Originally done for sustenance by those living in arctic and subarctic climes, early ice fishing involved chipping a hole in the frozen surface of a lake or pond with an axe and then gigging prey with a spear. Ice fishing has since evolved into more of a recreational pursuit, enjoyed by angling enthusiasts when the temperature drops and lakes freeze over. This evolution has seen hand or power augers replace axes and picks for quickly boring holes in the ice, while rods, usually shorter than “standard” poles, are used instead of spears.
“It’s (ice fishing) fairly simple and anybody can do it. I think it’s just easier (than summertime fishing) to be completely honest with you,” said Gus Glasgow, of Harrisville, an experienced tournament fishermen and co-founder of the Western PA Hardwater (WPA Hardwater) Tournament Series.
“One of the draws of ice fishing is that it allows access to anybody. The average individual can’t get out on a lake during the summer and fish spots without a boat, a canoe, a kayak, some means of transportation. That can be expensive. So ice fishing, you have a rod and reel that you can pick up for less than $20, a bucket of minnows, and you could be on any spot on the lake that you want to fish and have just as good opportunity as anybody else to catch a fish,” he said.
Panfish, such as sunfish, crappies and perch, are some of the more popular ice fishing targets. Depending on location, walleye, sauger or pike can also be had. It is even possible to hook fish more commonly associated with mild weather, including bass and catfish.
According to Glasgow, Pennsylvania’s ice fishing season begins in early January and extends through the beginning of March. Though the season is longer in the commonwealth’s higher elevations, with northeastern Pennsylvania being a particular hotbed, Glasgow described an “ice belt” extending along the Interstate 79 corridor from Lake Arthur in the Portersville-area (Moraine State Park) to Lake Wilhelm near Sandy Lake (Maurice K. Goddard State Park) to Presque Isle Bay in Erie (Presque Isle State Park). More locally, Glasgow recommended Kahle Lake, a reservoir near Knox that straddles the northwest Clarion/southeast Venango County line.
Other nearby locations for ice fishing have been reported to include Treasure Lake in the DuBois area (Sandy Township), Shaggers Inn Pond near Penfield in the Moshannon State Forest, East Branch Lake close to Wilcox (Elk State Park) and Kinzua Lake near Warren (Allegheny National Forest).
Safety is of paramount concern when venturing out onto the ice. “You have to learn to read the ice, the color, the thickness, the density. It all plays into it,” Glasgow said.
According to the website takemefishing.org, a minimum of four inches of solid, clear ice is needed to support an average person’s weight. To this end, it is important to check ice thickness every few steps with a spud bar (a long piece of steel, generally about 4-5 feet in length, with a tapered point at the end), ice auger or ruler.
“Clear ice is safer than white ice. White ice has bubbles in it, bubbles are soft,” Glasgow explained. “Have you ever bitten into a clear ice cube versus an ice cube that’s been sitting in a cup for a while and it’s turned white. You can bite through that white one pretty easy versus that solid, clear one. You’re going to chip a tooth, it’s (the clear one) much harder. So you have to pay attention to the color of the ice and how much of what’s there.”
Ice covered by snow or slush, as well as cracked ice or ice that evidences surface changes should be avoided.
Reiterating the concern for safety, Glasgow said, “Obviously, the number one thing is safety. Don’t ever go by yourself. Period. Always ask somebody else. Get yourself a set of safety equipment, you know your ice picks or life jacket, a float suit, fishing jacket, or bibs that float.”
It is also recommended that fishermen take along a cell phone or two-way radio and that they let a friend or family member know their location.
Citing participation at WPA Hardwater events and observations at various lakes, Glasgow believes ice fishing is growing in popularity, especially among families. “Hands down, it’s increasing. If there’s safe ice, it looks like a city on the ice. The amount of people who come out is just astronomical,” he said.
“It seems a lot more families are involved. We have a lot of contestants that are father and son or father-daughter or husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend. It seems to get everybody out. Our tournament series, it’s not just really good anglers that are trying to go out for money. We have a lot of people that are out there for fun, that enjoy spending time with their kids and their spouse or loved ones. It’s really a family oriented sport. It really is.”
Information on the WPA Hardwater Tournament Series and its upcoming events can be found on the organization’s Facebook page.