When my wife gave me a guided ice-fishing trip in the Berkshires for Christmas, I wasn’t sure what to think. Sure, I had expressed some curiosity about ice fishing—a form of angling about which I had almost no experience—but to banish one’s spouse to a frozen lake for the day? Really?
The guide service chosen for this particular “gift” was Charter the Berkshires, run by Capt. Paul Tawczynski (an ice-fishing guide with a captain’s license is immensely reassuring). I did a little research and discovered that 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. Clearly this wasn’t some Bubba who squatted in an ice shanty swilling Allen’s coffee brandy all day.
On a cold and overcast mid-February day, I met Tawczynski and the 4 other members of our shared party at snow-covered Lake Laurel in Lee, an hour west of Springfield and roughly 2 hours from Boston. 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 fish until a week before the outing.
Once our group had assembled in the parking lot in front of the lake’s launch ramp, Tawczynski gave us the drill on how the 4-hour afternoon session would proceed. Since current Massachusetts law allows for 5 fishing lines per angler, he had pre-rigged 25 tip-ups over holes the ice, all baited with live shiners, which Tawczynski stores in a pair of buckets treated with a chemical that keeps the water from freezing.
What to Wear
Speaking of freezing, it’s critical to dress properly for ice fishing—at least if you want to enjoy yourself. Insulated waterproof boots for the often slushy lake surfaces and layered clothing are a must, and don’t forget ear protection and your best pair of gloves or mittens (most ice-fishing veterans favor snowmobile suits). If things get really bitter, however, Tawczynski’s clients can duck into his portable shelter, which is warmed by a propane heater.
The tip-ups Tawczynski fishes are pretty standard, and feature an orange flag that automatically pops up when a fish takes the bait. A set of jingle bells on the flag also alert the angler to a bite. The reels are spooled with 50-pound-test braided line and a 3′ monofilament leader with a No. 1 to 5/0 hook tied to the end (the size of the hook 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.
Live Baits Best
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 clients and on days when the fish are sluggish—which is much of the time. Winter fish do not eat 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.
But where to set the lines? Tawczynski explained 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. All of these places tend to attract baitfish, which in turn draw predators. On Laurel Lake, the 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 are an incredibly elusive species that 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.
Tiger on Ice
Like any type of fishing, 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 fish grabs the shiner. His website shows photos from these epic days, the ice covered with an assortment of fish, which he and his dad fillet for the lucky party back at their tackle shop. On the other hand, low or falling pressure can make for slow days, as was the case on our outing.
It turns out that ice fishing, like “soft-water” fishing, requires a similar amount of patience. After an hour and a half, one of the tip-up flags finally popped, and we all dashed over to the hole. Tawczynski carefully fingered the line then summoned 9-year-old Adrianna Marinello to do the honors. With coaching from Tawczynski, Adrianna gently brought in the line hand over hand, careful not to jerk it or give too much slack, which might allow the fish to throw the hook.
Much to everyone’s surprise—including our guide—the mystery fish turned out to be a rare and beautiful 14” tiger trout—a hybrid of a brook trout and a brown trout. Adrianna couldn’t have been more thrilled as we crowded around her to snap photos.
It turned out to be the most noteworthy catch of the day, although we also landed a chain pickerel and a yellow perch that hit just at sundown. I say “we” because an ice-fishing charter is a group effort, and everyone shares in the excitement of what might be on the line. It’s a lot of fun—not to mention a legitimate show of affection if you happen to get one as a gift.
If only I felt the same about the vacuum cleaner I received for my last birthday.
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 is a real pro, and will also clean and fillet your catch.