Angle on ice: Winter fishing draws a crowd ‘for the fun of it’

Mel Peck, of Mercersburg, Pa., pulls a yellow perch out of the water and through his ice fishing hole at Bald Eagle State Park on January 31, 2014.
Mel Peck, of Mercersburg, Pa., pulls a yellow perch out of the water and through his ice fishing hole at Bald Eagle State Park on January 31, 2014. CDT photo

Ice-fishing proves that walking on water is possible.

That’s how they get out onto local lakes to erect their villages of tents off the beaten path, where anglers go to enjoy the outdoors, mingle with strangers who share their passion and, of course, try to catch fish.

Accompanying the tents are men, women and children with fishing poles in one hand, drinks in the other and propane-powered heaters at their sides to keep warm.

You can find many of those outdoors enthusiasts at Bald Eagle and Black Moshannon state parks, where the camaraderie is high and safety is emphasized.

And even if you don’t catch any fish, you can still walk away with good stories, said John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, who has been an angler since 1976.

“It’s an easy, inexpensive and social sport,” he said.

‘Enjoy the outdoors’

The population of ice anglers who brave the chill said that each winter they create a community on the frozen water as a way to keep the yearlong fishing season going and enjoy the camaraderie among the group.

“It’s something you have to grow up with. I’m not sure a lot of people can just get into the swing of the lifestyle,” said ice-fisherman Mark Homan, of Rebersburg. “I think we do it as a stress relief from the daily stuff and to enjoy the outdoors.”

John Butler, 47, of Lock Haven, sat outside a tent he had pitched on Foster Joseph Sayers Lake at Bald Eagle State Park, hovered over a hole in the ice with his rod.

He bobbed his wrists up and down, and the line of his fishing pole was pulled through the water. You could see the steam come from his mouth as he exhaled, but a heater at his side kept him warm in the freezing temperatures.

There was a nibble here or there, but no real bites. That was OK, because he had caught about a dozen fish already, most of which he threw back into the water, and a few perch and bluegills that he saved to fillet later.

“You ice-fish for the fun of it and to meet a lot of people,” said Butler, who has been enjoying the winter activity for about 12 years.

Butler got into the sport after some friends at work introduced him to it. He has since traveled around the state to ice-fish and encourages others to check it out.

At another tent nearby, Donald Robinson, of Bellefonte, was having the same luck — a lot of nibbles and no bites — until he used backup trout bait he had bought the night before.

Matt Truesdale, environmental education specialist at Bald Eagle State Park, said trout are not native to the lake area of Bald Eagle Creek, as it is a warm-water reservoir.

Robinson used that trout bait to catch a pile of crappies and bluegills instead.

“Sometimes you think one bait is going to work for the right fish, but it doesn’t and you have to improvise,” Robinson said.

Robinson has been ice-fishing for more than 40 years. He grew up near Bradford, and said his favorite spot was on the Tunungwant Creek, where he would sometimes make the 12-mile drive across the state line into New York to fish on the Allegheny River with his father, who has since passed away.

‘In our blood’

For Robinson, it wasn’t about catching fish, but creating bonding time with his father, Rod Robinson, whom he simply called “pap.”

“It was in our blood,” Robinson said. “We’d just go out to the creek, set up a shack and wait. We didn’t even have to say anything at all. ... It was just a nice way to spend time together.”

Robinson moved to Centre County about 30 years ago to attend Penn State and found a new watering hole at Sayers Lake.

Bald Eagle and Black Moshannon state parks are the among most widely used spots for ice-fishing in the county, Arway said.

The season usually starts around the first of the year and lasts into February, Truesdale said.

Park Manager Jessica Lavelua said Black Moshannon is higher in elevation and colder than other state parks in the region, and anglers were out just after Christmas.

She said that on a crisp, sunny day, the park can see up to about 80 people ice-fishing. About 10 to 15 anglers hit the ice daily on average, Lavelua added. The same holds true for Bald Eagle State Park, according to daily reports from Truesdale.

