Photo by Rod Cochran.
After last year’s balmy weather kept anglers on shore for most of the winter, fishermen across New York have their fingers crossed that this season will provide enough safe ice.
Climate changes seem to be shortening the ice-fishing season, or at least there’s been a trend in that direction, according to Albert Daher, who has nearly 50 years of experience on Oneida Lake.
“Ice-fishing’s been spotty for the last five years, and we certainly haven’t been seeing the ice we had 10 or 15 years ago,” he claims. “In the mid-70s, anglers were putting extensions on their augers to punch through three feet of ice.”
For most of us, that may be too much of a good thing. But Empire State winter anglers plan on setting up for a spectacular variety of ice-fishing opportunities unmatched anywhere else in the country.
Recent regulations controlling the use of minnows, aimed at stemming the spread of VHS — a virus deadly to fish, but harmless to humans — have been widely disseminated and accepted by fishermen, according to Daher, proprietor of Mickey’s Bait and Tackle in North Syracuse.
“Emerald shiners, also called buckeye minnows, along with golden shiners and other species are inspected for the disease before they reach retail bait shops,” he explained.
“Customers buying minnows receive live-minnow purchase receipts‚ which are valid for seven days and must be carried while fishing and transporting the minnows.”
Despite a seemingly unlimited number of ice-fishing locations in New York, here is a sampling of 10 top hotspots to get you started this winter:
Often called the sixth Great Lake, Champlain is popular with ice-fishermen because it contains both coldwater and warmwater species. Most anglers target walleyes, smelts, perch, pike, landlocked salmon and lake trout, they also take rainbow and brown trout, pickerel, muskellunge, crappies and other panfish.
Although smelts occur in many lakes in New York, Champlain is the only location attracting sizable numbers of fishermen who wait, usually in the comfort of shanties, for the nearly imperceptible twitch that indicates a hit from what most people might call bait fish. But smelts travel in large schools, there is no daily limit on Champlain and deep-fried smelts are a midwinter treat!
Lake trout and the other salmonids frequently lurk under the schools of smelts and other baitfish, while walleyes and perch are usually associated with the lake’s hard bottom humps and shoals. The shallow bays and weedlines near shore produce pike, pickerel and panfish.
A reciprocal agreement with Vermont permits New York-licensed anglers to fish the main and south portions of the lake, except for the Inland Sea, Malletts Bay and Missisquoi Bay in Vermont. Ice-fishermen may use two hand lines and 15 tip-ups. There is no size or daily limit on smelts, perch and sunfish, except for Cumberland Bay, where the limit is 50 perch and 50 sunfish.
Additional special border water regulations are in effect, so check the rulebook before wetting a line.
Lake Champlain is easily accessible from Interstate Route 87 and other routes such as 9N and 22. From there, the ice may be reached from parks and marinas. Public boat launches with parking lots are at Willsboro Bay on county Route 27, three miles north of Willsboro; at Westport on Route 22 in the village of Westport; at Ticonderoga on Route 74 at the ferry; at Port Henry off Route 9N in the village of Port Henry; at Port Douglas on county Route 16, three miles southeast of Keesville; and at Crown Point on Bridge Road off Route 9N, nine miles north of the Hamlet of Crown Point.
Ice-fishermen at Saratoga Lake can count on a mixed bag, with plenty of weedy shallows harboring pike, bluegills and crappies, with walleyes and perch usually hanging at intermediate depths or near the bottom.
Jigging brightly colored dots enhanced with mousies or mealworms along the weedlines at Mannings Cove and Browns Beach is the recommended tactic for icing panfish. Spoons and live shiners will entice pike and pickerel in these areas.
The lake lies south of Saratoga Springs, with Route 9P tracing the east and south shores, and with several local roads reaching the western shoreline. Best access for ice-fishermen is the boat launch at the north end where Route 9P crosses Fish Creek.
One of the Fulton chain of lakes in Herkimer County, Fourth Lake provides North Country anglers with an excellent opportunity for midwinter trout and landlocked salmon, along with a bonus of yellow perch.
Set up for trout and salmon over sandbars 10 to 15 feet deep with scattered weeds nearby, such as the area off the east tip of Alger Island.
