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Ice fishing, also known as hard-water angling, is a popular pastime practiced primarily along the ice belt, a cold-weather zone located north of the 41st parallel that spans the globe. In the United States, the pursuit is enjoyed from the far northwest through the Great Lakes and into New England.
Although ice fishing was originally practiced to put food on the table, it is also a popular social activity that is regularly enjoyed by anglers of all ages and abilities. Ice fishing season begins when days grow short, the air gets cold and the boredom seems endless. For folks who don’t ski, skate or ride a sled, ice fishing may be the best way to enjoy the notoriously long, cold and dreary northern winters.
After the local lakes freeze, shanty towns sprout up as hardwater anglers begin to haul their ice shacks onto the ice. In some Adirondack communities, such as Port Henry on Lake Champlain, shanties can be rented by the day, with taxi services to get you on the ice and deliver everything from fresh bait to a warm lunch or a legal beverage.
Ice fishing differs from open water angling primarily because there is no casting or trolling involved. It does require similar elements of patience while waiting for fish to strike. It can also be very labor-intensive. Ice fishing requires plenty of walking, often through deep snow while dragging a load of gear. Anglers drill numerous holes through the hard ice and expend thousands of calories in the effort to fend off the cold.
Early ice provides some of the most productive angling opportunities of the hardwater season for a variety of fish, including perch, northern pike, bass and salmon. Fish are more often on the feed in the early season since they have been unhampered by anglers for several months. They are not as wary as they will become later in the season.
When a lake is completely frozen, the warmest water will be 39.2 degrees and it will be found near the bottom of the water column since it is denser. As a result, warm water fish — including bass, pike and perch — will be more active near the bottom, where warmer water is found. Occasionally, northern pike will be looking up, so setting a minnow just 2 to 3 feet below the ice can be particularly productive.
Cold water species, such as trout and salmon are commonly found much higher in the water column, often less than a foot or so under the ice. Ice fishing is not always about the size of the prize. Many anglers simply appreciate the peace and solitude of spending a snowy winter day secluded in a warm hut on a desolate lake. There are also the naturally entertaining events provided by otters, bald eagles and the ever-present ravens. Birds and otters are often waiting for an opportunity to pilfer a free meal.