The eleven Finger Lakes, flanked by any number of adjacent smaller lakes, cover such an expanse across mid-state that all New York ice fishing anglers are within reach. Of course I hope by the time you are reading this our season is going better than the past two turned out to be in the eyes of hard-water fanatics.
One thing the past two winters have brought front and center is the importance of knowing ice conditions. Nothing ruins winter ice fishing faster than horrible accidents on unsafe ice. There is a free nationwide website all ice fishermen should be aware of: iceshanty.com. Here you can keep tabs on any New York hard-water large enough to elicit chatter. Besides ice conditions fishermen gab about how they fared, sometimes revealing baits and techniques, and they are always quick to share certain idiosyncrasies pertinent to individual lakes — parking, access, bait shops, overnight accommodations, restaurants, and whatnot. Conversations through personal messaging can sometimes advance all the way to meeting in person and sharing some ice. Using this site to help conduct research I wound up eager to begin exploring some of my own terrific findings.
OTISCO LAKE FOR TIGER MUSKIES
The farthest finger east, Otisco Lake near Syracuse is where to head if you feel up to challenging giant tiger muskies. Indeed, back in 2009 Otisco set the record for a tiger muskie caught on a tip-up when fisherman Tom Boise iced a mammoth weighing 27 pounds, 5 ounces. The stunning fish measured over 45 inches. Don't expect to shatter records while ice fishing, but do expect a realistic chance to wrestle a brute or two on any given day. The favored baits are shiners or suckers, the bigger the better. Concentrate on the north end of the lake. Use electronics to surmise where weed edges drop off to deeper water. Otisco tiger muskies are legal to keep, but with a pretty steep caveat: You are permitted one per day providing it is at least 36 inches. On good days, Otisco regulars report catching enviable numbers, but as you can imagine keepers are rare.
CANADICE LAKE: THE SMELT CHASE LIVES!
While it's no surprise fishermen would rush to battle enormous tiger muskies, it seems almost incredible that at the other end of the spectrum the fever is equally high on Canadice Lake, where fishermen excitedly yack it up about the smallest fish in the lake. Laugh, but count me in during ice fishing season. I know exactly what to do with 100 smelt. Truth be known, I cannot wait to camp over a lighted hole and spend half the night hoisting smelt hand over fist. With the more traditional pastime of dipping Finger Lakes smelt in springtime on the outs, this remedy leaves me chomping at the bit. Follow your nose to the public boat launch on the east side, set up shop for the night, and get deep-fried smelt back onto your menus. Tiny tungsten jigs tipped with any grub should do the trick. Access to Canadice (as well as neighboring Hemlock Lake) is by permit only. Permits are free — download one off the Hemlock and Canadice Lakes Watershed web site.
ONEIDA LAKE: THUMBS UP FOR WALLEYE
Oneida Lake, just 55 feet deep, is nonetheless the largest lake entirely bordered by New York State. Located slightly northeast of the main Fingers, Oneida is given honorary membership, sometimes dubbed "The Thumb," due to its east/west geographical posture in contrast to the north/south habits of the Finger Lakes. Mostly what you should know, though, is while some really good fishermen bemoan general walleye failings in most Finger Lakes, they enthusiastically promise Oneida offers better chances.
Electronics are a must — head to the Big Bay area to find conducive structure. Drop a 5/8-ounce Rapala jigging rap down and stop it 2 feet from bottom. Expect occasional lookers to ease up, but to seal the deal never be afraid to work your jig upward to entice a chase.
If for any reason the walleyes let you down, worry not; this lake is home to upward of 20 different species swimming in over 80 square miles along which ice fishermen enjoy access points galore. Something ought to bite somewhere.
ARE YOU UP TO SPEED ON BASS REGULATIONS?
Last February, although reluctantly relegated to my boat, I caught a daunting smallmouth bass from Keuka Lake. I wanted it mounted so kept I it, and you can't blame me for showing it off all over Facebook. The sudden barrage of incoming personal messages should find me bolting my doors anticipating the invasion of game authorities. The heat got so bad I finally posted regulations verifying my bass as a legal possession. Perhaps here is a good place to remind ice fishermen bass are legal until March 15 in these Finger Lakes: Keuka, Seneca, Canandaigua, Canadice, Hemlock, Conesus, and Honeoye.
On my home ice at Keuka, largemouth bass are a common target at the Penn Yan branch. Fishermen seek shallow weeds and set tip-downs armed with bass shiners. Now and then, too, a lucky perch fisherman might set hooks into one of the incredible smallmouth bass this lake is becoming famous for. Besides bass, the Penn Yan branch of Keuka continues to be an ice fishing hotspot for respectable bluegills and numerous pickerel. Perch are here also, but between you and me, there are better places. In any event, if you are planning your first trip to Keuka this is a great place to begin. Find ample parking and easy access at Indian Pines Park.
