A small group of sportsmen herald the onset of winter. They dream of below-zero temperatures that transform lakes and slow-moving rivers into massive platforms of foot-thick ice. And when this occurs -- usually only for four to six weeks every winter in the mid-Atlantic region -- it's time for ice fishing.
Ice fishing requires an inordinate amount of patience. If you're lucky, you'll cut a hole through the ice directly over a school of fish, but even then, it may be hours between bites.
Brrr: An angler waits for a bite on the frozen surface of Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland. Ice fishing takes plenty of patience -- and warm clothing.
(Tom Darden -- Maryland State Governor's Office)
Ice fishing also requires lots of warm clothing. Most of the body's heat is rapidly lost through the head and extremities; therefore, a knit wool cap is a necessity. Down-insulated shooters' mittens will keep your hands toasty warm, particularly if they include small hand-warmers. For your feet, you can't beat socks with foot-warmers and felt-lined Arctic pac boots. Long underwear, a wool shirt and trousers, and a down-filled parka usually round out the attire.
How much ice does it take to support a full-grown person? According to folks that spend countless hours ice fishing, a minimum of four inches is required to safely support the weight of a 200-pound angler. The ice should be clear, free of tiny air bubbles and rock-hard.
Snow-covered ice is usually considered unsafe, especially when snow depths exceed six inches and cover newly formed ice. The snow acts like an insulating blanket, preventing cold air from reaching the ice and causing it to remain thin.
In most states, anglers may cut as many holes in the ice as they wish. However, the openings cannot exceed 10 inches in diameter. While this would preclude any possibility of yanking a 40-pound striped bass through the ice, it makes it nearly impossible for someone to fall through a hole that has been disguised with a light skim of ice. The holes can easily be cut with an ice spud or chisel, which are available at most tackle shops. Don't use an ax; it could break the ice you're standing on.
Anglers use an array of tiny lures and ultra-light spinning outfits (usually more than one). In some instances, tip-ups, tiny spring-loaded devices used specifically for ice fishing, are used, which may improve the odds of catching fish. They are unusual in that a spring-actuated rod not only sets the hook, but releases a small, red flag, indicating that the device has been triggered.
Ice-fishing bait primarily consists of brightly colored blowfly maggots, wax-worms, mealworms and corn grubs packed in containers of cool, moist sawdust. Other baits include tiny, live minnows, garden worms, wood-worms, red wigglers and night crawlers, available at tackle shops. Veteran ice anglers say the best bait is small and fresh.
THE HOT SPOTS
By the first week in January, Deep Creek Lake usually has a foot or more of rock-solid ice capable of supporting the heaviest anglers. Situated in the mountains of Garrett County, Md., the entire lake offers ice-fishing enthusiasts a wide variety of species, including crappie, yellow perch, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, walleye, chain pickerel, northern pike and monster bluegills. At times bluegills averaging 10 inches are taken by anglers dunking night crawlers in the deeper coves. Those same coves provide anglers with the opportunity to catch similar-size yellow perch. Most are taken with blowfly maggots fished just a few inches off the bottom in depths of 12 to 20 feet. Small minnows fished in the same manner frequently produce a mix of slabsided crappie, yellow perch, and on rare occasions, walleye and northern pike. While the walleye and northerns are there to feast on bluegills and crappie, they'll quickly gobble down a small minnow that's impaled on a tiny hook and swimming in circles.
Broad Creek, a Conowingo Lake tributary that flows through the rolling hills of Harford County, Md., is best known for its excellent smallmouth bass fishing during early spring. When winter arrives, this well-shaded rivulet quickly ices over with several inches of clear, blue ice that forms a solid fishing platform downstream of the Route 623 bridge. The best fishing usually takes place about a quarter-mile downstream of the bridge where the creek makes a sharp right turn. A near-vertical rocky outcrop on the north shore plunges to a depth of 20 feet before flattening out on the log-strewn bottom. The combination of jagged rocks and submerged logs produces ideal habitat for crappie, some measuring up to 14 inches.
Other popular ice fishing locations include North East River, Youghiogheny Reservoir on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, Rocky Gap Lake and Conowingo Creek. Ice fishing is not permitted at Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission or Baltimore municipal reservoirs.
Ice fishing is an enjoyable sport for the entire family. And, if the fish fail to cooperate, you can always go ice skating at the same location. Regardless of where you ice-fish, there are a few rules everyone should follow.
Be sure of the ice thickness even if you cut a small hole over shallow water. Anything less than four inches is too thin to support your weight safely.
Fish with a partner and never walk across the ice close together. If you were to fall through the ice, your partner could save your life.
Carry a 50-foot length of rope with a loop tied at one end. Your fishing partner could extricate you from an area of thin ice by tossing you the rope and dragging you to safety.
If the ice gives way, a pair of short ice picks can be used as an aid in escaping. The picks should be shortened to just an inch long, which provides sufficient length to penetrate the ice safely and help you pull yourself free.
Seek immediate medical attention if you've fallen into the water. Have someone drive you to the hospital; do not attempt to drive yourself. Delayed hypothermia, which can be triggered by being immersed in frigid water, frequently results in thermal shock and unconsciousness.