Pennsylvania is known for its trout fishing in the spring, bass and walleye fishing in the summer and its northwest steelhead runs in the fall. But there is also good fishing in the heart of winter for those willing to adapt to the conditions.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission conducted a program Saturday morning on Lake Frances in Nescopeck State Park in Luzerne County to introduce people to the social hobby of fishing on ice.
Allan Schreffler, northeast region education specialist with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, explained how ice fishing is a relatively inexpensive winter hobby that can be enjoyed by everyone. “It’s a great sport to get people out during the winter,” he said.
After taking few precautions and getting the basic gear, you can be catching a variety of panfish species, perch, trout and walleye at lakes across the state.
You can purchase a hand-operated auger for just over $40, and there are models that fit on your home’s battery-operated drill for about $100. The key is keeping the blades sharp on the auger to make the drilling go faster.
Plan to make several holes as anglers are permitted to have five rods in the water at one time as long as they are under their immediate control.
Anglers use small ultralight spinning reel and rod combinations and tip-up poles that range from $25 to $50. “The sport doesn’t have to be expensive,” he said. Tip-ups are fishing pole set-ups that have a flag that tips up when a fish bites your bait. “A hard water bobber,” Schreffler explained.
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While people use rubber jig tails and other lures, “live bait is king.” He suggests waxworms and minnows for bait for a variety of fish including panfish, perch and trout.
A six-inch hole works fine for most species of fish, but for those going for larger fish like musky, you can use an eight-inch blade. He pointed out that all holes need to be less than 10 inches across to reduce the chances of someone stepping into a hole and into the water.
While those are the basic needs to fish, there are some things you can buy to make the experience a little easier and more comfortable. He suggests having a plastic sled to haul your gear, rod holders to fish multiple spots, and a scoop to lift ice out of your hole. Many scoop designs have a ruler on the handle to measure ice thickness.
Other safety items include removable ice cleats for your boots, a life jacket or float coat and a long piece of rope that could be used to reach another fisherman during an emergency. A large bucket with a lid helps to carry your gear and it can be used as a chair.
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Additional comfort items include having a rubber or foam mat to stand on to create a temperature block between your boots and the ice. A portable tent-like hut or shack will help you avoid the wind. You can also have a propane heater to help out on extra frigid days.
While Pennsylvania has about 4,000 lakes and reservoirs, there are some that stand out for ice fishing. The agency created an interactive map through its website to help you navigate your way to a good spot.
When it comes to deciding where to fish, anglers need to look out for themselves and watch for thin ice.
“There’s no such thing as safe ice,” said Aaron Lupaccchini, waterways conservation officer with the Fish and Boat Commission.
“It’s incumbent on you,” he said about being prepared and knowing what to look for when walking on a frozen waterway. He recommends carrying a spud bar (long chisel pole) to test the ice as you walk out to your spot. Anglers should avoid walking near items protruding through the ice like stumps and docks as they absorb heat from the sun which can make ice thinner in those areas.
The best ice is clear ice that is at least 4 inches thick. Where the group was fishing Saturday, the ice ranged from 7 to 11 inches thick.
Lupaccchini also advises people to wear life jackets or a float coat to help them in case they fall through the ice. You should also carry a set of ice awls (picks) that can be used to pull yourself out of the water or to crawl across the ice if you discover you’re on a thin area.
If you do fall through and are able to pull yourself back on the ice, he recommends you crawl on your belly to spread out your body’s weight for the next 25 to 30 yards as the ice may be thin near where you fell through. “It gives you the opportunity to get to safe ice.”
For those wondering how cold water impacts the body, he recommends watching the Coldwater Boot Camp video produced by the Coast Guard on YouTube.
He pointed out that it takes only about 10 minutes before you may lose your motor skills for your fingers and an hour before “full blown” hypothermia takes over.
He said it’s important to know what can happen on the ice, but it is a safe sport to enjoy. “It’s now my favorite way to fish.”
Pam and Shannon Wallace of Mount Pocono were participating in the program with their 8-year-old twin daughters, Julia and Lillian. Shannon ice fished as a child and thought the program was a chance to expose the family to the sport that provided everything you needed for the day.
“It’s a good way to get out in the winter time. We are usually stuck inside. It’s a good activity that you can do,” she said, noting the sport is open to every age level.
“We didn’t have any of the gear so this is a great chance to learn about it and to let the kids experience it,” Pam Wallace said.
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The children were excited to watch the auger drilling holes and to start jigging for fish. “I just like fishing,” Lillian said.
Visit fishingandboat.com for more details about ice fishing, creel limits and licensing information.
Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website’s homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.