Photo by Ron Sinfelt
One of the more underrated perks of the outdoor writing business is that we’re required to complete magazine articles several months in advance of publication dates so that staff artists, advertising sales persons, editors and others can meet their production schedules. I consider it a perk, anyway, because it encourages me to think about warm weather when the sleet is rattling the windows and imagine winter snow and cold when the humidity has my T-shirt clinging like a second skin.
It so happens that this article was written when upstate New York was sweltering through one of its hottest summers ever, yet I had no problem remembering what last winter was like and anticipating even better ice-fishing opportunities during the 2005-06 season.
Given the right weather — downright nasty in the eyes of the average New Yorker — the Empire State boasts hundreds of productive hard-water fisheries ranging from glorified farm ponds to wide, windswept lakes. It’s not easy to pick the best of those destinations for those who want to go fishing this month, but the 10 that follow almost always have safe ice soon after New Year’s Day and are strong candidates for any hole-driller’s little black book.
On an acre-for-acre basis, little Silver Lake in Wyoming County is every bit as good a walleye fishery as western New York’s Lake Erie and Chautauqua Lake. Too bad half of Buffalo knows about it!
That’s an exaggeration, but the lake really is more popular than a high school cheerleading captain, and it’s not uncommon to find 100 or so anglers watching tip-ups on its 760-acre surface on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in January. Most of those folks are working on a panfish dinner, but quite a few are prospecting for walleyes in the 3- to 6-pound range.
Silver Lake is west of Letchworth State Park, where the Genesee River winds through the famed “Grand Canyon of the East,” and I suspect many fishermen over the years stumble onto it while coming or going on a park vacation. You can find it on the map by tracing Route 20A east from the Buffalo suburb of Orchard Park through Warsaw and then to the hamlet of Perry Center. Silver Lake Road veers south from there. When you make the trip, you’ll see a right turn onto West Lake Road. That leads to Silver Lake State Park, which offers convenient access to the ice and happens to be adjacent to one of the better ice-fishing spots on the lake.
Along with walleyes, Silver Lake is home to numerous northern pike, including some double-digit dandies, yellow perch that frequently measure between 9 and 11 inches and numerous hand-sized bluegills and pumpkinseeds.
You can get a contour map of Silver Lake from the Region 9 Department of Environmental Conservation office in Allegany at (716) 372-0645. The Wyoming County Tourism Promotion folks at (800) 642-4443 can provide a list of area accommodations.
A gem of a largemouth hole during the summer months, Honeoye Lake is a consistent producer of good-sized bluegills, black crappies and yellow perch over the winter. It also holds abundant walleyes in the 2- to 5-pound class.
Honeoye Lake is about 30 miles south of Rochester in southwestern Ontario County. To get to it, take U.S. Route 20 to the intersection of Route 20A about five miles west of Canandaigua. Follow 20A south to the village of Honeoye, which is at the north end of the lake.
Access is easiest at the state boat launch on East Lake Road near the southern tip of the 1,772-acre lake. Anglers may also walk in near the north end, at Honeoye Park, which is also off East Lake Road.
Although a snowmobile or 4-wheeler can be efficient for getting around here (as they would be on most medium- to large-sized lakes), they’re not really needed because Honeoye has a relatively bowl-shaped profile with a maximum depth of only 31 feet and fish may be found just about everywhere.
The DEC’s Region 8 office in Avon at (585) 226-2466 has a free contour map of Honeoye Lake as well as a booklet about ice-fishing in the western Finger Lakes region. Accommodations are readily available in and near Canandaigua. The Finger Lakes Association office at (800) 530-7488 is a good place to start.
Last winter saw many large (8- to 12-pound) pike pulled through the ice at the south end of Owasco Lake, and when the northerns weren’t hitting, yellow perch were. The shallow, weedy southern part of the lake freezes over earlier and stays that way longer than other parts of Owasco, so it gets the most attention from anglers.
That’s not to say the rest of the lake isn’t worth exploring. When the ice is solid, lake trout fishing can be quite good along the west shore near Ensinore, and walleye fishing is fair near the north end off Burtis and Martin points.
As a rule, pike average about 4 pounds but run up into the low teens at the south end of the lake off the hamlet of Cascade. Lakers typically go between 3 and 8 pounds, and walleyes usually measure 18 to 24 inches in Owasco.
