BY LINDA MONDOUX
Where’s the ice?
That’s the cry of ice fishermen across Ontario this winter, especially in prime “big fish” hunting grounds such as Lake Simcoe and the St. Lawrence River, where dangerous conditions are keeping anglers closer to shore.
There is so much open water out there that ice fishing veterans haven’t seen anything like it in more than a decade — if at all. Winter is so mild that some fishermen are taking to their boats as though it were summer. Here is a common report from the field, dated Feb. 7, 2012:
“Took a tour today, started at Owen Sound ... Report: open water from Sydenham falls to as far as you could see into the main sound. As a note, there were 4-6 BOATS fishing off the river mouth on the weekend with very limited success. There was one tiny patch of ice around the ferry. Then to the mouth at Leith, total open water, two fishing, Nil. Down thru Meaford and Thornbury ..Total open water, no fishermen. Craigleith, all open water .. No fishermen (bad sign) ..
“Don’t know at this point .. All rivers were very low and clear, like mid-summer. There is no snow base anywhere, so the chances of a good runoff don’t look good; But mother nature can change things in a hurry ... let’s hope.....for what it’s worth....” (Reported by Steelheader on the LakeSimcoeOutdoors blog)
At Long Point, on Lake Erie, the ice fishing season is expected to wrap up at the end of February without a single hut having gone out onto the ice. Because there is no ice.
“We don’t expect anything this season in terms of hut rentals. It’s non-existent,” says Stefanie Carroll, co-owner of Rotten Ronnie’s Bait & Tackle. “We had guys going out in boats a couple of weekends ago.”
With no ice to stand on, and the shoreline mostly in private hands in the Long Point area, people itching to fish have had to make do dropping their lines in at the pier in Port Rowan.
The mild winter is also putting a damper on snowmobiling season, with clubs unable to set tracks in many areas, and thin ice sending sledders into icy waters. Winter got off to such a mild start that the 53rd navigation season of the St. Lawrence Seaway closed on Dec. 30, 2011, for a record 284 days, beating by one day the previous record set in 2006. With the mild weather continuing, ships could still navigate today.
'It's been a strange winter'
A look at the Environment Canada ice condition report tells the tale: there are large portions of open water and thin ice everywhere, though sheltered bays and water closer to shore are frozen enough in most locations to accommodate huts for the urban fishing experience. But those looking to catch that monster trophy fish are out of luck in much of southern Ontario.
“There’s no walleye fishing this year,” Julie Jarvis, owner of Carpins bait and tackle shop in Ingleside on the St. Lawrence Parkway system, tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “I’ve lived here 35 years almost and I don’t remember anything like this. Inside the parkway is good — at Hoople’s Bay we’ve got huts out and the Lost Villages Ice Fishing Tournament is going on there this weekend in Long Sault. They’re catching mostly perch and pike, with a few walleye. But the hot spot for walleye is out in the lake, and it’s all open water. It’s been a strange winter.”
Lack of safe ice has forced the first Mayors and Firefighters Ice Fishing Challenge to be postponed until 2013, and forced a change of format for the 18th annual Canadian Ice Fishing Championships
in Georgina on Lake Simcoe Feb. 25-26.
“Instead of entirely disappointing so many people who want to see this tournament happen, we have decided to forego the Big Fish Day this year and will have two days of perch fishing instead, held in shallower water closer to shore,” says Rosa Sharpe who, along with business partner Charlie Ross, owns Lures and Tours, the fishing-related tourism company that owns the championship event. “We also have to say, the support received from our sponsors and the anglers for this decision has been very encouraging. Safety first is everyone’s main concern.”
Sharpe and Ross are anxious to get the word out that not all of Lake Simcoe is open water — the area extending off Georgina around the championships headquarters in Pefferlaw is dotted with ice fishing huts, even though a little farther west, around the beach at Jackson’s Point, the water is so wide open “you can surf.”
