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Breaking the ice on the hard-water season

Every year the start of ice fishing season begins the same – differently.

Regulations set the start of catch seasons, fish sizes and catch-count amounts, but no set rules or well-measured yardsticks can gauge and guide anglers into good catches on and through the ice.

This season’s start was exceptional because of protracted warmth across the northeast for much of the late fall and early winter seasons. In general, first ice, albeit thin and risk-ridden, can be fruitful for fish along shoreline shallows where weed masses and food supplies remain abundant. Everything from panfish to pike might strike.

But what happens when first ice forms two to three weeks after the usual hard freeze? Anglers got to see just how that scenario unfolded in mid-January around Western New York.

Boaters this season fished Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and many an inland-lake area where ice choppers typically walked and worked in late December and early January. As a result, the bite began as an iffy/so-so on many fronts. At Chautauqua Lake, the panfish bite at Burtis Bay in the south basin has been “hit or miss,” said Skip Bianco at Hogan’s Hut Bait & Tackle.

Similar reports come from shallow waters at Lake Simcoe, with good ice forming around the fringes and some pockets of perch showing in the shallows.

Lake Ontario’s string of ponds between Oak Orchard Creek and Rochester provide early-ice access most years. All produced perch as soon as walkers could get on Cranberry and Long Pond. Braddock Bay also saw a run of ringbacks in mixed sizes along with an exceptional number of nice northern pike taking big minnows in the shallows.

Our outings typically begin at the south end of Silver Lake and progress toward Conesus, Honeoye and points eastward as the season progresses. But a quick freeze in the big-pocket valleys of the Western Finger Lakes formed ice on many of the smaller fingers all at once.

With many a runt perch report from the bottom end of Silver Lake, ice angling guru Warren Goodenow from Warsaw, and I headed to Honeoye to give the panfish a try Thursday morning.

Reports had it that mid-lake ice was not much more than two inches, but when we got over the hill on West Lake Road a scattered patch of more than 50 anglers showed over 20- to 25-foot depths at mid-lake near the bottom of Honeoye.

Shoreline ice reached 5 inches; crossing areas in the south bay thinned to 3 inches. But weed-edge ice, over 8-foot depths, thickened to about a confidence-inspiring 5 inches.

It took some doing. The lake is polluted with puny perch, but the bull-sized bluegills finally began showing in the afternoon and the bite continued until sunset. Goodenow, a field rep for Mackie Plastics, usually does better than well on artificial jigs, but this day went to bug baits.

At first we could find only small perch hitting belly to the bottom at 12-foot depths. Guys venturing deeper were finding the same run of runts at depths out to 24 feet. So we moved in on the weed edge and began working the sunfish circuit.

The sonar had showed some fish moving half way down. Without a camera on this trip, we were left to guess anything from bait schools to bass to possibly crappie schools. None showed.

But somewhere long after lunch the first of those Honeoye hog bluegills began biting. The first hookup felt more like a largemouth than a ’gill fight. The silver-dollar-sized ’gills appeared between big-boy fights, but Warren had a big family fish fry planned and we pulled many a slab-sided bluegill without one sunfish/pumpkinseed or crappie in the catch bucket.

Later in the day Warren brought in a respectable largemouth bass that measured some 20 inches. By the end of the day his bucket held one limit of ’gills, more than enough for hungry grandkids. Some anglers did better, some not as well, but late-arriving early ice seems similar, though not the same, as a typical first-ice foray format.

How-to tips

Both live baits and jig/artificial baits work on first ice. Goodenow’s Grumpy Jig, a teardrop mini jig, works well with a Maki plastic tail, with a grub (mousy, spike or waxworm) or with both a tail and grub.

Typically, perch feed close to bottom, sunfishes (bluegill, sunfish and pumpkinseeds) move slightly off the bottom and crappie schools can stage at whatever depths the lead fishes say.

No two masterful jiggers jig alike and all catch fish. Successful jigging requires a willingness to change pulsing rates, dead-stick intervals and lengths of lifts and drops. A flexible wire or plastic tip/extension on a short, ice-fishing rod helps to detect those mini taps and hang bites that often come from big, keeper-sized panfish.

Adjusting to this year’s changes, fisherman can enjoy some nice ice catches, despite the late arrival of hard water this year.