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WITH THE water slowly hardening as you read this, it's time to start thinking about ice fishing.

And if you're headed toward Chautauqua Lake this winter, the prospects are pretty good.

"We had the best hatch of walleye ever in 1987," said Paul McKeown, an aquatic biologistwith the Department of Environmental Conservation, "and those fish should be turning up in creels now as 12- to 15-inch fish."

"I'd say most walleye from the lake this winter will be between 13 and 15 inches long and they should make up in numbers what they lack in size," McKeown added.

Muskellunge seem to be plummeting as the walleye populations soar, and muskies will no longer be legal through the ice on Chautauqua.

But yellow perch, crappie and -- yes, white perch -- should be abundant there as well.

"The crappie and yellow perch had a great hatch in 1988," McKeown said. He should know -- he's the guy who does the sampling.

"Those species are mature now. Yellow perch are only about eight inches long, but they are available in large numbers, thanks to that 1988 hatch."

McKeown added that, for the first time, the lake has a limit on crappie (or calico bass) of 25 fish per day. That limit will remain in force next spring when the crappie get hammered during their spawning run.

The lake has seen some fall-off in the numbers of these popular panfish, and it's supposed that limiting anglers to about one pail of them per outing might help restore the species' numbers.

Live bait is always the best bet for ice fishing, though some people do fine with jigs like the swimming Rapala that has an attachment eye in the middle of its weighted body and sort of does slow circles when it is twitched from the ice-angler's position directly above the hole. I've found that the Swedish Pimple, tipped with a live minnow, is a little more productive.

And don't be surprised if you catch white perch, too.

This is a relatively new "exotic" species in Western New York.

Long a mainstay of ice anglers on the Atlantic Coast's tidal estuaries, the white perch has been creeping inland ever since the Erie Canal opened up in 1826.

Now, having reached some sort of "critical mass," the white perch has exploded and become endemic to the Great Lakes.

"We don't know who put them into Chautauqua Lake," McKeown said, "but someone did, somehow -- possibly by emptying bait buckets that had white perch fry in them. Anyway, it's here and is increasing in abundance and we've seen anglers catch specimens as big as 11 inches in length," the biologist said.

Related to the white bass and striped bass, white perch are tasty and well worth dredging up, if you hit a school of them.

McKeown says he thinks anything used for yellow perch "like a mealie grub" should work on the Eastern Seaboard cousins.

"I really can't advise you on catching them," he said. "I go cross country skiing in the winter. I'm not an ice fisherman. But I am supposed to be able to tell you what's there."

And, given those banner "hatches" of two and three years ago, what's in Chautauqua may prove very interesting, and abundant, this winter.
About once every three years, someone asks "how do I learn about ice fishing?"

Now I have an answer, and a good answer, too: "Ice Fishing," a tape prepared by North American Trails Video, is a dandy.

It features Wisconsin guide Tom Neubauer and Dan Small (the Clarence native who now hosts a very popular outdoor show caled "Outdoor Wisconsin" that runs in seven Midwestern states, Alaska and Virginia), and the tape tells you absolutely everything you need to know to get started in a palatable and eminently viewable 72 minutes.

Not only will you learn how and where to cut holes, traverse the ice with safety -- and catch fish -- but there are segments on lure-making (a particularly amusing ice-fishing-related hobby) and even an on-the-ice hot lunch.

The tape should be available from outdoor stores that rent videos. You might want to own it, yourself, as it is one of the better how-to fishing tapes around.

Send $39.95 to North American Trails Video, P.O. Box 09465, Milwaukee, Wisc. 53209.

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