“It’s kind of its own community out there,” Lavelua said. “The fishers kind of band together and we do our part to make sure they’re safe.”

Park employees check the ice daily to make sure it’s thick enough to hold up.

“We will physically go out there to drill the ice to check for thickness,” Lavelua said.

The state Fish and Boat Commission recommends at least 4 inches of ice before a person ventures out on top of it.

Currently at both state parks, the ice is about 12 inches thick — a density that Truesdale said is thick for this time of year and fisherman Homan said is perfect to drill through.

“When you drill, you want it to be thick enough for safety, but not so thick that it’s hard to drill or you can’t bring the fish up to the surface,” Homan said.

Homan uses a power auger to drill holes. Others might use manual ice augers, Arway said.

‘Use common sense’

Neither state park has employees who monitor the waters continuously, but each does have a team of certified ice-rescue specialists available and a relationship with the Fish and Boat Commission for emergency rescues.

Commission spokesman Eric Levis said the department has conservation officers who assist in emergencies and work with recreation areas.

Truesdale said Bald Eagle regularly keeps a winter report online to update visitors on snow conditions and ice thicknesses at certain spots of the lake and Bald Eagle Creek, which feeds into and flows out of the lake.

Additionally, at all water launches, the park keeps ice rescue equipment for situations when someone does fall through the ice.

Annually, there are about a half dozen ice incidents at Bald Eagle, Truesdale said.

“It seems like there are people who fall through every year, and that is usually a result of people not being cautious or people too eager to get out on the ice,” Truesdale said.

The first incident of the season at Bald Eagle State Park came late in 2013, when an individual slipped through the ice after wanting to be the first person to go ice-fishing, Truesdale said.

At that point, Tuesdale said, the ice was only about 2 or 3 inches thick. Luckily, that individual was able to climb out of the water without any assistance.

“We just urge people to use common sense,” Truesdale said. “If you have a feeling you shouldn’t be doing it, then don’t do it. It’s not worth risking your life.”

Arway said that when someone falls through the ice, the person should remain calm and attempt to position his or her body horizontally in the water. Ice picks can be used to claw your way out of the water.

In case of emergency, 911 should be the first point of contact, followed by the state park.

At Black Moshannon, Lavelua said, park rangers make sure that there are rescue tools such as buoys and ladders nearby.

The park also holds an annual winter festival that works as an ice-fishing educational tool for the public, with volunteers and park workers holding demonstrations. This year, it was held Jan. 18.

“It’s all about safety, getting to know your environment and even identifying some of the fish in the water,” Lavelua said.

‘Best time possible’

Neither Black Moshannon Lake nor Foster Joseph Sayers Lake is stocked specifically for ice-fishing. The Fish and Boat Commission does, however, stock Sayers Lake annually with channel catfish to provide for year-round angling opportunities, said Dave Kristine, Fish and Boat Commission fisheries biologist in Fisheries Management Area 3.

“Naturally reproducing populations of panfish and bass provide decent ice-fishing at Black Moshannon and exceptional ice-fishing at Foster Joseph Sayers,” Kristine said.

He added that both lakes have naturally reproducing populations of yellow perch, sunfish, crappie, largemouth bass and bullheads. Chain pickerel are found in Black Moshannon Lake, and Sayers Lake has a large population of carp.

The most sought-after fish this season at Black Moshannon State Park is the northern pike, Lavelua said.

At Bald Eagle State Park, anglers are reporting that they are catching a few more crappies and bluegills.

The Fish and Boat Commission has regulations that allow people to keep their fish instead of following catch-and-release practices.

“In all we do, we strive to make sure people who like to fish and ice-fish have the best time possible while providing them with the resources to keep them safe,” Arway said. “We urge fishers to have a partner and have the right tools for fishing and safety. It’s one of those sports that don’t take a lot, but to have a good time and to keep smart about things.”