Sunday, January 29, 2012

No Fish on New Ice

   Over the past week Tackle Shop had been scouring the internet for new, alternative ice fishing destinations other than the circus we encountered last week on Lake Simcoe. Who new this interweb thinggy was good for anything other than blogs and porn? Anyways...TS had read a few reports on a local message board of large pike through the ice of Frenchman's Bay, Pickering, just east of the city limits. That was all the coaxing I needed...large predators on new ice! Let's go!

   The Town of Pickering is best known for it's nuclear generating station which dominates the shoreline horizon. Lesser known is the fact that it has great fishing with the Rouge River on it's western boundary, Frenchman's Bay at it's heart, and numerous pothole lakes in the northern reaches, feeding creeks that eventually flow into Lake Ontario. Frenchman's Bay is a large shallow basin connected to the big lake by a narrow passage and is used primarily as an anchorage for the numerous recreational watercraft during warmer months and surprisingly some really good ice fishing in winter.

   The biggest surprise for me was that it took less than ten minutes to get there from my front door. I knew from the onset that it would be a challenging day. There's always some uncertainty when fishing new ice...where are the access points?, parking, finding structure and active fish, but the biggest obstacle for the day were the weather conditions. All week long the temperature had hovered around the freezing mark, a little snow here, some rain there and Saturday's forecast was for a new system to blow in across Lake Ontario from the south.
   Those first few steps onto new ice are the best. The thrill of stepping over the open water at the shore, unsure whether I'll break through or in this case fall flat on my face, brings the anticipation to a climax only surpassed by that of the first fish. The ice was slick with areas of standing water on top that turned normal walking into a shuffling gait. Unwilling to repeat last years slapstick show on Puslinch, Tackle Shop put a new set of cleats on his boots that gave him the surefootedness  of a billy goat (the beard also helps with that mental picture). The farther we walked (and shuffled) from shore, the stronger the wind buffeted us with freezing rain. At one point the wind was so strong that my sled was trying to pull me downwind!

   While we were setting up at our first location a shout of excitement came from the only other group as they had just landed a stout 8Lb. pike. We'd moved out into deeper water (12') and stronger winds a half hour later  when the others landed a 2 Lb. rainbow trout. I'd drilled a dozen holes in an attempt to find any signs of life but it was becoming clear that this bay had a very gradual drop and little or no structure. The best way to fish it was to chose an area, set your lines...and wait for the cruising predators to come to you. On a nice day this tactic would have been acceptable but the conditions were starting to take their toll on TS as he was eventually soaked to the skin.

   It looked as if we were finished for the day by noon but as TS changed into dry cloths at the van he asked where else can we go. Luckily I'd brought along a map and it was decided we'd travel 30 Km north to Musselman's Lake. In the past we'd both fished this popular pothole lake in the summer but had never ventured out onto it in the winter. Upon arrival we were greeted with a snowbound ghost-town, the small resident population keeping a low profile but most assuredly aware of invading city slickers ignoring the multitude of NO TRESPASSING signs. It looked as if we had no access to the ice when TS exercised his small town common sense and asked a property owner if we could cross his right of way! Who knew it could be that easy?
    Not only did the owner grant us permission but he told us to fish the drop off 100 yards from shore where the weed bed ends in 15 fow. We set up in the prescribed  location and as is my habit, I drilled a series of holes covering a whole range of depths from 6 to 20 feet. TS dead sticked his two rods baited with shiner minnows while I roamed from hole to hole armed with my sonar and a jigging Rapala minnow.

   Over the next three hours we changed locations several times, constantly moving farther out in search of any signs of life below the ice. By the end of the day I'd drilled over 30 holes and hadn't marked a single fish on the sonar. Unlike Frenchman's Bay to the south, Musselman's Lake would require further exploration to figure out it's hidden secrets.

