The wind is howling, snow is drifting and the temperature is hovering around 15 degrees. None of that matters to Augustus “DJ Boneshaker” Cruse as he waits in near-blizzard conditions for a fish to strike beneath the frozen surface of Lake Ronkonkoma.
“I live for days like this,” says the 32-year-old disc jockey from Lake Grove with a big grin.
So do most Long Island ice fishing fans, who magically appear on lakes and ponds almost anytime the weather forecaster strings together several consecutive days of subfreezing temperatures between Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
Four inches of solid ice is considered the minimum thickness for any type of hard water sport, so prospecting begins with a safety check. Only once sufficient ice has been confirmed does the fishing commence.
HARD WATER HOT SPOTS
Here on Long Island, ice fishing is strictly a freshwater sport. Anglers are allowed to fish on many lakes and ponds in Suffolk County, but ice fishing is prohibited on both Nassau and Suffolk County parklands. Generally speaking, larger, deeper lakes are most productive, but there’s no shame in trying your favorite summertime fishing hole if it’s close to home.
Among the most popular local ice fishing hot spots are Lake Ronkonkoma (DEC Launch Ramp/Victory Drive), Artist Lake in Middle Island (Route 25) and Fort Pond (DEC Launch Ramp/Edgemere Street) in Montauk. Each contains a cooperative mix of yellow perch, crappie and sunfish, plus bigger but less aggressive largemouth bass. Lake Ronkonkoma and Fort Pond also have walleye, while Laurel Lake (Route 25, Laurel) adds trout to the mix.
FROM THE PROS
Ice action is usually best in the early morning or late afternoon, with an edge going to cloudy days. Small, ice-fishing jigging poles are favored by local experts, but some anglers also use tip-ups — small devices designed to suspend live minnow baits at predetermined depths.
“Beginning ice anglers should start by trying for panfish with jig poles,” suggests Cruse. “These aggressive feeders are feisty and respond well to small, teardrop-style ice fishing jigs. Tip one with several wax worms, lower it near the bottom and wiggle it gently. Strike if you feel a tap or added weight at the end of the line.”
“If trying tip-ups, note the depth you set each bait, says Dave Lengyel, 32, a hard-core ice-angler from Manorville who works in environmental conservation. “That way, if you catch something, you’ll know how deep to place your next bait.”
Keep moving is more good advice from Curse, who drills lots of ice fishing holes during the course of a day. “I’ll jig at each for a few minutes,” he says. “If I don’t get any bites, I’m off to the next. If you know the lake from fishing in summer, try around any weeds or bottom structure you’ve previously discovered. Fish holes with the clearest-looking water first.”
Advanced anglers like Cruse and Lengyel often rely on ice fishing electronics to zero in on larger prey such as walleye, bass and trout. Most have portable fishfinders that use sonar to “see” fish beneath the frozen surface. A few even use underwater cameras.
“Electronics help,” Cruse says, “but they aren’t necessary to give ice fishing a try. The most important thing is to get out and start prospecting. With a little success, this sport is really addictive.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Not all fishing tackle shops sell ice fishing equipment and bait, so you may have to look online or visit a large sporting goods store to gather basic necessities, including:
JIG POLE ($20-$50) Tiny ice fishing rods can be purchased, or make your own using duct tape to attach an ultralight spinning reel to the rod tip section of a two-piece panfish or trout rod.
TIP-UPS ($10-$30 each) This simplistic device allows the angler to set a small spool of line in the water below the ice with a spring-set flag locked in position. When a fish bites, it pulls the line and the spool rotates to “tip up” the flag. The angler then hand-lines the fish through the ice.
ICE AUGER ($50-$400) Used to drill fishing holes through the ice, manual hand augers are fine for Long Island waters. In colder climates, gas-powered or battery-operated augers may be necessary.
ICE SCOOP ($5) Basically a large slotted spoon, ice scoops are used to keep ice fishing holes free of new forming ice.
LONG-NOSED PLIERS ($10-$20) Use a set of long-nosed pliers or forceps to remove hooks from your catch.
SLED ($6-$30) Pile your ice fishing gear into a 5-gallon bucket and place it on a sled. Add a towrope and slide it along to your fishing hot spot. A circular red plastic sled works well.
BAIT Live minnows ($6 a dozen) are preferred for tip-ups. Popular panfish lures include small teardrop jigs, tiny soft-tailed jigs and Swedish Pimples. Tip these with wax worms or a small piece of night crawler.
Anglers are allowed to use five holes each for tip-ups, plus two more for fishing rods or hand-lines. The maximum diameter for ice fishing holes is eight inches.
A freshwater fishing license is required for anyone 16 or older. Fishing regulations can be viewed online at dec.ny.gov/outdoor/7917.html.
Before leaving the ice, mark each hole with a pile of snow so its location will be obvious to skaters, ice boaters and anyone else on the ice.
Safe ice is thick ice. The golden rule is to stay off until it is at least four inches thick. Never drive a motor vehicle onto the ice or venture onto unknown ice alone. Beginners should make it a point to fish near other anglers. All groups should carry a safety line that can be tossed to someone who falls through.
Ice fishing is fun, but it also can be cold. Dress in layers, as you would for skiing. Wear waterproof boots and gloves, and bring along several dry rags for cleaning your hands after handling the catch or baiting hooks.