Ice Fishing – A Smorgasbord of Fish and Fun
By Bob Papson
Principal Fisheries Biologist
of Fish Species”
What better way to spend a calm January day after the hectic holiday season than
on a quiet frozen lake – ice fishing. In the 1950s and 60s this winter activity
was very popular and hundreds of ice fishermen, including entire families, could
be seen on weekends at Lake Hopatcong and other lakes pursuing their favorite
quarry, the chain pickerel. After a number of years of declining participation
there appears to be a resurgent interest in ice fishing.
Obviously, winter weather patterns play a major role in the amount of time
there is safe ice in any particular year. This is especially true in New Jersey.
Therefore, the length of the ice fishing season can vary greatly from year to
year. Freezing temperatures arriving in late December can result in safe ice forming
on a good many ponds and lakes and ice anglers gearing up for action by early
January. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
Ice fishing is a very safe sport but common sense can go a long way to ensure
this. A minimum thickness of four inches is the rule of thumb for safe ice for
individual anglers. Areas near underwater springs and bubblers around docks result
in thinner ice and should be avoided.
author with two nice Greenwood Lake walleyes.
Ice fishing is an enjoyable and challenging angling activity. It also can
be very productive. Many species of fish, including warm water species such as
largemouth bass, sunfish, crappie and yellow perch are active and susceptible
to ice fishing techniques.
Several popular coolwater fish species found in the northern U.S. and Canada
have been stocked in recent years by the Division of Fish and Wildlife and angler
organizations. These fish can provide the ultimate challenge for those ice fishermen
looking for trophy size fish. These species include walleye, northern pike, tiger
muskies and muskellunge.
productive day for sisters and dad - a perch and a pickerel!
of the more popular and widely distributed species are the chain pickerel and
yellow perch. Both species are generally found in shallow depths (less than 15
feet) associated with aquatic vegetation. Yellow perch are a schooling fish and
once located the action can be fast and furious. Sunfish and crappie also school
up and can be caught in good numbers. Large predators like smallmouth bass and
largemouth bass are also on the prowl and provide a little more challenge.
Last but not least is the true “cold water” fish, the trout. There are several
lakes where holdover trout are available and others that are stocked by angler
organizations in the fall. The Division has also increased the opportunity to
catch trout through the ice with the relatively new Winter Trout Stocked Lakes Program.
As with many sports, ice fishing has become more technical. In many cases
ice chisels have been replaced by super sharp hand and gas-powered augers, home
made wooden tip-ups by high tech plastic tip-ups and a weight with string attached
to determine depths by electronic depth finders. Although these and other products,
like portable ice shelters, sleds and light weight warm clothing, have made ice
fishing more comfortable and efficient, simple basic equipment is all that is
needed to have fun and be successful.
Basic equipment consists of an ice chisel or hand auger, several tip-ups and
/or jigging pole, hooks, weight (split shot, egg sinkers), live bait, jigging
lures, ice ladle and a five gallon plastic bucket to carry all of it.
In New Jersey ice anglers may use no more than five devices, i.e. a combination
of tip-ups and /or jigging poles. All devices not hand-held must bear the name
and address of the user and can’t be left unattended. For more information, consult
the Fish and Wildlife DIGEST, available
at license agents (a good source
for current fishing conditions) and this
using tip-ups or a jigging pole, the bait or jig should be fished at or near the
bottom most of the time. Water reaches its highest density at 39 degrees; therefore,
this relatively warmer water is at the bottom of the lake. However, some species,
like crappie or trout, have a tendency to suspend within the water column, making
locating them a little more difficult. Most suspended fish can be found off steep
drop-offs, points or vertical structure such as standing timber.
Friends with nice
Favorite baits for panfish are grubs (mousies, mealworms, wax worms) used
on a small jig and fathead minnows or small golden shiners used with a plain hook
and a tip-up. Larger jigs/lures and tip-ups baited with large golden shiners,
chubs or suckers are the ticket for bigger fish such as bass, pickerel, pike and
walleye. Some of the more popular jigs/lures are the very small panfish jigs,
the Kastmaster, Swedish Pimple and Rapala swimming minnow.
Some folks may be skeptical about being comfortable while fishing during the
coldest period of the year while standing on ice. With today’s quality warm clothing
and boots, and the ability to walk around as you fish, a person can feel quite
comfortable, especially on days when the wind is light. In fact, in February when
the sun begins to rise higher in the sky and afternoon temperatures rise above
freezing, conditions can feel spring-like, even downright balmy!
Father and son with nice muskie, later released
One aspect of ice fishing that makes it so enjoyable is the camaraderie found
on the ice, from alerting nearby anglers of a unseen flag or exchanging fishing
tips to welcoming other anglers to join in on some grilled venison or hot soup.
Ice fishing lends itself to family or group participation. Cooking on the ice
with propane camp stoves and portable gas grills has become very popular. There’s
nothing better than the taste of a fresh grilled hot dog or venison taken that
previous hunting season during a well-deserved break from working the holes.
This season more than any is when freshwater anglers keep a portion of their catch
for eating. Practice “selective harvest” by harvesting the more abundant panfish
species and releasing the larger sized individuals of bass, pickerel and other
sportfish species. The fillets of perch, crappie and sunfish are delicious. As
for walleyes, when it comes to eating quality, well they’re like a giant perch
– excellent! Also, remember to keep only the amount of fish you intend to eat.
Selective harvest will go a long way in maintaining desirable fisheries.
Ice fishing takes place on ponds and lakes of all sizes with larger water
bodies providing a wider diversity of fishing opportunities. Most state-owned
lakes allow ice fishing, whereas county or municipally-owned waters may prohibit
this activity. It is always good to check with the responsible authority to make
sure ice is safe and fishing allowed.
Popular north Jersey lakes include the following:
Sussex County: Hopatcong,
Little Swartswood, Wawayanda,
Passaic County: Monksville
Reservoir, Greenwood, Shepherd,
Green Turtle Pond and Pompton
Morris County: Budd Lake
Warren County: Furnace, White,
Mountain, Delaware (Columbia WMA)
Hunterdon County: Spruce
During cold winters Central Jersey lakes such as Farrington (Middlesex County),
Assunpink, Rising Sun and Stone Tavern
(Assunpink WMA, Monmouth County) attract a lot of attention.
Maps for most of the above waters, showing bottom depths and other features,
are available on line in PDF format. See the Lake
Maps page for available maps and information on obtaining those not yet online.
Despite concerns about a warming climate ice still forms on New Jersey waters
and anglers still can enjoy this age-old sport – and we expect they will for years
to come. Early winter is just the right time to make plans to partake in one of
winter’s most enjoyable and gratifying outdoor sports – ice fishing!