For some at Pennsylvania tournament, call of ice fishing is irresistible
JAMESTOWN, Pa. — Anyone who likes to go fishing has one of those days from time to time, and a recent Saturday was one of those days.
After nearly seven hours on the frozen surface of Pymatuning Reservoir, Jim Diehl of Curtisville didn’t mince his words.
“No fish – no fish at all,” he said as he hauled his equipment off the lake.
When those days come in April of July, it’s one thing. When they come during ice fishing season, they can be demoralizing.
But the lack of fish interested in being hooked and the not-so-gentle breeze whipping through nearly a dozen shanties spread across the southern end of the reservoir weren’t enough to sour the ice fishers who joined Diehl for the Pymatuning Ice Fishing Tournament.
“It’s a fun sport, a good family sport,” Matt Weaver told a crowd of 25 people who had gathered about 100 feet out onto the Pymatuning’s windswept surface for Weaver’s 30-minute demonstration.
Ice fishing isn’t for everyone, Weaver admitted, but for many the call of the ice is irresistible. As he explained to the crowd, ice fishing offers a number of advantages. It can be quite affordable. It can also be relatively easy. When the wind is light, ice fishing is extremely social – more so than the summertime version that requires boats for those who want to get out on the lake as well as quiet from those above water. And, of course, for anyone interested in fishing this time of year, it’s the only game in town.
For those just looking to give the sport a try, Weaver told his audience, the fishing license is likely to be one of the most expensive investments at $22.90 for an adult this year. Used equipment is easy to find in the spring, when people are looking to clear out space in their garages, he said.
The bare-bones approach Weaver suggested for beginners, however, is likely to be a cold one. And even if you opt to go without a shanty, the small huts that can be easily assembled like tents to keep fishers out of the wind and at least partially protected from the cold, you’ll still need something to get you through the ice – hammers are not recommended.
Weaver said a hand-powered 4-inch auger can get you through the ice in 20 seconds, maybe less. With a group of five, however, and everyone fishing five 6-inch holes, a gas-powered auger starts to look more appealing, and costs start to rise. Similarly, after a windy day on the ice, the fancy shanties that can run as much as $1,000 might start to look less ridiculous as well.
After his demonstration, Weaver made his way out farther onto the ice where the shanties of a half-down tournament competitors were flapping in the wind. Much more than the temperatures hovering around 20 degrees, the wind had sapped the event of its typical sociability.
Lisa and Dave Wilson were snugly ensconced in the first shanty he approached, warmed by a propane heater and cups of chili provided to tournament contestants.
“What’s the secret to getting these fish to bite? They’re not biting at all,” Lisa wanted to know as soon as Weaver approached. The Wilsons’ fishfinder was showing fish near the bottom of the 22 to 24 feet of water beneath them, but after five hours, none had taken the bait.
“We’re down about 15 to 20 feet,” she said. “Some of them we have on the very, very bottom, and some of them we have up about 5 feet.”
The same story was told at each of the shanties nearest them. It was enough to make one wonder if the secret to ice fishing was just a matter of luck or if there is some kind of skill involved.
“Honey, do you think there’s skill involved in ice fishing? I think it’s luck,” Lisa said to her husband.
“Skill! Skill!” Dave replied. “Always skill!”
Still, Lisa said, ice fishing presents some difficulties that never come up in fair-weather fishing. For one thing, the line can’t be moved about to fight or maneuver a resistant catch.
“If they get stuck under the ice, you’re going to break your line, so you have to bring them up nose first,” Lisa explained. “You wait till they tire out a little bit. You have to wait until the fish swims under you – a little bit more challenging.”
“It’s no different than regular fishing,” Weaver added. “That’s why they call it fishing, not catching.”
Another challenge ice fishing brings, Weaver said, results from inherent danger of being on the icy surface. As he stressed to the crowd at his demonstration, safety precautions are as important for ice fishing as for traditional fishing.
In addition to the winter attire that the tournament competitors all wore, orange cylinder cylinders hung from their necks. The cylinders pulled apart to reveal small spikes – ice awls, to be used to provide handholds if an unexpected crack sent anyone plummeting into the frosty depths.
The clear, 6- to 9-inch-thick ice at Pymatuning wasn’t likely break anytime soon, despite the occasional cracking sounds that could be heard and felt, according to Weaver.
“Noise is good. Everybody panics when they hear it, but noise is good when it’s cold,” he said, explaining that the cracking resulted from the growth and expansion of the ice.
But the possibility of breakage is a real one, he went on.
“I’ve gone where I had to walk across the 10-foot plank of open water to get onto the ice,” he said, “but some of the best fishing days have been those days.”
It was definitely not one of those days at the next shanty over, where Diehl and Bob Felitsky, both of them retired boilermakers, had not yet given up on the pastime they’ve pursued since their teenage years. Diehl sat beside Felitsky, of Conneaut Lake, in front of their shanty, just two 6-inch holes instead in front of them instead of the usual widespread assortment. The steady breeze, they said, was taking its toll.
And so was the lack of piscine interest in the bait they kept tossing in. It was well after lunch and the two men hadn’t had so much as a nibble since dawn.
“Still enjoying ourselves,” Felitsky said.
The lure of fresh fish kept them at it.
“They are good eating through the ice – very, very good eating. The water’s nice and cold, no runoff coming in, no mud, nothing like that, so the fish really get cleaned out in the winter,” Diehl said. “They’re sweeter, it seems.”
Perhaps the long wait added to the allure, as well.
“After being here since 7 o’clock this morning, we’d take anything, you know what I mean?” Diehl said. “Just for the thrill.”