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Early ice-fishing season offers unique opportunities for opening day anglers

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Walleye anglers, deer hunters, and other outdoors enthusiasts relish the opening day of their favorite seasons. After all, opening day offers the anticipation of a full season ahead as well as an excellent opportunity to harvest the targeted species.

Since the onset of the ice-fishing season is determined by nature and not by a calendar date, ice anglers don’t celebrate an opening day per se. Still, the beginning of the ice-fishing season, like the opening day of other seasons, offers excitement and excellent odds for success. Here’s a look at some early-season advantages, challenges, and fishing tips.

Early Season Advantages

Early ice is typically a near-shore experience, which affords anglers easy access. Also, fish are easy to locate as they inhabit shallower water and are more concentrated than during mid-winter. In addition, the various species are at their highest population levels of the winter.

Available food, green vegetation, and good oxygen levels draw fish to the shallows where they feed actively. The seasonal changes of colder water and ice cover contribute to this aggressive feeding, a characteristic that spells the likelihood of good catches for anglers. Another factor in the ice fisher’s favor is the fact that the fish have received minimal angling pressure in recent months, and non-pressured fish are easier to catch than “educated” ones.

At the season’s onset, anglers will find fish in traditional habitat. For example, northern pike favor weedy bays. Panfish, too, can be found in these bays as well as on flats. While some walleyes may hang on weed edges, the majority will hold on rocky, structural edges such as points and bars.

Early Ice Challenges

The primary challenge of early-ice anglers is finding out the thickness of the ice at a particular destination. As winter progresses, on-ice anglers, as well as bait shops, can provide accurate information on ice thickness. But at season’s onset reliable information is often unavailable. At any time of the year, but particularly in the early and late seasons, anglers must put safety first. A good motto is “When in doubt, don’t go out.”

General guidelines state that four inches of good ice is safe for walking, and five inches will support ATVs and snow machines. Some experienced ice fishers do develop an innate ability for “reading” unsafe ice conditions, but carrying a spud is inexpensive insurance for determining ice depth. Other safety tools include a 100-foot rope with attached, flotation device and hand-held ice picks for pulling oneself up onto the ice. Early season calls for anglers to fish with a partner or to fish only when others are present on the ice.

Thin ice or lack of snow cover also presents a challenge to anglers as such conditions may cause fish to be skittish. These conditions call for light treading on the angler’s part.

Early Season Tips

Prior to actually fishing, anglers are advised to get their equipment in good working order. A little preparation off the ice goes a long way in ensuring an enjoyable outing. When selecting a destination in the early season, consider locations that are small, shallow, or protected as these sites freeze before larger waters do. The very best spots will have bays and flats with adjacent, deep water.

Once at a fishing location, check out the shallows first, and if the action is slow, gradually work towards deeper water. And, of course, always check out edges such as weed lines, points, and humps.

Be sure to use a sounder to verify water depth so that offerings can be placed at the desired depth. Perch and walleyes, for example, feed on or near the bottom. Northern pike and pickerel on the other hand feed efficiently on bait that may be several feet off the bottom, and crappies and bluegills routinely suspend in the water column.

Going with lighter lines and less-visible, terminal tackle is a good way to increase catches at any time of the year. Consider putting lighter line on panfish rods and of using monofilament or fluorocarbon leaders when targeting larger species. The modern ice angler is an active, not a sedentary, one. He drills a lot of holes and fishes them thoroughly. If the action is slow, he moves to another location and starts up the auger again. If the fishing is hot, he practices selective harvest by keeping smaller and medium-size fish for the pan and releasing larger fish so they will have the opportunity to spawn this coming spring.

Outdoors Calendar

Tuesday: Federated Sportsmen’s Clubs of SLC Meet at Canton Boces at 7 p.m.

Wednesday: Adult Indoor Archery League at Norfolk R&G Club (769-3140).

Thursday: Youth Indoor Archery League at Massena R&G Club (769-3140).

Jan. 22: SLC Fisheries Advisory Board Meets at Canton Boces at 7 p.m.

Jan. 25-27: New York Sportsman’s Expo at NYS Fairgrounds in Syracuse.

Jan. 26: Pierrepont VFD Open-Boundary Ice Fishing Tournament.

Feb. 9: River Valley Gun Dog Club Hosts Annual Banquet at SLVSC.

Feb. 23: SLRWA’s Annual Northern Pike Challenge (384-3450).

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