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Jan. 14, 2004

Hard Water Fishing Is in Full Swing in Oswego County
By Doug Fuegel

Winter weather has arrived in Oswego County, and veteran ice anglers have already been poking holes for perch and crappy on a few isolated ponds and bays along the eastern basin of Lake Ontario.

Ice fishing is easy, very affordable and an outdoor experience the whole family can enjoy. It offers a new experience, plenty of fresh air and a little exercise that likely we can all use. If the kids go along, let it be a memorable experience they enjoy. Let them be your alarm clock on when to quit, especially if it's their first ice fishing experience. Make sure everyone is dressed for the occasion, comfortable in cold temperatures and bring plenty of snacks and hot chocolate for the kids.

Whenever we venture out over water, whether winter or summer, our first priority should always be safety. We have a long ice fishing season ahead of us and there is no need to rush it. Our number one consideration should always be that the ice is safe to venture out on.

There are things we can do and items to consider before we set foot on the ice.

First, check with the "locals," the bait shops near the pond or lake where you plan to fish. Bait shops get firsthand information on not only what's biting, but on ice conditions as well. Consider that smaller ponds and inlets freeze much more quickly than large bodies of water.

If you're not a longtime veteran ice fisherman, stay off the ice unless you see others out there first. Follow their footsteps, and don't venture off the beaten path unless you are sure the entire surface is safe. Walk slowly and constantly check for thickness with a hatchet or ice auger. Remember, we live off the east end of that great snow machine -- snow is an insulator and can prevent the ice from freezing solid.

Clear ice, void of a snow cover, can be just as dangerous. Lack of snow can mean very slippery walking conditions. Clip-on ice creepers for your boots will make walking effortless and can prevent falls and serious injury. Above all, we should never drive our vehicles on the ice regardless of thickness. There is always the possibility of thin ice due to moving water, air pockets or underwater currents. I prefer at least five inches of good ice even for snowmobiles or ATVs.

Basic Equipment

The beauty of ice fishing is in the simplicity of its equipment. Like all fishing, the sky can be the limit for compulsive buyers, but for basics you need only a few items. An ice spud or auger for drilling holes, a sounder for checking depth to place your bait properly, an ice skimmer to clean the holes, and the old standby white five-gallon pail to sit on or carry your equipment.

Add to this a couple of jigging poles and jigging lures for panfish. If you already have an ultralight spinning rod it will work fine. Tip-ups, available at sporting stores, are the equipment of choice for larger fish as walleyes, northern pike or trout. The best bait for these bigger fish is minnows, available at most bait shops. Of course, modern technology knows no bounds for the ice fisherman that wants or thinks they need everything. There are heated ice tents, propane stoves and heaters, underwater cameras, battery-operated depth finders, ATVs to haul your gear complete with GPS, and I even saw a new battery-operated jigging pole that vibrated to keep the bait moving up and down in the water. That little item at upscale sporting stores is only $40 plus tax.

If you're a first-timer at ice fishing, check with the bait shop closest to your fishing site. They have serviced and advised their customers for years on techniques, best baits, and basic equipment for area ponds or lakes.

Icy Hotspots

Oswego County has several premier ice fishing waters. Oneida Lake has often been labeled the walleye capital of New York and Sandy Pond is likely the hottest northern pike body of water in the entire Northeast.

Oneida Lake is very accessible; it lies just north of Syracuse with its western end bridged by Interstate 81. Numerous public and private access points are located along both the north and south 20-mile long shorelines.

Walleyes and perch are schooling fish that travel in great bunches. Locating them can sometimes be difficult but you can increase your odds for success by talking to bait shop owners, and once on the ice, look for the concentration of other anglers. Most times they are concentrated for a reason -- they are catching fish! An ultralight jigging pole, tipped with a tiny teardrop jig and baited with a live grub or small minnow, works great for panfish including perch, crappy and bluegills. For walleyes, most anglers prefer setting their five allotted tip-ups baited with minnows. Some anglers are successful using larger jigging poles with Swedish pimples.

Only a short drive from I-81, North Sandy Pond is likely the most popular ice fishing location in Oswego County. Northern pike fishing is nothing short of fantastic. Pike from four to eight pounds are common, and several over 12 pounds are taken each year. In addition, this two-mile wide and four-mile long pond gives up some of the best perch fishing of the entire state. Its shallow depths and weedy bottom are ideal habitat for these and other species of fish. Public access is not available but several businesses and private marinas offer easy access to the ice.

South Sandy Pond, the sister body of water to the North Pond, also offers great fishing but access is limited to permission from cottage owners. There are no businesses or public access points.

Just west of the City of Fulton is Lake Neahtahwanta. This 500-acre lake is probably the most accessible ice fishing spot in Oswego County. There is ample parking just off State Route 3. This is the perfect ice fishing spot for kids, with easy access, little walking and superb pan fishing. Perch action is usually very hot and bluegill fishing can be just as furious.

Both the Redfield Reservoir and the Lower Reservoir on the Salmon River are great ice fishing destinations for panfish and an occasional trout. Both have easy access via public boat launch sites. There are several other ponds located in Oswego County such as St. Mary's Pond and Whitney Pond, both in the Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area. A listing is included in the Fishing and Hunting Guide published by the Oswego County Department of Promotion and Tourism.

Compete for Fun and Prizes

Ice fishing is a great time for derbies. Derbies offer cash and merchandise prizes and they provide a great family outing -- especially for kids. The Mad River Club will host its annual two-day ice fishing derby on Sandy Pond Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. Every kid entering a fish receives a prize. Hot refreshments are available all day. Headquarters for the derby will be the Sandy Pond Sportsmen's Club, County Route 15 in Sandy Creek. Call 387-5788 for details.

The Fulton YMCA hosts its annual Ice Breaker Derby Feb. 7 on Lake Neahtahwanta. The derby features a host of cash and merchandise prizes for adults. Kids can win savings bonds and there will be prizes for the biggest fish caught each hour. For more information call 598-9622. As in all outdoor hunting and fishing activities, there are rules and laws to follow. Some waters allow unlimited perch catches while others have a daily limit of 50. There are similar limits on walleyes, crappy and trout, and there are regulations on the number of tip-ups and hand poles allowed. Details are listed in the DEC's Fishing Regulations Guide.

For more information on all Oswego County's winter activities, you can request a free copy of the county's Hunting and Fishing Guide and the Winter Events brochure by calling 315-349-8322, or visit the Oswego County Web site at www.oswegocounty.com.

Doug Fuegel is the weekly outdoor writer for the Oswego County Weeklies and freelances for several outdoor publications. He is a contributor to several tourism brochures including the NYS Seaway Trail's Journey Magazine, Oswego County Fishing and Hunting Guide, and Jefferson County's Outdoor Guide. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, past president of the New York State Outdoor Writers Association, and member of the Lake Ontario Sportfishing Promotion Council. He recently retired after several years as a charter captain on eastern Lake Ontario. He lives in West Monroe with his wife Shirley and son Jeff. You can contact Doug at 315-668-9492 or e-mail dfuegel@ix.netcom.com.

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