Because landlocks and rainbow trout may cruise at any depth, and lake trout hang near the bottom where bars shelves off into deeper water, it’s best to cover an extended area with tip-ups baited with live minnows –five are permitted — while jigging lures through the ice.
It’s always a good sign when you start catching perch. This means you can get ready for a trout or salmon!
Fourth Lake is north of Old Forge, with state Route 28 running along the northwestern shore. A public launch provides access in the village of Inlet, at the north end.
ST. LAWRENCE RIVER
Lake of the Isles on Wellesley Island is a large embayment of the St. Lawrence River. But in the minds of fishermen, it’s a separate and special place, one of the most popular ice-fishing locales in the state. Shallow, weed-filled and with almost no current, the “lake” provides plenty of habitat for bluegills, sunfish and crappies.
Most anglers jig dots and other small ice lures baited with mousies, mealworms or goldenrod grubs, although some will use small minnows under tiny bobbers.
Expect plenty of company on the ice, especially on weekends — often you’ll be able to skim the overnight ice off someone else’s holes without have to drill new ones.
Lake of the Isles is reached from I-81. Cross the Thousand Islands Bridge to Wellesley, and then take Exit 52 and Island Road to De Wolf Point State Park.
Setting tip-ups baited with shiners for pike along the weedlines in bays is still a midwinter tradition throughout the Thousand Islands region, although catches have diminished in recent years. Clayton is considered the center of pike fishing these days, but off routes 12E and 12, there are a number of other opportunities including Burnam Point, Cedar Point, Grass Point and Keewaydin state parks.
The many bays and backwaters, some of them inland lakes, along Lake Ontario’s shore offer a world of ice-fishing opportunities.
These are some of the more productive hotspots:
The Golden Triangle is a local name sometimes given to a complex of bays at the mouth of the Black River including Chaumont Bay, Guffin Bay and Henderson Bay.
With relatively shallow water surrounded by peninsulas and points and many islands and shoals, the ice-fishing targets here are pike, perch and panfish. Jigging is the most popular technique, although tip-ups are frequently utilized for pike.
This region lies west of Watertown, with routes 3 and 12 leading to the shoreline. Westcott Beach State Park provides access to Henderson Bay, and Chaumont and Guffin bays are reached from Long Point State Park on Point Peninsula. Take North Shore Road from Route 12E across the isthmus to State Park Road.
Sandy Pond, also called North Pond, is a large, shallow bay at the east end of Lake Ontario in Oswego County. Ice-fishermen usually target pike and perch here, although good populations of bluegills and sunfish and crappies are also present.
Sandy Pond lies north of Pulaski. Take I-81, Exit 36, to Route 13 and proceed westerly through the village to Route 3. Then turn north for about five miles to the intersection of county Route 15. Turn west to reach a small commercial center where most anglers begin fishing.
There are no public access sites here, although marinas that are closed for the season, restaurants and the like usually allow parking.
Sodus Bay is the center of ice-fishing activity on the south shore of Lake Ontario, a favorite destination for Rochester-area fishermen. Conditions here are varied, from plenty of weed-filled shallows leading to deeper water with gentle dropoffs and structure along the west side of Eagle and Newark islands.
Fishing off points extending out from shore is recommended for pike, perch and panfish.
Sodus Bay is reached by routes 14 and 414 leading north from state Route 104. Access to the ice is usually not a problem, especially at Sodus Point, although there are no official public-access sites.
Some anglers use the Route 143 bridge at the south end of the bay — where, incidentally, a bait shop can provide information on current fishing conditions.
Oneida Lake is the ultimate year-round sport fishery in New York, where the numbers of fishermen on the ice during winter weekends equal the openings in spring of the walleye and bass seasons.
They fish essentially the same areas including shoals, bars and dropoffs. Walleyes are the prime target for hardwater anglers, and according to researchers, the population is back up to average numbers.
The large Shackleton Shoals in the middle of the lake is the most noted walleye-perch hotspot. A cluster of shoals off Constantia, including Pancake, Grassy and Dakin, are also popular fish magnets, along with Messenger Shoal in the east end. Perch and panfish are also taken in good numbers on Oneida.
The most successful walleye fishermen use the new non-stretch, ultra-thin lines. At 6-pound-test, the line diameter is threadlike. At the end, they use two feet of 4- or 6-pound-test fluorocarbon leader, and a jigging spoon with half a minnow.