   So to sum up the day I'd say no fish on new ice...but a lot of the fun is in the exploration!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Old Lessons Relearned in New Perch City's the second week of the 2012 hard water season and for the sake of convenience and safety, Tackle Shop and I agreed to return to last week's venue...the Town of Gilford on the south west shores of Lake Simcoe. Last week we had found 3.5 inches of ice and an inexhaustible supply of small, willing to bite perch and our plan for this week was to further explore the thickening ice sheet and locate the schools of "jumbo" perch that this lake is famous for. Apparently we were not alone in our plans.

   The line of parked cars started well over a mile from the shoreline as all manner of hardwater angler make the pilgrimage to the big ice. The boat launch was a whole new experience in chaos as a line of vehicles patiently awaited their turn to expel their load of equipment and people, families and friends, abandoned on the roadside waiting for their drivers to return from their quest for a nearby parking spot. At the launch a hut operator was selling minnows in a style reminiscent of a scalper selling tickets for a Maple Leafs hockey game back when they were good..."I got what you need", he'd say in a hushed voice as you passed. On ice sanitary needs...tackle and food on ice taxi service!!!

   While TS was finding a place for the van, I stood at the center of activity, looking out on the ice in amazement at an ice fishing city that had sprung up overnight...New Perch City. A conservative estimate put the population at over 1000 in just a few square miles of ice giving it a higher population density than most of the local towns. I was trying to pick out Waldo from the mass of humanity when I was reunited with TS. Neither one of us was comfortable being inner city folk so we headed for the suburbs, choosing a sparsely populated area on the SE edge of the city, drilling our holes in 7" of lightly snow dusted ice atop of 10' of water.

   It was immediately obvious our quarry was in a negative mood, holding tight to the bottom with only the occasional small perch willing to rise to our offerings. Our neighbors seemed to be having equally dismal luck, idly standing around waiting for any signs of underwater activity. We stayed at that first location for nearly an hour, landing only a dozen small fish in a five minute flurry of activity, before moving out into deeper waters a few hundred yards farther out from shore.

   Our second location was in 12' of water with a healthy weed bed covering the bottom. I'd decided to take a more active approach in locating a school and drilled a half dozen holes 20' apart covering a variety of depths. Once again we spent an hour with little to show for our efforts. I'd come to the conclusion that all the on-ice activity had spooked the fish...with the constant drone of power augers and the roving squads of kamikazes on their ice chariots desperately seeking a pressure crack or patch of open water with their name on it. 

   While scanning the idle crowds for any sign of activity, Tackle Shop spotted a lone angler several hundred yards away who was landing fish consistently so we pulled up stakes and moseyed on over. The first thing that struck me was the large, 8" deep snow drift. I immediately remembered a similar difficult day on the ice where the only place to get a bite was in an area where a shadow was cast by a drift. Too bad this epiphany didn't occur earlier but it seemed we'd found our spot now as we both hooked into a keeper as soon as our bait neared the bottom.

   The next few hours were spent trying to find a lure that wouldn't catch fish. As with the previous week, once we found actively feeding fish, I'd given up on using live bait and eventually settled on a 1.5" pearl Jigging Rapala.  At one point the fish were so aggressive that I managed a true double headed...two fish on the same lure at the same time. Although the numbers were good, the average size was still a bit of a disappointment. Tackle Shop did manage to catch what he claims to be his largest perch to date...only 12" long...but also 12" in girth!
   Ominous dark clouds obliterated the sun as it was nearing the horizon, sparking a mass exodus off the ice. We'd been blessed with a beautiful mid January day out on the ice...cold temperatures offset by a blazing sun with little to no wind, and difficult catching conditions overcome by a little luck and old lessons relearned. 
In the immortal lyrics of Pete Townsend..."We won't get fooled again!" 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

First Ice 2012's been some time since my last post and I'd like to say that I've been too busy fishing to sit down and write, but the sad truth is that for the last three months my existence has revolved around work and the nocturnal lifestyle required by midnight shift. The combination of the legal ramifications of my last outing, reduced daylight hours, and a long delay in the onset of true winter weather held me in fishing limbo to the point where I'd set two forgettable milestones; the longest fish-less period in memory, and the longest period without a posting here. Now that the drought is over, or should I say the thaw, I hope to be catching and posting more frequently!

