On Frozen Pond
An Ice Fisherman's Lure Lies Below the Hard Surface
“When the fish gets its head out of the water, just put your gloved hand inside its mouth, and it will clamp down on it. Then pull the fish up through the hole.” Those are the words that Jason Sniezek said to his fishing partner, Bill Varno, to help him land the biggest pike ever caught—a 29.5-pound monster—in Onota Lake in Pittsfield. “That’s the way that we get our big fish out of the lake, and it works well every time.”
According to Sniezek, there are no secrets to catching big fish. “All it takes is persistence and patience,” he says. “Bill and I go almost every Saturday that there’s safe ice to fish from.” MassWildlife, a state fisheries commission founded in 1866 under the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, defines safe ice—safe for human foot traffic—as at least four inches thick. Last winter, ice thickness reached depths of 30 inches or more. “Even then, I have friends who will not step out onto the ice because they’re afraid,” says Sniezek, who teaches physical education at Hoosac Valley Middle & High School in Cheshire.
Ice fishing has been around since the Ice Age, and the methods haven’t changed much. A fisherman cuts a hole in the ice, puts some bait on a hook attached to a line, drops it down into the hole, and waits for a fish to bite. As far as equipment goes, not much has changed over the years, either, according to Chuck Maces of Maces Marine in Pittsfield: “Some of the fishing lines are better, and they now make tip-ups [the ice fisherman’s fishing pole] out of plastic, and a few other gadgets. None of these actually help a person catch more fish through the ice.”
Corey O’Brien of Smitty’s Sporting Goods in Dalton says that he’s seeing more kids seven to ten years old get into the sport: “Every year, we see some new faces, and usually they bring their parents or grandparents along.”
For the beginner, ice fishing may seem daunting—what to buy, where to go, what to do once there. But almost all experienced ice fishermen will lend a helping hand to someone new to the sport. “We will always drill some holes for a family that’s just starting out and show them how to bait their hook and set up their tip-ups in the right areas,” Sniezek says. (A tip-up, also known as a “tilt,” is a device in which a wire attached to the rod is tripped, raising a signal flag, when a fish takes the bait.)
Outfitting a family for ice fishing costs about $200, but that includes an adult fishing license good for a year for $27.50 (Massachusetts resident) to $37.50 (non-resident), Maces says, adding, “That’s without the auger, which could cost upwards of $400.” The auger is a giant gas-powered drill that bores a perfect eight-inch hole in the ice in a few seconds. Otherwise you’re chopping away with an ice chisel, or “spud,” just like they did in the Ice Age.
Aside from the auger, bait is probably the most expensive item, and you’ll need fresh bait—pond shiners—every weekend. The rest of the equipment you’ll have for life. Every fisherman, licensed or not, is allowed five tip-ups apiece, so a family of four can have 20 active tip-ups at one time. This can run into a lot of bait, which ranges in price from $3.50 to $12 a dozen, depending on the size of the shiner. And in the ice fishing world, size matters. Sniezek, who targets only big pike, says, “One of the keys of catching big fish is using big bait. A big fish will eat a small bait, but a small fish won’t eat a big bait.”
Not all fishermen take Sniezek’s approach. Some are out there just to catch fish, any size fish. One of the places to go for that is Cheshire Reservoir, which is full of small pickerel. “They’ll keep you busy all day,” says Tom Kondel of Adams, “and they’ll eat you out of bait in no time.” Kondel takes more of the family angle to his angling, with his nieces and nephews joining him on the weekends. “My brother-in-law just drove six hours from New Jersey with three teenagers, and they all couldn’t wait to get here. We had French toast for breakfast right here on the lake at 6:30 this morning. The kids just love it,” says Kondel.
It’s this camaraderie and also the element of surprise that attract all ages to fishing, Kondel says. “It’s an adrenalin rush every time the flag goes up on that tip-up. You never know what’s going on under the ice—whether it’s a monster pike or a scrawny pickerel.
Some Ice-fishing Tips
- Tell someone where you plan to fish and when you plan to return. Never go alone.
- Check ice conditions before. Ask other anglers, bait shops, or lakeside businesses.
- A test hole drilled near shore should show at least a four-inch thickness of clear ice. (Blue/black is stronger than milky-white ice.)
- New ice is usually stronger than old. Perimeter ice is weaker. Avoid areas with protruding logs, brush, plants, docks.
- Changing air temperatures and standing water weaken ice. Stay clear of areas where cracks meet.
- Wear a life jacket for extra warmth and safety.
- Bring dry clothes and socks, snacks and warm drinks, a coil of rope in case someone falls in, a small first-aid kit, and a boat cushion to use as a seat or as flotation in case of emergency.
- Carry an ice awl around your neck. If you break through the ice, you can use the spikes to grip the ice and pull yourself out.
- Wear creepers (spiked shoes) to keep from slipping.