Best day of ice fishing

 Josh Tucker, of Hinesburgh with Hawgs.

Indulge me for a moment and allow me to write about the same topic as last month. I am obsessed. It started off innocuously, like a mere sniffle at the beginning of a common cold. It soon developed into a fever pitch with me tossing and turning in my bed at night. I would soak the sheets in sweat dreaming about the next day on the ice.

It all started with a day two weeks ago when my fishing buddies and I were hosting a great friend from Michigan, Rudy Castro. Rudy is the best fisherman I have ever met. And I’ve met professional bass fisherman and big name celebrities, but Rudy, day in and day out, catches more fish than anyone I’ve ever known. I’ve even witnessed him sitting four feet in front of me during a derby where I could not catch a thing out of my hole and he was bailing rock bass so fast that it was the spectacle of the derby.

Seeing my failing attempts, he looked over his shoulder and cast his lure four feet backwards over his shoulder, landed his lure in my hole (a target, mind you, only five inches in diameter). As his lure sank, he jerked his rod suddenly and set the hook on a beautiful fish before his bait ever hit the bottom. He spun around, reeled it in, and asked me “Carleton, what’s the problem with that hole?” I was stunned.

So, along comes my buddy who I see only once or twice a year, and he wants to fish with us for a couple of days before he goes home. Well, take into consideration that our respect for this character runs deeper than Champlain, and we realize that we have got to get him on some fish!

When we show up at the north end of the lake before sunrise, we all look at one another and begin to question our sanity. No one else is there. “This is not a good sign,” I say. “If this place was hot, we’d be struggling to find a place to park.” But have no fear! If Rudy is with us, if there is even one fish in this lake, he will have caught it before anyone else gets a bite. So we venture forth onto the frozen surface.

The light snow crunches like Styrofoam under our feet. On the open spots, the ice glistens clear and black. We trek out half a mile to a remote corner, where our maps tell us lies a weed bed in 23 feet of water. We begin drilling holes. Chris Thayer of Charlotte is grinning ear to ear, using his new electric drill-adapted auger, knocking out one hole every eight seconds. Josh Tucker of Hinesburg is doing the same and just a shade more quickly than Chris.

Me, I’m still a manual guy. Call me old fashioned or just too poor to buy one of these fancy new devices, but I drill my holes with loving intention.

My friend Doug Hartwell of Vergennes is first to score as he reels up a nice fat smallmouth bass (which has to be released due to seasonal regulations), but we snap a good picture of him before he returns this denizen of the deep to its marine habitat. Next, of course, is Rudy. He pulls up a mammoth 13-inch yellow perch, and his rod is just about bending in half. Then Chris hits one, then Ozzie, then Josh, then finally…me. From that point on, after figuring out that these particular fish are biting ever so gently, we adjust our technique.

Then another fisherman points out to Rudy that when he brings a fish up through the icy cylinder he picks it up, turns it upside down and shakes it over the hole. A gizzard-full of freshwater shrimp spills out of its mouth and back into the hole. The fish are actually not biting. They are sucking the shrimp off of the weeds, which means that we will not see the rod tip snap downward like we would with most fish. We will instead see the rod tip gently raise up as they suck the bait from below in a vertical assault.

We spend the entire day on the ice, and several of us fill our buckets with the legal limit of 50 perch, all over 9 inches and many between 10 and 13 inches. All day long, the sun is out, the wind is light and we are all focused on the next bite. It was truly one of my best days of ice fishing ever, and, most important, the camaraderie and spirit of the outdoors kept us all enthralled in our present moment, from dawn to dusk.

If you would like to learn to ice fish but aren’t sure of making the investment in a license (do not think about going without one), you may want to join us on Free Ice Fishing Day, Saturday, Jan. 26, at Knight Point State Park in North Hero. VT Fish and Wildlife personnel will provide equipment, instructions on techniques for specific species, warming huts and even a fish fry and hot cocoa (bring your own mug if you can). This will be the winter event of the season. Registration starts at 11:00 a.m. and the festivities run through 3:00 p.m. See you on the ice!

Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.