  As it turned out Santa was a stingy old elf this year, so taking matters into my own hands I hit the Boxing Day sales with the intention of increasing my on-ice safety and comfort. My first purchase was a survival suit, a one piece snow suit with a foam interior for added insulation and buoyancy. The second gift to myself was a new set of extreme winter boots, rated at -100C or -148F. Two of the three things guaranteed to spoil a day of ice fishing are frozen toes or a surprise swim. The third thing...  I'll touch on later.

  While fighting the crowds of bargain shoppers at Bass Pro Shops on Boxing Day I ran into a vaguely familiar face, Lee, whom Tackle Shop and I had met on Little Puslinch Lake last February. Lee told us the disturbing news that access to Puslinch was closed this year due to the blatant disrespect shown by some of the users last winter. Because of an unusually mild December only the small shallow lakes had safe ice as of last week and with Puslinch closed the best bet was Little Lake in Barrie, where reports were of 4" to 7" of ice and average catches of pike and the rare walleye. Late last week TS informed me he'd seen on THE BLUE ICE REPORT  (daily ice conditions with on-ice interviews by a local ice hut operator) that Cooks Bay, the south arm of Lake Simcoe had several inches of ice.

  But there was one more thing TS and I had to tackle before we could head out...renew our licences. Sounds easy...right? With typical bureaucratic wisdom, the MNR took a streamlined system of licencing and added several layers of BS. As it turns out, in an urban area of nearly six million people, there are only five or six outlets where you can renew your licence and because of the new procedures the sales staff are inadequately trained and prone to mistakes. It took us close to an hour to complete a process that could have been done last year in five minutes at an automated kiosk in a mall.

  So...with freshly minted licences, new protective clothing and a general idea of our destination, we retrieved our gear from storage and headed north to the town of Gilford on the west shore of Cooks Bay, Lake Simcoe. By the time we'd arrived, bought minnows and geared up it was already 3PM  and there were only a few hours of daylight left. I'd already frozen my hands numb before we walked 200 yards out onto 3.5" of ice and struggled to assemble my auger. A brisk arctic wind blew down from the north and the still unfrozen main lake driving the already cold temperature of -15C (5F) down another ten degrees and making it near impossible to bait my tiny jig head with a 2" wiggling shiner minnow. Seconds after reaching bottom I felt a light tap tap on the line, set the hook on slack line and retrieved a bare jig.
  I gave up on using minnows immediately, unwilling to risk permanent damage from freezing just to feed the greedy thieves below the ice, and opted for a durable rubber spike. As soon as it neared the bottom, 10 feet below, it was attacked by the ravenous school and after several attempts at setting the hook I finally landed my first fish of 2012...a scrappy 6" perch. It was probably one hundredth the size of my last catch in October...but no less welcome! I struggled to remove the tiny hook with all the finesse and dexterity of a boxer tying his shoe laces with his gloves on, finally releasing my catch seconds before being flash frozen.
  Because of the thin ice, TS made the decision to travel light and hadn't brought his pop-up on one of the coldest days we'd ever been out on the ice together, he was forced to brave the elements along side me.
   The action was fairly consistent with an average 7" perch landed every few minutes...just the sort of thing to end a long fishing drought. A funny thing was that when we were walking out I'd mentioned that I was surprised we'd never gotten any catfish on any of our ice fishing trips and just before we packed it in for the day, TS caught a 12" bullhead!
   We only spent a few hours on the ice, on a trip that was more spur of the moment than planned. My tackle wasn't organized from last year, the sonar's battery was dead and luckily I'd had that single rubber bait. The third thing that can ruin an ice fishing trip is frozen fingers, those are my own personal Achilles Heel. Next time out we'll be better prepared, charged batteries, all tackle accounted for, better gloves and a better choice of areas to fish as the ice thickens.

There's nothing better than first ice.
Glad to be back!