Hungry Trout Fly Shop owner uses frozen lakes to provide outdoor learning
By Eric Teed
Jessica and Adam Payne and their two children, Henry, 8, and Norah, 9, didn’t get skunked ice fishing with guide Evan Bottcher on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Taylor Pond in Clinton County.
Jessica is an angling enthusiast and Norah loves fishing and eating and studying fish. While holding her first ice-caught perch of the day, Norah thanked the yellow and green squirmer and announced: “I’m going to dissect you when I get home.”
Such outings are happening regularly in the Adirondacks with the increase in interest in the outdoors amid worries of a warming Earth.
No strangers to fishing, the Paynes fished for blue gill and trout before relocating to Valatie in Columbia County from the Sierras. When asked what brought them East, Adam simply said “fire.” After the third conflagration forced the family to evacuate their California home, they’d had enough.
Bottcher, the fishing guide who operates The Hungry Trout Fly Shop in Wilmington, which his parents opened in 1991, started taking people like the Paynes out a few years back after he and his friends realized they were going to be ice-fishing anyway.
“We were sitting on the ice one day having a blast and we just decided, why aren’t we sharing this with people?” So, he formed Adirondack Ice Fishing Experiences and keeps six or seven guides working through the season.
Ice fishing has two basic strategies, baiting tip-ups and jigging. Bottcher set up a dome-shaped ice shanty that is like an insulated tent to provide wind protection and warmth. Combined with a gas heater, it can be cozy.
Inside he drilled holes for jigging with a small rod and reel. “Watch the rod tip, I’m going to slowly raise it up then slowly drop it back down. Now when you see that tip bend, pull up quickly to set the fish and reel it in,” instructed Bottcher.
Norah watched with intensity as sonar technology aided the fishing. A fish finder showed water depth, fish and the lure, and an underwater camera provided a picture on a small screen in the shanty of an otherwise hidden world below.
Bottcher set the tip-ups in line with the door, so a quick glance could reveal a tripped flag and a possible fish on the hook. Tip-ups are a simple line with live bait on a hook, set at a specific depth and attached to a flag that springs up when a fish hits.
And if you are listening close, you might hear the bell attached to the flag. When that first bell alerted, Henry was on the run to pull in the line hand over hand with Bottcher. A good-sized bullhead came out of the hole. “I’m not eating that!” Henry said, until told that bullhead make great fish sticks. He changed his tune to “that’s a good one!” Norah added, “I want the skeleton”.
Bottcher is a funny, open person who speaks wistfully about getting out on the ice. “The solitude and the peacefulness of a frozen lake in the Adirondacks is second to none,” he says. “I really look forward to the wintertime because it’s just such a 180 from what we deal with the whole summer of busy, and people, and phone calls. And fishing in general, any fishing, whether it’s spin fishing, fly fishing, taking a kid to some little stocked pond, it doesn’t matter. The game of figuring it out is always the draw.”
Ice fishing’s popularity fuels online communities like Ice Shanty, with posts about ice conditions, GPS coordinates for hazards and gear. The New York section of the website held over 400,000 posts in a recent visit, with one thread of photographs of kids on the ice containing more than 100,000 views.
“I think it’s extremely, extremely popular. I think this is the most popular region in the state for ice fishing. We have folks coming from far and wide to fish here, and the locals, I think it’s really part of the culture,” said Chris Powers, an aquatic biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“I’m passionate about it,” he said. “You don’t need a lot of gear; you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment. You could get a pretty cheap ice auger, a jigging rod, go to the store, get some bait, and you could just get out on the ice and get fish. I think it’s a great way for families to get out on the water.”
He enjoys the fresh fish dinners, too. “Getting a bucket full of perch, coming back and making a meal out of something I caught that day is rewarding and it’s definitely one of the reasons I go out there,” he said.
Permits are required for those older than 16, and regulations in the Adirondacks prohibit fishing any trout waters, except in Clinton County where the DEC has simplified regulations. “The idea behind that is we have all these brook trout waters, and some wild lake trout waters that deserve protection,” Powers said. “This is a unique resource. There are certain places where ice fishing is appropriate, but we don’t really want people fishing for brook trout.”
The state also wants to prevent the spread of non-native bait fish in the Adirondacks, he said. Regulations in other counties are specific to the bodies of water, which Bottcher says can be confusing and difficult to navigate.
And yes, it’s cold. “We always have a shanty,” says Bottcher, where it can be 20 degrees warmer. “The other thing the shanty does is it cuts out the sunlight so you can see in the hole a lot better. You can see your electronics a lot better. We have cameras that we drop down so we can see our bait on the bottom, and you’ll watch fish actually swim up to the bait and you’ll know like, oh, my gosh, I got a lake trout underneath me sniffing my hook, I’m just waiting for it to bite.”