The majority of WNY fisherman really only spend the warm months on the great waters in our area fishing. For most, it is because their boat is stored and sealed for the cold months, others only have one species of fish they pursue and that is only done during the summer months. I would like to invite all fishermen to broaden their fishing experience or start a new one by bundling up and heading to the ice covered waters for some continued fun following the holiday season.
The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation reports that the sale of fishing licenses totaled 21.6 million dollars this past season. It is a shame to me that most people only get half of their money’s worth out of the amount they paid for their licenses.
The average Joe probably purchases his license in the spring or summer when the weather warms or when taking the kids camping, or possibly when someone invites them on their boat for Labor Day Weekend, but there is the time from January to March and, quite possibly April, where the waters still have a bounty to spill under a frozen mask.
The Buffalo area has some great places to ice fish. As the waters accumulate a safe thickness of four or five inches of the cold stuff there is a plethora of places within a very short driving distance to get out and stretch a line.
When I was a kid my cousin and I would ride our bikes to Beaver Island State Park and pillage the previously used holes of adult ice fisherman for a day of angling. The perch and blue gill kept us busy for hours. There is the Small Boat Harbor in downtown Buffalo, the foot of Ontario Street and every winter there are huts posted on the Erie Canal just south of the Scajaquada Expressway’s interchange with the 190.
Not far away in the Town of Tonawanda, again on the Erie Canal, in Ellicott Creek Park, is another favorite spot for fishermen. All you have to do is drive up Creekside Drive and you will see the huts and guys perched on their buckets near the small island or within the inlet.
On Lake Ontario there is Tuscarora Bay or Wilson Harbor as it is known among anglers. This is an area hot spot and not too far of a drive. If you do not mind a drive through Niagara County head a little bit east to Irondequoit Bay for some really great fishing. Irondequoit is a consistent producer of big pan fish and a favorite spot of mine. The time you spend cleaning fish could possibly equal the amount of time on the ice.
The diehard anglers of the area will tell you to head south and I do not contest this practice because it is the best reward for your day in the outdoors. Chautauqua Lake is one of the most popular spots in the WNY region to hit the ice without the need for skates. It is a little bit of a hike but well worth drive. Once the ice thickens it is filled with fishermen who regularly catch their limit in perch, blue gills and crappie; there are bass, walleye and pike to be had in this lake also as long as they are in season. Other spots south of Buffalo are Silver Lake near Letchworth State Park, Lime Lake and Cuba Lake. The three counties of the Southern Tier have great fishing waters during frozen months.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the Finger Lakes. Although they may be further away than most would like to travel they surely are amazing spots to ice fish; Honeoye Lake being the one I favor.
With all these options and little experience one may wonder where to begin. Well it is pretty simple. To start find the area you are willing to travel whether it be to the Southern Tier or within the city limits. Now call a local bait shop. The guys in the bait shop know the ice conditions, if the fish are biting, where they are biting and on what bait. Bait shop owners gladly offer this information because it promotes their business and the sport and builds great relationships. In the city of Buffalo; Big Catch Bait and Tackle or Russ’s Bait and Tackle both located on Niagara Street are great sources of info, not to mention they have been around for decades, a testament to the fishing heritage in and around our city.
If you choose to travel further you most definitely want to call a local bait shop. I suggest looking on-line for some different shops. With the internet it is extremely easy to research and plot your destination and find bait shops. For Chautauqua Lake The Happy Hooker Bait Shop is always reliable and on Irondequoit Bay Duffy’s Bait and Tackle is my preference for assurance I am not wasting a whole day and gas. No matter where you go always make sure you know that there is three to five inches of ice. The DEC and other local governments have the respective ice conditions posted on-line or through a hotline.
Now that you have an idea of where you want to be let us discuss equipment. There is no denying that fishing products bring in billions of dollars a year but you do not have to spend a fortune. If you have a nice warm pair of boots, a coat, hat and gloves you are almost on your way. An ice fishing pole is no more than twenty dollars, everyone has a five gallon bucket or chair to sit on and bait, be it live or artificial, is not very expensive at all. The most expensive item you may need is an auger. A manual auger costs about fifty bucks, a motorized type three to five hundred. You do not always need one though; there are always old holes that just need a poke through with a pipe or tire iron. I have even seen guys use a chain saw. The only thing I would add is an ice ladle to keep your hole clear of slush as it will affect the action of your line and they are no more than five dollars.
All the equipment I have mentioned is all you need to catch perch, blue gills or crappie and there is always the possibility of a bigger fish such as pike hitting your bait for a pleasant surprise. If you want to venture into walleye fishing a fifteen to twenty dollar “tip-up” as they are called is an effortless task. You bait it, drop it to the desired depth and leave it and go to your fishing hole. Think of it as an over the ice bobber. When a fish, usually a walleye but quite possibly a pike or musky, takes your bait a flag pops up indicating you have a fish.
A trip to any bait shop or Gander Mountain with a few questions will have you on your way. If you have the funds you can be at a pro-staffer level of inventory for well under two thousand dollars. The more expensive items being your hut; available brand new from fifty to four hundred dollars, and a fish finder ranging from three to five hundred big ones can all be purchased at a cheaper rate in used condition. Either way, these are luxuries not necessities to get started. I myself do not own these items; all I have is the bare essentials. If my friends who own the Taj Mahal of ice fishing invite me to tag along I will gladly enjoy their spoils but I am just as happy to do it the way my grandfather did it fifty years ago.
WNY is a very tight knit community no matter what circles you run in. I am confident that the majority of people is related to or knows an ice fisherman who can get them started or just wants some company. If you do not know any ice fishermen and provided there is no tournament on the water you are fishing most guys would be more than happy to help you out. Just go out there and get started.
For those of you who are interested in the sport of ice fishing or have not participated in some time I urge you to take advantage of what this region has to offer during the all too sedentary winter months. Grab your gear, dress like your tailgating the Bills vs. Miami at home in December and go and enjoy Mother Nature’s mental therapy session because many fishermen, and women, in most areas of this country are not blessed with the variety of freshwater fish and the ability to walk on water like we are. After all you did pay for a year’s worth of fishing so why not fish all year?
Fishing hotline numbers are listed on this site.
(Photo Credits: Wilson Habor photo by Bob Urtel. Chautauqua Lake photo by Rick Darney)
(Everyone welcome Jeff Abbott to the Buffalo Sports Daily staff. While the site has been dominated with Bills and Sabres content, Jeff’s passion and knowledge of fishing and hunting will bring something new and exciting for fans who share his passion of sports not considered as mainstream. We’re pleased to have him as part of our team as we continue expand our coverage… so look for more fantastic articles coming from him.)