Adirondack fishing’s ‘brotherhood of the ice’ remains as determined as in its heyday
By Tim Rowland
Somewhere high over Lake Ontario last February the weather gods were cackling with wild abandon. They had cooked up a little lake-effect snow, which is effectively a storm system without the system, a blizzard-in-a-bottle created by frigid winds freezing the vapor rising from comparatively warm bodies of water.
Lake communities such as Buffalo bear the brunt of it, but tendrils of these frozen whiteouts can reach across the Tug Hill Plateau into the west-central Adirondacks. These stinging, cloudless snows sail on icy winds that speed across frozen North Country lakes. It is weather only northern pike could love. At least, that was the hope.
The unscientific but solemnly accepted rule of ice fishing, said veteran Adirondack ice fisherman and guide Matt Burnett, is that the worse the weather, the better your luck will be. If this were true, it seemed to me at the time, we would need to haul our catch away in dump trucks.
Adirondack Explorer photographer Mike Lynch and I caught up with Burnett on a sizable, irregularly shaped pond in the Tri-Lakes, where he was guiding Vermont physician Glenn Goldman and partner Nina Curtiss, who were vacationing in Saranac Lake. Curtiss is a seasoned ice-fishing pro who was tapping into Burnett’s knowledge of Adirondack waters.
Burnett had been out early dealing with a broad array of gear, the expanse and variety of which represents one of the differences between summer and winter fishing. Snowmobile: check. Tent: check. Gas-powered auger: check. Electronics, tip-ups, stove: check, check and check.
We were ferried to the encampment by snowmobile, into the wind of course, so that a 20 mph arctic blast was now 40. The snow was not heavy at this point, but the wind was, and the flurries raced by horizontally, mixing in with clouds of snow ripped from the boughs of shoreline evergreens and the surface of the frozen lake, which swirled and danced as if alive.
The trees and camps on the shoreline appeared as gray ghosts, then disappeared entirely as bands of snow ebbed and flowed. Cheeks felt wooden, and frozen fingers and toes burned.
“The ruggedness of (ice fishing) is what’s kind of cool,” Burnett said cheerfully.
I don’t remember what I said in response. “Oh,” or something like that.
There was a form of relief available, a red nylon shelter that contained donuts, coffee, hot chocolate and a gas heater. But as the day wore on, the shelter was not the place to be. The place to be was out on the ice, along with the bands of snow and wind where the stark beauty and raw power of the elements created a mesmerizing world of blue-white enchantment. The glaciers might be melting, but on this day we had our own personal ice cap. This is no small part of the appeal of ice fishing. Even when it’s so cold it hurts, it somehow feels good.
A social calling
If fishing is a sport, ice fishing is a culture. A fly fisherman on the river is a stealthy, solitary figure in a scene out of a Winslow Homer print. Ice fishing is drinking a salt-rimmed margarita out of a paper cup. Certainly there are those such as Goldman who are deadly serious about the sport, but the tendency is toward social gatherings, food, adult beverages and conversation, with fishing being the cherry on the sundae.
“Ice fishing is its own thing,” Burnett said, calling it half sport, half chili cook-off. “The social aspect is what’s really different, like everyone meeting up at Stewart’s.”
Still, Burnett is mindful of the tradition and the ethic that accompanies any outdoor pursuit, and works hard to perfect the craft. The elements aren’t always this bad and, when the sun is out and the snow resplendent, it’s enough to make the heart sing. It hardly matters whether the fish are biting.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity to be out here,” Curtiss said as she jigged for fish with a stubby rod inside the tent. “It’s extreme, but it’s so different—it’s beautiful to be out in the middle of nature like this.”
SEE A PHOTO GALLERY
Multimedia reporter Mike Lynch put together a gallery of images from ice fishing on Osgood Pond.
Burnett agreed that there’s a romance to the sport, which never gets called because of the weather. “The only thing I won’t roll the dice on is the ice,” he said. It has to be good and strong for the safety of all involved.
Not everyone abides by the same standards, and every year it seems some motorized vehicle will drop through ice that isn’t thick enough, or that has begun to deteriorate in late winter as the weather warms.
And ice that’s safe for people and snowmobiles isn’t always safe enough for cars and trucks. Burnett said he was out once with a fishing party when, without checking the ice, out onto the lake rolled a van whose driver spun up to the tent, rolled down the window and yelled, “Ya catching anything?”—as the ice undulated like ocean waves.
It is good that ice fishing bristles with good stories. I found that they take the mind off of the chill, however briefly.
Then, half an hour in, my pen froze. In a rare moment of farsightedness, I had anticipated this might be a problem, and packed in several beneath a Michelin Man’s worth of goose down. One by one these pens made an appearance before succumbing, as I quickly learned that handwriting and below-zero wind chills don’t mix. The next day my notes resembled the journal of a starving man dying alone in the wilderness, becoming less comprehensible as he loses strength. And I was left to try to decipher entries such as “ice fixc huk batdd umfudle.”
