Ice-fishing’s a Way of Life for this Veteran Adirondack Guide

by | February 2022, Nature and Environment

Terry Watson is usually much more careful. But when the chance to skitter across frozen Copperas Pond in search of big lake trout presented itself one spring day a few years back, the veteran Adirondack guide couldn’t refuse. In the course of Terry’s 60-plus years fishing the North Country, ice fishing for lake trout has gone from being a much-anticipated winter treat to a legally actionable transgression. Beginning in the 1970s, the state began closing trout season on most of its waters at the end of September and not opening it again until the beginning of April, effectively shutting ice anglers out from the time when lake trout are the friskiest and most delicious.

During this particular spring, though, the weather had conspired to give Terry a rare shot. A late cold snap had laid down fresh ice over the pond after the April trout opening. And though the pond is accessible only via a steep hike from the roadside, Terry decided to give it a shot. After he ascended the icy slope he was duly rewarded. A clean sheet of empty glazing with no one else to disturb it greeted him. Setting himself to work with an ice auger he proceeded to drill his hole and then pull out first one, then two, then three fat trout. His limit reached, he slipped his fish into his creel, packed up his auger on his little wooden sleigh and then looked around to see that the ice had started to break up in the midday warmth. He took a few steps and then shwoom, through the ice he went. He flailed. He slipped. He failed to find purchase. Fortunately, he was close enough to shore that his foot got hold of a rock, allowing him a life-saving pause. Then one elbow, two elbows, and finally a knee and he was out, his woollies drenched and starting to stiffen in the cold.

Hurrying down the slope with the sled trailing, Terry banged his knees and broke his slides by grabbing pines right and left until he finally reached his truck in the parking lot below.

Terry has no memory of any of this. His story was told back to him later by a friend who happened to catch sight of him in the parking lot. He’d sat there with Terry as he mumbled about his fishing trip like a madman.

Yes, Terry Watson had gotten his legal through-the-ice lake trout. But he’d also gotten hypothermia.

Terry told me this story one morning last winter on Lake Clear while trying to persuade me that ice fishing is actually a lot of fun. When he has clients, Terry makes triple sure of ice conditions and we’d been messaging all month about whether a deep enough freeze would set in to allow an outing. As many of us have witnessed, Adirondack winters are getting milder and milder. “Ice is the most visible, undeniable sign of climate change,” professor Curt Stager at Paul Smith’s College told me. “You can see it with your own eyes.” In a data set going back over a hundred years, a clear trend can be seen in the region with ice starting later and later and clearing out earlier and earlier. The most notable shift can be seen on Lake Champlain. From the 1830s to the 1950s, there were only seven winters during which Champlain didn’t freeze over entirely. Since the 1970s, the opposite is true, and it is the very rare winter now that sees Champlain fully ice-covered.

This past winter, even as January set in, it was still difficult to find the necessary three inches of black ice to make ice fishing plausible. Chris Powers, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Region Five fisheries biologist, told me that the state doesn’t even try to make announcements about ice fishing openings and closures—the liability would be too high. Nowadays, when Powers ice fishes, he hangs a pair of metal spikes around his neck, wears crampons on his shoes and always goes with a buddy in case he goes through.

My own ice escapade finally became possible after a few cold nights in mid-January. With his little sleigh in tow again, Terry led me across Lake Clear, drilled five quick holes, and set up an array of “tip-ups.” Then he upended a bucket, handed me a jigging rod rigged with a tiny grub imitation, baited it with a minnow fillet and told me to sit down and make it happen. “You’ll see,” he promised, “ice fishing has its own appeal.” Truthfully, with the dinky rod and the teeny-tiny hook and nothing but a dark hole and a field of whiteness to contemplate, it all seemed pretty silly.

Terry though, has associations with the sport that reach him, Proust-like, through all his layers of long underwear and touch him smack dab on the heart. This is because at an early age Terry was “Norval-ized,” as his mother used to say. Terry’s grandfather, Norval Watson, was a legendary Adirondack woodsman who took on the responsibility of Terry’s upbringing after Terry’s father disappeared sometime in the late 1950s. To hear Terry tell it today, the Norval-ization process was as fun as it was brutal. “My grandfather was a strict man and free with his hands if you made a mistake,” Terry told me as he re-baited my miniature hook with a miniature piece of bait. “He once kicked me so hard I went in one door of his truck and out the other.” 