The Big Fish Day portion of the Canadian Ice Fishing Championships traditionally attracts teams from across Ontario, Quebec, New York and Michigan, making the tournament a big tourism draw for the area. And with a guaranteed first prize of $7,500, it is the premier event in Canada.
'The weather has been against us'
This is the first year the championships is in the hands of Lures and Tours, which has put much effort into “taking it to the next level” with a dinner to go along with the awards ceremony. With teams “sitting on the fence” waiting to see if there would be enough ice to fish before registering for the tournament (the fee is non-refundable), the organizers knew something had to be done.
“The weather was against us,” Sharpe tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “So we decided early enough that it would be perch-only. Now, the people sitting on the fence are registering, and thanking us for making it safe.”
Neither Sharpe nor Ross is a fisher, but as planners and promoters, both realized that while ice fishing is big business in Ontario, it is something that has been high on the tourism radar. “In summer, there are tournaments everywhere you go,” says Sharpe. “In winter, not so much. You need events to stimulate tourism in winter.”
Thus the idea for the Mayors and Firefighters Ice Fishing Challenge, which was to be held Feb. 18-20 to coincide with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ Family Ice Fishing Weekend, when people can try their hand at fishing without the need for a licence. The plan is to see teams of mayors and firefighters compete in their hometowns across Ontario, with each municipality responsible for planning their own festivals in conjunction with the ice fishing challenge.
Just like the Canadian Ice Fishing Championships, however, would-be participants were wondering whether the weather would be cold enough for a festival on ice, especially in the southern end of the province. With reports showing that ice fishing conditions were unsafe in many areas across Ontario, the decision was made to postpone the event until 2013, keeping fingers crossed that this weird winter won’t be repeated for another decade or more.
The show, however, will definitely go on in Georgina Feb. 25-26. With big prize money up for grabs at the Canadian Ice Fishing Championships on Lake Simcoe, there would have been a lot of screaming if this treasured annual event had to be cancelled, ice or no ice.
“The tournament will go on,” vows Sharpe. “Should there be no ice at all, or if the ice is unsafe to go out on the water, there will be a draw for all prizes.”
Family Fishing Weekend
Wil Wegman, who works for the Ministry of Natural Resources, just happens to be an award-winning outdoor writer, fishing seminar host and tournament angler who knows the importance of tournaments such as the Canadian Ice Fishing Championships to the tourism industry.
“Large, high-profile events like this not only provide significant economic benefits to local communities, they also help promote the sport of ice fishing to weekend recreational ice anglers,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “Similar to the way a high-profile golf tournament at a major Ontario golf course would help attract more people to that course afterwards, a major fishing tournament held on Lake Simcoe promotes the great fishery we have there and the communities along her shores. These events basically introduce more people to the sport and the fishery, while still promoting strong conservation principles such as catch and release and sustainability of the resource as top priority.”
While ice hut operators have not been out in lake trout or whitefish areas of Lake Simcoe this winter, some are operating closer to shore in certain areas of the lake. With plenty of yellow perch to catch, the hut operators are reporting that where they are, the ice is between 12 and 15 inches thick. “We encourage people to enjoy these opportunities and make sure they check with a local ice hut operator before going out,” Wegman says.
He is especially hoping the weather co-operates during Ontario Family Fishing Weekend
, with at least 20 events registered across the province. But even if there’s no official event in your community, you can still gather up the family and head out on the ice close to shore. Just remember that while no fishing licence is required, weekend conservation licence limits still apply.
Meanwhile, the top prize of $7,500 will be won by someone — fishing or no fishing — Feb. 26 at the Canadian Ice Fishing Championships. With 80 per cent of teams traditionally registering just before tournament day, a crowd is expected on the Friday night before the event, when registration will take place at the Pefferlaw Lions Hall, where there will also be a safety course. Organizers have capped the number of teams at 120, so you might want to get there early.
As a bonus, Sharpe says each participant this year will receive a claw-like ice safety pick. That will come in handy should the ice give way while competitors are out perchingMI during this most unusual winter.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — February 2012