Rods, Reels and Rookies
A Newcomer’s Ice Fishing Escapades
It was 6 a.m., and I had to trade my warm, cozy sheets for a pair of big, puffy snow pants. My guide for the day, Hayden Ives, was waiting outside my door and greeted me with an enthusiasm that made me even more tired.
We were going ice fishing on Lake Champlain: Deep Bay to be exact. The temperature hovered around 20 degrees and soon the sun would be out to cast a blinding glare off the snow and ice outside. The lake had been frozen for months and the ice was almost 2 feet thick. We planned to drop a line below that frigid sheet, to see what lurked below.
I was a newcomer to the sport, and I didn’t want to be completely useless once we got out on the ice. Days before my trip, I reached out to Cody Peryea, a local student from Altona, New York, who had grown up fishing the nearby North Country waters.
“You want to have all your stuff prepped the night before — the auger, some pails, bait and the rods,” Peryea said. “You’re going to wake up and start fishing really early, and you’re going to fish all day. But once you find the fish, it’s constant action.”
A veteran angler, Peryea also advised me how to manage my time throughout the long, cold winter day.
“You can’t sit at the hole all day. If you aren’t catching them, you’ve got to drill more holes and try something different,” he said.
I was ready to take what I had learned and put it to use. Once we arrived at the beachhead in Point Au Roche, Ives loaded the sled with our gear and pulled it by a rope tied around his waist. After walking for about a mile onto the ice, Ives came to a winded stop and declared we were at the spot. We were almost out of the bay, just before the strait. There wasn’t another shanty or warm body in sight.
Ives and I started by drilling six holes into the lake within a 50-foot radius of each other. After drilling each hole, he’d take a slotted kitchen ladle and remove the slushy remnants.
Ives then unfolded a tent that was attached to the back of the sled. Inside, he set up a small chair and bucket for us to sit on. We began to prep the rods.
“We’re using maggots. They’re most common for catching perch and game fish,” Ives said, as he drove a hook into the wriggling larva. We dropped the hooks down.
“Let it go until it hits the bottom, it’s about 45 feet,” he said.
The bug will freeze to death once in the water, so Ives instructed me to twitch, or jig, the rod every couple seconds to make the bait resemble live food. We waited and jigged for a long time before the action started.
Tap, tap, tap. It’s a distinct feeling: the end of the rod started to bend more and more as fish big and small nibbled at the bait below.
“Set the hook, reel it up, pop the lure out and drop the line back in,” Ives said. “If there’s one, there’s more.”
Both Ives and Peryea were right. It turned into non-stop action, one perch after the other. For hours, it was as if the fish couldn’t wait for my bait to reach the bottom. Perch have chubby bellies, black stripes running along their yellow-green body and crimson red fins. Ives called them “the poor man’s shrimp.”
After almost five hours of fishing, the wind had battered our ambition, and we began to pack it in. We finished with 10 keepable perch. We caught many more, but perch must be over 7 ¼ inches in length in order to be sold.
Ives usually likes to sell his catch at the local fish market, but we were both tired. So, we released the fish back into the hole from which they came and headed in. I pulled the sled returning, to at least be of some help.
However, I still wanted to see the fish market, to learn more about how and why people choose to sell their catches from the lake. The Lake Champlain Fish Co. is actually a small fishing store in Rouses Point. Through selling bait, other fishing gear and buying catches, the company has been supporting and providing for a North Country fishing community for almost 40 years.
When the catches are brought in, usually in the afternoon, owner Jim Jefferies weighs, sorts and then packs the fish on ice in the freezer. The price Jefferies pays out is determined by the length and type of fish. He says he hasn’t seen anybody get rich off of it, but the money is a good reward after a cold day on the ice. The fish have also been a culinary staple in the area for generations.
“A perch dinner is a North Country tradition. I like to beer batter it, and have it with a nice side of french fries,” Jeffries said. “People eat a lot of our lake fish here, but perch is the mainstay.”
Even after my own inquiries, I still wanted to see the professionals at work. The Rouses Point Sportsman Club, in tandem with the Latitude 45 Marina Bar, was putting on their annual ice fishing derby across Lake Champlain. That was the next stop.
The derby is a two-day-long competition on the ice, and some of the most seasoned fishermen from around the country attend. Cody O’Brian, president of the club, remarked on the increasing winter lake traffic he’s seen over the years.
“We get people from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio and all over New York,” O’Brian said. “This place has a reputation now, and it’s a good one.”
During my time at the Club’s lodge, I heard stories that backed up his claim of monstrous perch and razor-toothed pike being dragged from icy holes the width of a soda can. Along with the fishermans’ tales, I saw the cold-hard proof.
Matt Lefebrve, one of the 81 competitors in the tournament, hauled into the lodge a 37-inch, 13 pound northern pike, which would wind up winning the tournament for that class of fish. He caught it using a tip-up, a mechanism that alerts the fisherman with the raise of a small flag when a fish takes the bait. The fish is then pulled in by hand. I asked him what his plans were for the trophy fish:
“I don’t know yet, it might wind up in my belly,” Lefebrve said.
I could tell this was also a sport that passes through generations, as the tournament was open to all ages. I saw a young boy, Brayden Benson, enter the Sportsman’s Club lodge with two prize-winning perch. His father was behind him, proud.
“It’s the reason we’re here: to get kids involved in outdoor sports,” O’Brian said.
The derby wound down at the end of the weekend, and so did my journey. I had seen and learned so much through exploring this winter classic. Needless to say, I’m glad I got out of bed that morning and put on my snowpants.
-Story and Photos by Drew Wemple