Ice fishing was a prime opportunity for Norval-ization. When Norval considered Terry mature enough, he took his grandson to Westport, where once-upon-a-time what seemed like an entire city of ice anglers would gather to fish on Lake Champlain. Rows of stores serviced the throng of ice fishermen. “They’d pack you lunch, drag you out in a shanty and get you set up for the day with a stove and everything you needed,” Terry recalled.

That first ice excursion, after they’d gotten “comfortable” in their Champlain shanty, Norval lit a cigarette and then handed Terry a “spud”—a sharpened crow bar that he was told to use to chip his way through two feet of ice. For 30 minutes Terry did so and was thrilled to see the dark water start to pool up at the bottom of his near-finished hole. So thrilled that he lost sight of the fact that he should ease up on his blows. With one final thrust the spud shot through the ice and out of his hands and disappeared into Champlain’s depths.

“I guess you aren’t fishing today,” Norval muttered and turned back to his own hole. Terry was made to wander shanty to shanty begging for a spud until finally a kind stranger agreed to a loan.

That moment stays with Terry. As does afterward when he and his grandfather jigged their little smelt sticks side by side in two adjoining holes, pulling in smelt after smelt that made a fine pile on the ice and a fine fish fry that evening.

Perch on ice

Unlike lake trout and brook trout, whose ranges are contracting with warmer water temperatures, perch are doing OK right now.

With ice fishing, everything takes place in miniature. Miniature hooks. Miniature poles. And as I sat there listening to Terry on Lake Clear, I started to understand that in order to appreciate ice fishing you have to similarly shrink your expectations. Adirondackers of old had little to do and not much to eat in wintertime. To enjoy ice fishing it helps to imagine yourself in that mode: very, very hungry, where the smallest morsel of protein would satisfy like a feast. It was only when I started to take on this hungry persona that I started to feel the presence of life in the frigid water below. Looking out through the narrow tunnel of my parka hood I saw my little jigging rod start to dance.

“Now, you don’t really set the hook in ice fishing,” Terry explained. “Just reel up nice and smooth.”

I followed his advice. Midway through the tiny struggle I suddenly realized that I deeply wanted this fish. Was it the fact that I had never caught a fish through the ice? Was it Terry’s telling that fried, ice-caught fish are the cleanest and tastiest fish because the cold water kills the parasites and algae that nowadays in the warming Adirondacks muddy up a fish’s flavor in summer? Whatever the case, a few seconds later the most vividly green and black and orange perch I’ve ever seen came through the hole. The fish quickly stilled on the ice, and, unlike in summer, its colors didn’t fade. Instead, it seemed to glow all the more brightly as it froze.

This miniature Hemingway old-man-on-the-ice moment repeated itself again and again out on Lake Clear, with the perch getting progressively bigger and fatter as a school gathered near my hole. Unlike lake trout and brook trout, whose ranges are contracting as higher temperatures shrink the oxygen-rich zone of year-round cold water, perch are doing OK right now. An angler in winter can keep 25 in most waters. I quit before I hit a baker’s dozen.

As the sun wrapped up its Adirondack wintertime cameo, Terry packed his little sleigh again and, shore-side, showed me how to make a cut around the perch’s head and how to loosen the skin and then slide it off entirely. “See,” Terry said, “just like shrimp cocktail.”

That night I fried up my perch cocktails and dipped them in tartar sauce and found them tasty. I thought of Terry snug in his home by his fire now, tending to some deer jerky, maybe skinning a rabbit, or practicing any number of the Adirondack skills his grandfather Norval taught him. But just as the ice is thinning out everywhere, so too is his Adirondack winter solitude being disturbed. A few years back a zip line got put in over Terry’s property and he often hears out-of-towners shrieking as they zoom above his head. The loss of the deep North Country winter and the ice fishing that goes with it all feels part of a great taming that Terry wants no part of. “People are moving here because they want to get away from the way things are in the city. But then they come here and try to make it like the place they left. I’m just glad I won’t be around to see the ice go entirely.”

I will ice fish with Terry again. I will do it because in the not-too-distant future I won’t be able to. I will do it for the stories Terry always tells out on a fishing trip, of a different Adirondacks, peopled by a kind of person that could live off the land, even when temperatures dropped below minus 20.

And who knows? Climate change is never a straight line. The data show outliers all over the map. The Farmers’ Almanac says we’ve got a very cold winter ahead of us. If conditions are right and we do get a late freeze, maybe I’ll even join Terry out on the ice for April lake trout.

Paul Greenberg is the author of The Climate Diet: 50 Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint and five other books, including The New York Times bestseller Four Fish.

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