If the conditions are right, expect to see more than 100 ice fishermen (and women) on the lake next weekend for the Knee Deep Club’s annual ice fishing contest, bringing together a hardy group of anglers who participate in what might be Lake Hopatcong’s most popular winter activity.
The opportunity to fish year-round, the hours spent with good friends, and the chance to enjoy some particularly tasty fish are all reasons that scores of fisherman traverse the chilly, windy conditions to ice fish on the lake. “It’s a natural part of the lake scene,” said Tim Clancy of the Knee Deep Club. “It’s an unusual but fun winter activity.”
Clancy said that in his experience, the people he takes ice fishing fall into one of two camps: half are hooked for life (no pun intended), and half never go again. “It’s not the kind of thing that everybody’s going to love,” he said.
But for those who get pulled into the scene, there are two general styles of ice fishing. The first is called jigging, and it involves sitting over an 8- to 10-inch hole, lifting a small rod up and down, bobbing until a fish takes the bait, usually a tiny brightly colored lead jig that is baited with a mousie, grub, or meal worm to tempt the fish to bite. With that approach, fishermen likely catch smaller fish, such as perch or crappies, that almost never reach a weight of two pounds in size, but can still be eligible for prize money in Sunday's contest because there is a separate category for just perch and crappies. Winners or not, according to Clancy, winter-caught perch are excellent for eating. “It tastes like a completely different type of fish when you catch it in the winter,” he said.
Paul Rhoinski of Queens, N.Y., used the jigging approach on Sunday, to much success. He caught about 20 perch, which he was planning to bring home for cooking. The other approach is called tip-up fishing, and not only is it more likely to yield bigger fish, it’s also more conducive to socializing with a group. In tip-up, a small bracket is placed over a hole, with a spool of fishing line hanging below, a baited hook at the end. The bait is often shiners, which are the same bait generally used in the summertime. Typically, tip-ups are set in water that’s less than 12-feet deep, and the bait hangs 6 inches to a foot off the bottom. A flag is bent down to the center of the structure, and once there’s a tug on the line, the flag whips upright. At that time, the fisherman grabs a hold of the spool and pulls the fish in; but in the meantime, he or she can hang out and enjoy some food and drink, and gather around a fire with friends. “It’s a much more social approach,” said Clancy. “Success is secondary to the camaraderie.” Jim Salerno of the Knee Deep Club agreed as he fished for the fourth time this season on Sunday. “We enjoy hanging out here with each other,” he said. “It’s like a tailgate party.” He mentioned that it was a good thing he was having fun, because he wasn’t having much luck catching anything. “We still have a good time together,” he said. Last February, when John Wilhelm caught a 26-pound musky from the lake during the Knee Deep Club’s contest, Clancy said the most impressive thing wasn’t the size of the fish, but the simple fact that Wilhelm was able to rein it in. “It’s like pulling a German shepherd through an 8-inch hole,” he said. “That’s the part that’s extraordinary.”
Muskies actually aren’t included in the contest because the club is building the musky fishery, but Sunday’s event will award prizes for the heaviest perch or crappie, pickerel, and the three heaviest fish of any other species except muskies.
Katie Repinski, 14, of Beachwood, was ice fishing for the first time last weekend with her father and older brother, learning the ropes in preparation for the contest. “I think it’s a lot of fun,” she said. She was monitoring the tip-ups while her dad and brother were trying the jigging approach. It was the first time she had ever been to Lake Hopatcong, she said, but she was “looking forward to coming back.” And, hopefully, catching a few winners.
The average ice fisherman comes with gear in addition to the jigging rod or tip-up. Many will use an auger—gas powered or hand-crank—to make a hole in the ice, which needs to be regularly attended to while tip-up fishing, because the holes can ice up quickly. (Most will ice over within a day, so although subsequent passersby may get tripped up on the uneven ice, it doesn’t present too much of a danger once the fishing activity is over.) Those who don’t use an auger might try an ice spud, which is a pipe with a sharpened end, to chisel open a hole when the ice is 6 to 8 inches thick or less.
Clancy said that some people will take fishing to the next level, using equipment such as depth finders or underwater cameras. “But then you end up spending so much time being Jacques Cousteau and looking at the camera that you don’t catch anything,” he said.
The most important items to bring, however, are safety equipment. Though you’re never completely safe out on the ice, Clancy said, ice that’s four inches thick will generally hold the weight of a group of ice fishermen. And a group, he added, is important—“it’s never a good idea to go ice fishing alone,” he said. The equipment he suggests bringing includes a first-aid kit, an inflatable device or life jacket, a cleat that attaches to boots to provide traction on smooth ice (which is less necessary when the lake is covered with snow, as it is now), a light that snowmobilers can see for after-dark fishing, and ice spikes, which can be used to pull yourself out of the water if you do fall in. (If you don’t have ice spikes, often car keys will do the trick, he said.)
If you do go in—which, Clancy added, has happened to him a few times over the years—it’s important that your clothing and equipment doesn’t weigh you down. So items such as snowmobiling helmets should be easy to remove. Once you pull yourself out of the water, he said, it’s important to disperse your weight by spreading out on the ice, and then rolling away from the opening.
Right now, there are large sections of the lake with ice that is a solid 10 inches thick, so finding a relatively safe area to fish shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for those participating in Sunday’s contest. Finding the magic spot to carve out a hole and drop a line, however, is always a challenge. Unlike regular lake fishing, when you can cast in a different direction or motor to a different cove easily enough, ice fishing involves a lot more of a commitment to a single spot; Clancy likened it to buying a lottery ticket.
But that lottery ticket could pay off, as the ice fishing contest is often the Knee Deep Club’s most popular event, and 80 percent of the entry fees go to payouts to the winners. The contest will begin at 6 a.m. on Sunday (January 23) and end at 4 p.m., and the entry fee is $20 for club members and $25 for non-members. Entry forms and contest rules are available at www.kneedeepclub.org or at the club’s official weigh-in stations at Dow’s Boat Rental in Lake Hopatcong and Lake’s End Marina in Landing. Mail-in entries must be received by Saturday (January 22), and in-person entries may be made until 8 a.m. on Sunday. A second contest will be held on Sunday, February 20, if conditions permit.
Even for those who don’t catch a winner, it usually provides a good time during the year’s harshest conditions. “You almost get depressed when you don’t have a winter activity,” Clancy said. “For some it’s skiing or snowboarding. But for a lot of us, it’s ice fishing.”