HONEOYE LAKE ICE FISHING
Sometimes a guy just wants to relax over a bunch of bluegills or take the kids ice fishing. Honeoye Lake is perfect. Yes, sometimes on early ice the south end is coined "Shantytown," due to plentiful parking at the handy boat launch on the southeast end, but it's a shallow lake (maximum depth thirty feet), so soon enough thickening ice should lure many anglers to expand their pursuit to walleye and perch, leaving bluegill killers in peace. Honeoye seems inundated with dink perch, although now and again bigger ones take hold. Deep water perch are my passion and when my screen erupts like a fireworks display I recognize the game. Serious fishermen agree that repetitively reeling up dink perch is not a good way to spend time, so when besieged in their midst give this a try. Resting your bait nearly stationary well above bottom, train yourself to ignore trivial ticks and nibbles. Staunchly resist while holding out for the telltale "thump" of an obviously larger fish. Additionally, kill your electronics to avoid being duped by a suddenly rising attack that turns out to be€¦ another dink. Refrain from aggressive jigging and poor language but periodically lift the jig slowly and apply a subtle sideward shake or two. With practice you will easily resist taking the bait on anything that fails to merit attention. If it doesn't work, pick up and move; but I promise there will be times your patience will be rewarded with a worthwhile take. Ideal for perch on any lake, at any depth, and at any time are Fiska tungsten jigs, 5 mm or 6 mm in any shade of pink or glow, tipped with any type of grub.
THE ESCALATING ICE FISHING LAKE TROUT MANIA
Perhaps the most maniacal craze among ice fishing anglers who get the bug for it is this lake trout addiction. Nothing beats tending a hole over a scorching mid-winter laker frenzy. The larger Fingers rarely freeze enough for it, but on good winters the trip should be worth it to Owasco, Skaneateles, Canadice, or Keuka. Icing lakers is rarely a problem, particularly with the aid of electronics where a screen might resonate more like a video game given all the green blips chasing about. The fever these ready biters generate is no surprise — from hookup to hole they burn every ounce of tenacity left in the tank.
The most common approach is to drop a 1-ounce jig skirted with a 3-inch tube to the bottom and bounce it a few times before igniting into a robust retrieve hoping to induce chase. It works well enough, but with sonar revealing bustling activity toward bottom my thinking asks why reel away from a captive audience? Try dunking a 5/8-ounce silver Krocodile, a 3/4-ounce Kastmaster, a 3/4-ounce Swedish Pimple, or any other comparable hardware. Halt your bait 15 feet above bottom and jig so vigorously you need to occasionally rest your arm. Keep your eyes peeled for the hypnotic "lookers" that methodically rise up until a more determined blip comes screaming thorough the mob, whereupon, believe me, you cannot reel fast enough to escape ... but do try. I use a light action 4 1/2-foot Ugly Stick equipped with a quality reel spooled with 15-pound-test braided line spliced with a 10-foot fluorocarbon leader in 8-pound test (and use a double uni-knot for splicing).
CONFESSIONS OF A FORMER PICKEREL HATER
For much of my lifetime, pickerel, at least in my eyes, merely posed evidence that even God makes mistakes.
"You just need to learn how to fillet them," an old-timer I have since befriended clarified; and when he explained the method it did seem sensible.
Of all the luck that very evening I lit into one of the villains, an imposing 24-inch guinea pig that glared angrily at me like all the other times, but this time I glared back and stated, "Not your lucky day, tough guy," leaving the thing thrashing furiously about my sled.
At home that night I reviewed the simple technique on YouTube, a video titled something like Pike — Five Fillet Method, and am begging fellow pickerel haters to follow suit. No bones about it, fried boneless pickerel fillets are as good as it gets. In a nutshell, first cut downward from the top of the fish to the backbone and then proceed horizontally to remove the entire back; next slice off each tail section, and lastly with the "y" bones entirely visible simply slide your knife accordingly on your way to extracting the side fillets. Voila, no more angst.
AND FINALLY, FISHERMEN VERSUS THE INTERNET
I title it that way to commemorate every loveable old-school die-hard I meet that scoffs at my encouragement urging them to get onboard with the Internet and social media. Not only have I saved thousands of dollars by avoiding fruitless vehicle wear and wasted gas, but it has opened doors, too, for some lasting friendships. Ice Shanty, Facebook, You Tube, and Bing Maps are all significant catapults to fishing success. Even from a distance I can keep a keen eye on the chatter about those Canadice smelt so when the time is right I'll be among the first to know. I already have seen from the aerial view at Bing Maps where I'll be parking despite not yet having been there. And right away once the buzz on Ice Shanty revved up toward the end of December I contacted a few locals who routinely fish Oneida's walleyes, and following their input, should conditions cooperate and I in fact do decide to take the drive, I have already logged the info into my iPhone's GPS.
Should anyone still remain determined to roll their eyes and shake their heads, grant me one last stab by showing you the type of brethren waiting to embrace you. Only on Ice Shanty could one expect to find such a concise quote to surgically depict our shared passion: "When hell freezes over I'll be ice fishing there too." With that, I have done all I can.
However you go about it, savor another New York winter and stay safe out there.