With temperatures averaging below freezing over the past few weeks, the frigid water of Lake Champlain has been capped by a thick sheet of ice. At Sand Bar State Park, the solid surface has brought out ice fishing enthusiasts, who seem immune to strong winds and arctic temperatures as they sit out in the open on overturned buckets and folding chairs.
Some cut their exposure to the elements in pop-up canvas shanties, but there is no shortage of hearty Vermonters basking in the sun as though on a tropical shore.
At heart, Randy Niquette of Milton is a bass fisherman in the summer, but he wasn’t deterred by the near-zero temperatures on Malletts Bay earlier last month.
Niquette’s wife hails from Wisconsin, where he says perch are somewhat of a delicacy. Here in Vermont, he can fill his freezer with the small, striped fish. Yellow perch is just one of several fish that have no daily limit in Lake Champlain, while other species like walleye and northern pike have limits of three to five fish a day.
According to the 2018 Vermont fishing guide and regulations, the best fishing is usually within the first and last hours of daylight. This is advice that longtime fishing buddies Steve Stemple and Pete Stabb of Colchester take to heart.
Although they left the bay around 2 p.m. with their quarry of northern pike, they planned to be back on the ice the next day drilling new holes at 4 a.m. and putting out up to 15 tip-up style lines apiece. They’ve mostly been staying close to home this year, but in the past they’ve had great success fishing at Sand Bar and near Rouses Point in New York.
Lifelong Colchester resident Ryan Miller says he’s always hoping to reel in a walleye. This year he’s invested in some modern technology and was testing out a brand new accessory in his ice fishing arsenal: a sonar detector.
A series of green, orange and red lights track the movement of fish underwater, helping Miller suspend his bait at the depth where the most activity is. Even though he claims, “it makes fishing a little more like a video game,” the sonar is by no means a guarantee of success. Fishing is still a sport that requires some luck and often patience, evidenced by Miller jovially admitting he hadn’t caught anything big so far.
Ice fishing doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby, though. At its base level, all one needs for equipment is an auger to drill through the ice (or a more quaint ice chisel), a strainer to keep the ice out of your hole and a way to pull your fish out of the ice.
In fact, Vt. Fish and Wildlife observes that, “one of the benefits of ice fishing is that it doesn’t require a lot of gear. During the ice fishing season, people without boats can access parts of the lake that they can’t reach in the summer while fishing from shore.”
Lured in by the promise of a cheap fish dinner, my family took advantage of the Vt. Fish and Wildlife’s annual free ice fishing day on January 27.
Geared up with the equipment my father bought in the 1970s, we shuffled out from the shore of Sand Bar onto the petrified surface of the lake, where I was immediately saddled with the duties of chiseling out the holes (no fancy auger among our inventory). Despite the very shallow water, both my children were steadily reeling in yellow perch with shouts of exciement at each nibble.
After frying up our small haul that evening, it was clear this free day on the ice was going to lead us to purchase licenses so that we could return on another frigorific day.
If you’re interested in ice fishing but aren’t sure what steps to take, the state offers free clinics throughout the season, including an introduction to smelting in Waterbury on Thursday, Feb. 15. Learn more about fishing opportunities and locations at vtfishandwildlife.com.