For ice fishing, “You have to be hardy, and you can’t be afraid of the cold,” Burnett said. “You really need to be prepared.” He also casually mentioned that most people who try to write under such conditions use a pencil. I hadn’t thought of that.
The old days
Today, ice fishing in the Adirondacks typically focuses on northern pike, walleye, lake trout and perch, and it is performed both as an individual sport or group competition. Although COVID-19 has led to its cancellation in 2021, the Northern Challenge Fishing Derby in Tupper Lake typically attracts hundreds of people each winter, and awards $40,000 worth of prizes.
In its history, though, Adirondack ice fishing was perhaps most legendary off the shores of Port Henry on Lake Champlain, which resulted in the catching of thousands of pounds of smelt.
“In that mile from Port Henry down to the (Champlain) bridge, there would be 500 ice shanties,” said Paul Salerno, who remembers the heyday from the 1950s through the turn of the 21st century. “Almost the entire community would be out on the lake fishing; it was a family tradition.”
It was also big business. Tons of the diminutive but tasty smelt would be sold as far south as New York City, and fed the community in myriad communal suppers up and down the Adirondack Coast. “The place was booming—fish fries would be packed,” Salerno said.
Buckets of fish went to mom-and-pop groceries such as Ernie’s Market in Westport, where Salerno said “you’d be lucky to get 50 cents a pound.”
It was both commerce and celebration, with those who took it seriously being far more productive than those who came for the party. “People would raise hell,” he said. “It was a lot of fun on the weekends,” he said.
But at the end of the day, anglers who knew what they were doing would wind up with 30 or 40 pounds of fish, while a novice or a partyer in the same shanty might get only five.
Smelt were notoriously light hitters, said Matt Brussard of Port Henry. “They’d be getting bites, they just didn’t know it,” he said.
Then smelt fishing declined. Most blame the introduction of the invasive alewife into Lake Champlain, Salerno said.
Along with the smelt, the fishermen were disappearing too. The iron mines that drove the Adirondack Coast economy for more than a century closed in 1971, and the miners and their families gradually moved away. And while random ice shelters still pop up on Bulwagga Bay, the exceedingly picturesque scene of hundreds of shanties and thousands of people whooping it up on the ice, is gone.
Burnett said the shanties are probably the biggest bit of ice fishing evolution he has seen on the frozen lakes. Today they are uniform nylon cubes. But back in the day, with true Adirondack backcountry imagination they were fashioned from wood, tin, pallets or whatever was handy, and fitted with stoves, sinks and bunks. They were, in some ways, the original tiny house. They could be on skis or on wheels. They might be ice shanty by winter and potting shed, playroom or even guesthouse by summer. When their life expectancy on the ice was used up, they became woodsheds.
Ice tents lack this versatility, but, on the other hand, “they can be up in five minutes,” Burnett said. And that leaves more time for the important stuff—fishing.
Goldman said ice fishing is the perfect foil to his busy, professional world filled with people and daily demands. “There’s a brotherhood of the ice,” he said. “Everyone is kind to everyone.” And if he and Burnett were feeling the intense chill, they didn’t show it. Sometimes, not always, they would remember to wear their gloves as they baited their hooks and lowered the line in holes bored through the foot-thick ice.
“There’s a lot of work to it. That’s why you don’t get cold,” Goldman said. “But it’s not for everyone.” With laser focus they set out the tip-ups, which somewhat resemble a three-dimensional wooden hashtag with a red flag at the end of a resilient wire. The wire is bent into a horseshoe shape and when a fish bites it triggers the mechanism, and up pops the flag.
That’s the theory. But needless to say, perhaps, in a 20 mph wind there can be a number of false positives. Even feeding the line into the water in such conditions can be tricky as a fresh skim of ice begins to knit across the exposed water.
Even though we didn’t contribute much to the haul, Mike and I were useful to the process because we each had a fishing license, and a set number of lines can be employed per-license. Sensing our thinly masked distress, Burnett frequently offered up the relative comfort of the ice shelter, but hardened outdoor journalists such as ourselves can’t be seen ducking into no citified, heated tent.
The tent did, however, house the electronic fish finder—a gizmo I feigned an inordinate amount of interest in so as to extend the number of minutes I could legitimately stay warm and restore my handwriting to marginal legibility.
Out on the ice, though, the fish were calling. Oblivious to the biting cold, or maybe just plain numb, Burnett and Goldman would pull in the line hand over hand, then plunge an arm into the ice water to grab the fish by the gills.
These were respectable pike that Goldman was accepting of, although it was apparent that he quite literally had bigger fish to fry. At last it came, a granddaddy of a pike that was measured not in pounds or inches, but in the breadth and warmth of Goldman’s smile as he pulled in the beauty.
Cold? It wasn’t cold at all.