Anglers coming any distance to fish the lake should be aware that, owing to its depth (a mean of 97 feet and a maximum of 180 feet), it freezes slower than some bodies of water in the central part of the state. Assuming a couple of weeks of sub-freezing temperatures in December, Owasco’s north and south ends should be safely solid by the second week of January, but anglers should plan ahead by dialing the DEC’s Region 7 office in Cortland at (607) 753-3095.
For lodging information, contact either the Cayuga County Tourism office (Skaneateles Lake is shared by Onondaga, Cortland and Cayuga counties), or try the aforementioned Finger Lakes Association.
The DEC’s Region 7 fisheries crew also keeps a close eye on Otisco Lake, which is southeast of Skaneateles via U.S. Route 20 and state Route 174. In late January or early February, the lake is the site of a multi-species derby conducted by the Otisco Lake Rod and Gun Club. Most years, the biggest overall fish is a tiger muskellunge. That comes as no surprise, for norlunge (a cross between northern pike and purebred muskies) have the devil-may-care dining habits of the former and the fast growth rate of the latter, among other attributes.
Last winter, Otisco’s ice waxed and waned in midwinter because of a mild spell, yet some nice tiger muskies were caught at the
narrows, the pinched-together peninsulas about one-half mile from the dam. A nice ‘lunge in Otisco is one that exceeds the 30-inch minimum species for the lake, but local fishermen pull 10- to 15-pounders through the ice, too.
Access to Otisco may be had during the winter at the dam off Route 174 at the north end of the lake or near the Otisco Lake Marina on Otisco Valley Road. Once on the ice, be extremely wary of the deepest sections in the lake, including the depths off Lader’s Point, as those spots can be deceptively slushy.
The Finger Lakes Association, listed above, can help readers find accommodations on or near Otisco Lake. For a basic map of the lake, contact the DEC’s Region 7 fisheries unit at (607) 753-3095.
Many people would unhesitatingly declare Oneida Lake the queen of all New York ice-fishing waters, although, in truth, it has not fished up to its reputation in the last few seasons. I include it in this list because Oneida’s famous walleye population is on the upswing, so much so that Dan Bishop, the DEC’s Region 7 fisheries manager, lifted the 18-inch minimum creel length for walleyes in the lake and opted for a 15-inch minimum instead. The longer keeper size had been in force since 2000, reflecting the local community’s concern that Oneida’s walleye population was languishing near its historic low. It’s likely that the fishery benefited not just from the lower limit, but also from an ongoing program to keep migrating cormorants from lingering on the lake. Another invigorating development was the bumper crop of walleye fry produced in the lake in 2003, with a big assist from the state hatchery on Oneida’s north shore.
This combination of factors made Bishop feel comfortable in reinstating the traditional 15-inch minimum keeper size while retaining a three-fish creel limit.
Going into this winter, Oneida’s 51,000 surface acres contain an estimated 400,000 adult walleyes, along with more than one million yellow perch big enough to fillet and untold swarms of bluegills, pumpkinseed sunfish, white perch and black crappies. While local anglers have to jig on the bottom in 30 to 40 feet of water to consistently hook walleyes and perch over the winter, sunnies and such will wallop ice flies tipped with mousies or other grubs in every shallow cove around the lake, starting with Big Bay on the west end and going all the way South Bay in the southeast corner.
Oneida is due north of Syracuse via Interstate 81, and the state boat launches at Toad Harbor and Godfrey Point on the north shore and between Bridgeport and Lakeport on the south shore are just three among dozens of access points.
The DEC’s Region 7 weekly fishing hotline at (607) 753-1551 almost always contains an update on Oneida action. Readers can get tips on local accommodations from the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce at (315) 470-1800.
Given the right weather — downright nasty in the eyes of the average New Yorker — the Empire State boasts hundreds of productive hardwater fisheries ranging from glorified farm ponds to wide, windswept lakes.
By far the smallest fishing hole covered here, 173-acre Sixtown Pond, is in the town of Henderson in Jefferson County. Despite its size, it gets fairly heavy fishing pressure for two reasons. It holds plenty of pike, including some big ones, and its quarter-mile-long entry road is kept plowed by town highway crews.
Anglers will find the 20-foot-deep pond by taking Route 178 west for about six miles from the Adams exit on Interstate 81.
Sixtown pike are mostly 2- to 4-pounders, but Frank Flack, the DEC’s Region 6 fisheries manager, said some 10-pound specimens are always present. Anglers may also hope for walleyes in the 18- to 23-inch range and many small yellow perch. Despite constant pruning by pike and walleyes, the schools of perch in the pond consist mainly of 6-inch fish, Flack said.