Oneida Lake lies north of Syracuse. I-81 crosses the west end. Take exits 30, 31 or 32 to routes 31, 13 and 49 which surround the lake. Excellent access is provided at Three Mile Bay off Route 49, five miles south of Central Square; at Toad Harbor off Shaw Drive in the town of West Monroe; and at Godfrey Point adjacent to Route 49, one mile east of Cleveland.
Sometimes called the largest Finger Lake, Cayuga is more than 400 feet deep and never freezes over. That is, except for about four miles of the north end, where the water is less than 15 feet deep, with enough weeds and construction debris to create ideal perch-panfish habitat.
Fishermen set up over a boating channel that is maintained at 10 to 12 feet through the center of these shallows. Perch schools are reported to hang more toward the middle of the channel, with big bluegills and other panfish associated with the weedy edges.
To reach Cayuga Lake from the Thruway, take Exit 41 and proceed south on Route 414 to routes 5 and 20. Continue east about five miles to Route 89, which runs along the west side of the lake. About a mile south on Route 89, turn onto Lower Lake Road to reach Cayuga Lake State Park for ice-fishing access.
The shallowest of the Finger Lakes, Honeoye is saucer shaped with extensive weedbeds and little bottom structure. Walleyes, perch, bluegills and pickerel thrive in the warm water environment, and recent management efforts have been aimed at improving the walleye fishery — the minimum length is 15 inches, and the daily limit is three fish.
Often called the sixth Great Lake, Champlain is popular with ice-fishermen because it contains both coldwater
and warmwater species.
Best chances for walleyes and perch are along the weedlines at 15- to 20-foot depths toward the middle of the lake. Honeoye is also noted for its hand-sized bluegills and other panfish, usually taken with dots and small jigs tipped with mousies or perch eyes.
Honeoye is about five miles long and lies in western Ontario County. A launch site provides access off East Lake Road four miles south of the hamlet of Honeoye Park. Route 36 runs along the west shore.
Chautauqua Lake is a famous ice-fishing destination in western New York, and that popularity places it on every hotspot list. Walleyes attract most ice-fishermen to the northern basin, due to its deeper water and more diverse habitat.
Anglers usually set up over a rock or gravel bottom at depths ranging from 20 to 50 feet. The area off Prendergast Point is a good example.
Other recommended areas include Long Point, Chautauqua Institution and Mission Meadows.
Chautauqua also offers excellent perch and crappie fishing at Bemus Bay, Dewittville Bay and Irwins Bay in the northern basin, and at Ashville Bay in the southern basin.
Chautauqua Lake lies between Jamestown and Mayville in southwestern New York. Route 17 crosses the lake, which is eight miles from I-90, Exit 60, at Westfield.
Two access sites are available at Bemus Point, including Long Point State Park on Route 430, one mile west of the village, and at Lake Chautauqua State Park on Route 430 between Bemus Point and Maple Springs.
Prendergast Point is a popular west-shore access site off Route 394 behind the fish hatchery. The Mayville Village Park also provides access for winter anglers.
For excellent perch fishing, with an occasional run of lunker walleyes, many Buffalo-area ice-fishermen head for Lake Erie at Sturgeon Point, where there is good public access.
While the fishing off Sturgeon Point can be productive, it is often two to three miles to the 50-foot depths of the “perch grounds,” which means that a snowmobile or 4-wheeler is a necessity.
Perch schools often hold along the same ledges and dropoffs as in the spring and fall, according to local experts, who recommend fishing northwest of Sturgeon Point toward the Evans-Angola Bar.
Ice conditions can be treacherous due to Niagara River currents. The ever-present west wind often breaks and moves large chunks of ice. Caution is extremely important here.
Chautauqua Lake is a better choice if there are any doubts about ice conditions.
Sturgeon Point lies at the end of Sturgeon Point Road off Route 5.
More information is available on the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s Web site at www.dec.ny.gov.
Also try the DEC’s regional offices in Stamford at (607) 652-7366, in Warrensburg at (518) 623-1200, in Watertown at (315) 785-2261, in Cortland at (607) 753-3095, in Avon at (585) 226-2466 and in Allegany at (716) 372-0645.