Ice fishing is the Zen hobby you didn’t know you needed

By | February 16, 2019

There’s nothing like hearing the crunch of ice under your feet as you walk out onto a frozen lake. As the sun rose in the sky one recent cold morning, revealing the mountainous terrain and white forest all around me, I followed a new friend to my new sport: ice fishing.

In New York’s rural Orange County, where I moved four years ago, it’s not unusual to see deer or even a bear on my commute into the city. This winter, I started seeing people walking on frozen lakes, hauling sleds full of equipment. Curious, I searched “ice fishing” on Facebook.

That’s how I found Andy Marcinak of Montgomery, NY. He and another nearby resident, Brian Gonzalez, run “Anglers in Pursuit,” a Facebook group where avid fishermen post photos and chat about their days out on the water. “We have people who post from all over the country on there,” Marcinak says. “The group filters out who’s into fishing and who’s just wishing.”

The day before our trip, I went to Walmart and paid $ 5 for a daily fishing license (you can also find them at sporting goods stores and some town halls). One Sunday morning, while it was still dark, I left my sleeping family behind at 6 a.m. and was on the ice by 7 a.m. with Marcinak. A green flag greeted us at the opening to the lake in upstate’s Harriman State Park, letting us know the ice was safe to fish on.

The frozen faithful fishermen gather at Harriman State Park.
The frozen faithful fishermen gather at Harriman State Park.Stefano Giovannini

Unpredictable weather has given the season an uneven run. Marcinak says he’s been able to ice fish until early April, but has to chase the ice to more northern counties toward the end of winter. (Check the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website DEC.NY.gov for a list of public lakes in your area.) Smartphone apps like “Ice Report” provide conditions, but Marcinak says the best thing to do is test the ice’s thickness yourself by using a pole called a spud stick and drilling samples. And never venture onto the ice alone.

Marcinak’s sled held the usual rod and bait but also a few tip-ups (a device that can detect fish striking a baited line), a fish finder radar unit (optional), a large manual drill and a small grill. We trekked across to the other side of the frozen lake and met up with six others from the Facebook group. Some had been there since 5:30 a.m. On the ice around them lay freshly caught yellow perch, bluegill, pickerel and crappies, some of them still flopping around.

We started to set up the tip-ups, from which we would hang some fishing lines, and drilled holes into the ice, which was about 9 inches thick. Then we used a skimmer, which looks like a large, slotted spoon, to scoop out bits of ice to free the space for our lines. After placing live minnows on our hooks, we dropped line. Radar showed us that our bait was a foot off the lake floor. Once a fish bites and pulls the line, a spool releases the signal flag, raising it straight up, letting us know we got something.

Michael Guillen displays a pickerel caught on the lake.
Michael Guillen displays a pickerel caught on the lake.Stefano Giovannini

After the lines were set, it was time to jig — with our rods. We drilled again, and using larvae worms called waxies as bait, we shook (jigged) the line to attract fish. Radar would tell us whether there were any possible takers.

Within minutes of dropping my line, I saw movement on the radar: A fish was approaching. “As soon as you feel a tug, pull up and reel it in!” Marcinak called.

I did, and had it hooked. The rod bent downward as the fish was reeled toward the surface, and I saw its white belly as it fought back right under the hole. Just as I was about to reach down to pull it through, it broke off the hook and swam away. Easy come, easy go: My disappointment quickly faded to laughter.

It was time to eat. Marcinak set up a small propane grill and cooked venison sausage made from a nine-point buck he harvested this past fall. While we ate and talked, someone yelled, “Flag!” It was one of ours. I ran over, pulled up the line and cradled a yellow perch in my hands. Another perch and a pickerel followed.

AJ Marcinak takes a break as a boot print glistens on the lake.
AJ Marcinak takes a break as a boot print glistens on the lake.Stefano Giovannini

We drilled again at another spot. This time Marcinak leaned over and scooped out the ice with his bare hands.

“Do you want me to go get the skimmer?” I asked. “Nah,” he said. “I live for this.”

I can see why. There may not be too many more peaceful experiences than sitting in the snow-filled wilderness, jigging a line and waiting for a fish in a place where there’s no cellphone service, while watching the sun rise. Add good company and a shared meal, and it’s easy to see why so many are lured into ice fishing.

On the way home, I bought a fillet knife. After a few instructional YouTube videos and one bloody finger later, I sliced off some decent-sized portions. It doesn’t get any wilder, or fresher, than this.

Marcinak teaches the basics of ice fishing to reporter Michael Guillen.
Marcinak teaches the basics of ice fishing to reporter Michael Guillen.Stefano Giovannini

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