Flack’s office at (315) 785-2261 can supply inquiring anglers with a map of Sixtown Pond. The 1,000 Islands Chamber of Commerce at (800) 252-9806 is the best source for tips on lodging and other accommodations.
Pick any bay along the upper St. Lawrence River, known as the Thousand Islands region, and you’ll have chosen a hotspot for winter angling.
My first choice? Lake of the Isles, on Wellesley Island, which is under the bridge connecting Canada and Alexandria Bay. A jagged, knife-shaped slice in the east shore of the island, Lake of the Isles is generally 10 feet deep or less and full of better than average-sized bluegills and yellow perch. It also has a decent wintering population of northern pike.
Pike fishing is better, however, on Eel Bay on the opposite side of Wellesley Island. Both Eel Bay and Lake of the Isles may be accessed from the state park on the island and, conveniently, both are on the American side of the river.
The best place to check on ice conditions and winter fishing trends on the upper river is the 1,000 Islands Bait Shop off the Alexandria Bay exit of Interstate Route 81. It gets heavy traffic from anglers coming and going and is operated by folks who love to ice-fish.
Once one of New York’s most famous brook trout fisheries, Cranberry Lake in St. Lawrence County lost its pretty “natives” after World War II. An infestation of yellow perch was to blame, as the prolific newcomers gobbled up juvenile and out-competed the larger brookies for their share of a limited food supply. For decades, smallmouth bass were the only game fish of note in the lake.
In recent years, bronzebacks have retained their overall dominance, but brook trout have made a significant comeback, thanks to a deliberate state stocking program.
Unfortunately, the resurgence of the native species is threatened once more by another introduced species, i.e., northern pike of gargantuan proportions that live in the lake now.
“Like perch, northerns were put in Cranberry Lake without our approval,” said the DEC’s Flack. “They don’t appear to be numerous yet, but they are very big. We’re pretty sure there may be some 30-pounders in there.”
Flack wouldn’t mind if ice-fishermen removed all of those monsters. Cranberry Lake was opened to hardwater angling a couple of winters ago to encourage just such a development. Besides pike, the lake harbors countless small- to medium-sized perch and sunfish, and lucky anglers might even catch a brookie or two through the ice.
The St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce at (315) 386-4000 can steer anglers to accommodations near Cranberry Lake, which is on Route 3, the main east-west road through the county.
If Tupper Lake and adjacent waters don’t offer the best winter pike fishing in the state, D
EC Region 5 fisheries biologist Rich Preall would like to set his tip-ups in the superior location. His netting crew had no trouble collecting more than 200 northerns, including a 15-pounder, during a recent survey.
Along with its abundant pike, Tupper Lake sustains vast numbers of lake trout averaging 18 inches and some walleyes of astonishing size.
“The walleyes are difficult to catch, probably because they are so well fed on smelt and other forage fish, but we’ve netted them up to 14 pounds, and I feel Tupper Lake is capable of producing the next state-record walleye,” Preall said.
The state boat launch on Route 30, which separates the 3,800-acre Tupper Lake from the pike-rich Simond Pond, affords excellent access for ice- fishermen.
Preall’s office at (518) 897-1200 can supply readers with a contour map of Tupper Lake, while the Franklin County Tourism office at (518) 483-6788 can provide a list of lodgings.
Anglers from Syracuse drive four hours one way to Lake Champlain each winter to enjoy a long weekend of fabulous fishing for perch and bluegills. Many other anglers swear by the “Great Inland Sea” — which covers 290,000 acres — as a steady producer of walleyes and lake trout.
Lakers are perhaps the most dependable target for visiting anglers. Averaging about 4 pounds, Champlain’s togue feed heavily on smelt. Consequently, the best way to catch them through the ice is to use live smelt for bait. Locals on the lake catch their own bait using small teardrop jigs. They then bait tip-ups with the fresh meat, from 5 to 25 feet below the ice, and keep moving and changing depths until they hit a school of lakers. Landlocked salmon of 3 to 6 pounds often share space with Champlain lakers and are even fonder of smelt.
Arguably, Champlain’s best trout and salmon action is in its mid-section. Public piers and boat launches in the villages of Port Henry, Westport and Port Kent afford ready access to productive ice.
Preall rates the water off Port Henry as having the best smelt concentrations in the lake and is therefore one of its better ice-fishing spots.
The Plattsburgh Chamber of Commerce at (518) 563-1000 is a starting point for planning an extended visit to Lake Champlain.