Photo by Len Emery
Brian Hall of North Springfield checks one of his tip-up ice fishing traps at the cove in Springfield along the Black River.
A good start to winter not only has skiers and snowmobilers happy, but many of the state’s frozen lakes and ponds are crowded with people enjoying the start of the ice fishing season.
An early cold spell and seasonably cool temperatures have helped launch the 2013-14 ice fishing season this year.
That has anglers and the businesses that cater to them, such as the Fly Rod Shop in Stowe and Fish Hounds Outdoors in Benson, appreciating an early start.
The thickness of the ice varies. But higher elevations generally have safe ice thickness and many bays and setbacks on bigger bodies of water like Lake Champlain have good ice.
James Vladyka of Fish Hounds Outdoors, a guide service that takes ice anglers all over the state, said the early ice has been a boon to business, but safety is key in the early season.
“The minimum ice you should be on to be safe is about 4 inches,” Vladyka said. “I don’t trust anybody. When it’s new ice, I have my spud bar with me all the time and if I move 100 yards, I’m checking the whole way. It’s a good idea to get some info off the Internet, but you always want to make sure you’re safe. I would always recommend taking a spud bar.”
A spud bar is a long, heavy bar used to test ice thickness.
“You should be able to hit the ice as hard as you can and not break through,” Vladyka said. “Three hits with a spud bar and you are good.”
Other safety devices that should accompany any early-season ice angler include a flotation suit or personal flotation device, a throw rope, whistle and ice picks.
The key thing during the early season is to go with someone who can help you, or summon help if you go through the ice.
And the ice is early.
Vladyka said he was on the ice Nov. 28 in some Lake Champlain bays.
“Nov. 28 is the earliest I can remember in quite a while,” he said. “The combination between the cold weather coming early and the lake being so low contributed to the lake freezing up so good, so early. We ended up getting 2 to 3 inches of ice in that cold snap (in late November) and the setbacks (along the shoreline) continued to freeze up before we got any snow.”
Vladyka said the average time to start looking for ice in Vermont is about the middle of December.
“That’s not everywhere,” he said. “That’s those bays, those ponds at higher elevations. That’s where you can typically find a place to fish here in Vermont.”
At the Fly Rod Shop in Stowe, guide Parker Wright said they got an earlier start as well.
“We did a few trips before Christmas,” Wright said. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before for us. It’s great because every year we have people coming in wanting to do trips and we have to say ‘no’ because the ice isn’t thick enough. It was nice this year to be able to do some of those trips.”
Wright said the standard of 4 inches is what is considered safe, but when guiding a client he said his shop likes to see 6 inches of ice.
“It’s nice that we can get out this early,” Wright said. “All the ice we guide on has 10 inches to a foot of ice.”
Lake Champlain has as much as 8 inches in places at the southern end and as much as 10 inches or more up in the islands.
Setbacks along the Connecticut River are good spots, but Vladyka warned to never fish the main channel on the ice. Most high-elevation lakes and ponds are safe, but one should always follow safety precautions.
While Champlain draws a lot of anglers to the ice, people will fish any body of water with ice and pick up fish ranging from palm-sized yellow perch to pike as long as your leg with trout, bass, crappie and others in between.
And while in many years anglers would just now be getting out on the ice, with this year’s early start there’s more money to be made as fishermen and women start looking for bait, tackle and other needs.
“For me it means more money,” Vladyka said. “The early season is great because for a lot of bait shops, that’s an extra amount of bait they’re going to sell. This is a whole month extra of selling bait and selling tackle.”
Rob Steele at Tom’s Bait & Tackle in Castleton said the season was getting an early start.
“I don’t think we’ve seen it this early in the past, at least, 10 years,” Steele said. “We’re definitely a couple of weeks early.”
Steele said this year on Christmas Day he was fishing on the ice in a spot that last year was open water.
Lake Bomoseen has 4 to 6 inches of ice at the southern end and 7 to 8 inches north of the float bridge, with about 4 inches in most of the main lake, Steele said.
While the die-hards and eager ice anglers are already hitting the ice, more will take to the hard water in the next month or two.
Many ice derbies, such as the Lake Bomoseen Fishing Derby on Feb. 15, are held throughout the state and add a measure of fun and competition to an otherwise cold — and often solitary — pursuit.
Vladyka’s Vermont Sportsman Hardwater Tournament Series features four competitions on Lake Champlain starting Jan. 11 and continuing through March 1. Anglers can win an individual tournament and accumulate points toward the series title, with about $1,000 on the line for the winner.
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