and New York, had soft, unsafe ice. When it’s cold (with good ice), fishing can be hot. When it’s not, that’s when you have to work shallow water, such as near Lapham, and hope things happen.
Cold is good. When you’re in the wind, in single-digit temperatures, having a nice portable shelter, such as many of the great models made by Clam and others, are a godsend. Chyz has a nice pop-up ice fishing tent. My brother Dana also has a spacious shelter. Ice anchor screws tether the shelters and keep them from blowing away. These shelters, along with a propane heater can make for comfortable, take-your-parka-off fishing and at least provide a warm base of operations from which to monitor tip-up rigs. When you’re fishing outside, a good, high-quality ice fishing suit, such as the I5 Series jacket and bibs from Frabill, cuts the wind and keeps you warm.
Master the Flasher
Many anglers, including Vladyka, use a Vexilar flasher, a sonar system designed for ice fishing. It reveals when fish are near your bait. Learning how to read it takes practice. Vladyka was teasing plump crappie into biting just 3 feet away from me while I kept missing bites. It’s finesse fishing. Deciphering the near-hypnotic light display on the flasher can be challenging, especially in a weedy, extreme shallow water scenario. Chyz uses a Lowrance sonar unit and can configure it so that it works much like a flasher, displaying his jig movement and fish activity on the right side of his screen. My brother’s Vexilar-18 unit lets you split the screen display, zooming in on the bottom six feet on one screen while watching the entire water column on the other. It’s great in 8-20 feet of water. You can actually watch your jig rise and fall and see a fish rise from the bottom to take it.
The clock is ticking on winter 2018, but I still hope to yet make a Vermont pilgrimage to once again see old friends and tackle the fun and sometimes finicky cold-water denizens of Lake Champlain.
Frabill Ice Hunter Combo Rod and Reels
During my most recent ice-fishing trips, I got to try some of Frabill’s (www.frabill.com) newer, affordable ice
fishing combos. The rods vary in length from 27 to 38 inches, each designed for different types of ice fishing, from close quarters work inside a shelter to jigging deepwater for suspended fish. The rods are made from a solid graphite blank and sport stainless steel ice guides. The handles are tapered cork. The reels have a machined aluminum spool and 4 bearings. Combos are selling for about $40 at many retailers.