With the chilly weather we’ve had in December, many fresh water ponds and lakes already have enough solid ice to allow for safe hard-water fishing. If you’ve never ice-fished before, there’s a lot to learn, as I discovered last February (2013) when I fished frozen Lake Laurel on Lee, Massachusetts, with Capt. Paul Tawczynski of Fishing the Berkshires guide service. Tawczynski is an accomplished freshwater angler who once competed on the B.A.S.S. tournament circuit. He also guides on the unfrozen waters of western Massachusetts from spring through fall, and even ranges as far south as Clinton, Connecticut, where he pursues tautog, stripers, bluefish and other marine species.
Tawczynski fishes some 50 different bodies of water during the winter, basing his selection on ice conditions and fish activity. Therefore, his clients generally don’t know where they will be fishing until a week before the outing.
Naturally, you want to be sure the water you plan to fish is safe before you venture out. Monitor local ice conditions carefully, and know the location of any springs and large rocks just below the surface, which can create weak areas in the ice. Stay clear of areas where the current is strong, as that can also make for thin ice. It’s also a good idea to fish with a buddy, and to wear safety equipment such as a whistle or a pair of ice picks to help you get back onto the ice should you happen to break through.
Tawczynski also stresses the importance of dressing properly for ice fishing. Insulated, waterproof boots for slushy lake surfaces and layered clothing are a must, and don’t forget ear protection and your warmest pair of gloves or mittens (most ice-fishing veterans favor heated snowmobile suits). If things get really bitter, however, Tawczynski’s clients can always duck into his portable shelter, which is kept nice and toasty thanks to a propane heater.
When targeting pickerel. pike, perch, trout, salmon and bass, Tawczynski uses standard ice-fishing tip-up rigs baited with live shiners, which Tawczynski stores in a pair of buckets treated with a chemical that keeps the water from freezing.
Each tip-up features an orange flag that automatically springs up when a fish takes the bait. A set of bells on each flag also alert the angler to a bite.
The tip-up reels are spooled with 50-pound-test braided line and a 3-foot monofilament leader with a No. 1 to 5/0 hook tied to the end (hook size varies according to the size of the bait and the species being targeted). A small split-shot sinker is sometimes attached several inches above the hook to keep the bait at the desired depth. The shiners, meanwhile, are lightly hooked just ahead of the dorsal fin and above the spine, so as not to impede their swimming ability.
While Tawczynski sometimes fishes small jigs tipped with waxworms for species such as perch, sunfish and bass when the fish are biting well, the live-bait approach is best for inexperienced anglers and on days when the fish are sluggish—which is much of the time. Winter fish do not have to feed to increase their size, energy and muscle mass for breeding and competing with rivals or evading predators. Rather, they are simply trying to get through the winter, and therefore feed less frequently and aggressively than during the warmer months. They still have to eat, however, which is why ice fishing remains productive.
Where to Fish
But where to set your lines on the frozen expanse of a big lake? Tawczynski explains that much depends on the species he’s targeting, but that he usually looks for drop-offs, weed beds, rocks, tree stumps and areas of current flow, such as near the outlet or inlet of a lake or pond. (Again, be wary of current areas, which freeze more slowly than still water.)
All of these places tend to attract baitfish, which in turn draw predators. Naturally, a good topographic map showing the lake’s bottom contours can be invaluable. On my outing with Tawczynski, our lines were set in 5’ to 20’ of water and staggered to cover different depths in the hopes of intercepting the fish as they cruised for a meal.
Laurel Lake is noteworthy for containing stocked Atlantic salmon, which can weigh 10 pounds or more. They tend to cruise just below the ice, and are often spooked by the movements of fishermen above. Catching one is a real challenge. More common are the pickerel, trout, bass, crappie, sunfish and perch that inhabit most of the lakes and ponds in western Massachusetts.
For scouting certain areas, Tawczynski uses a portable Vexilar FL-20 Fish Scout DTD sonar and underwater video camera, which allows him to find bait concentrations, productive bottom structure and even see the fish themselves. Although some might view this as cheating, it’s one thing to see the fish you want to catch and quite another convincing them to eat your bait.
Ice-fishing action is affected by the weather. As during summer, high pressure tends to get the fish feeding more aggressively, and some days Tawczynski can barely keep the lines baited before a tip-up springs. His website shows photos from these epic days, the ice covered with an assortment of species, which he and his dad will fillet for the lucky party back at their tackle shop. On the other hand, low or falling pressure can make for slow days.
Ice fishing, like any type of fishing, requires patience—both in terms of waiting for a bite and when bringing the fish to the surface. When you hook up, it’s important to bring in the line slowly and gently, being careful not to jerk it or give too much slack, which might allow the fish to throw the hook. Do it right and you’ll be rewarded with dinner, and a new outdoor challenge!
To arrange an ice-fishing trip with Capt. Paul Tawczynski, contact Charter the Berkshires by CLICKING HERE or calling (413-429-5366). Tawczynski offers private charters, corporate retreats, kids outings and more. He’s a real pro, and will also clean and fillet your catch.