By Vic Attardo
Put on your mukluks. Hitch your dog team to the sled. Then cover your head with the ugliest fur-lined hat with ear flaps you can find because this is a destination story and we’re going for a long, frozen ride.
On the frozen Erie Canal, near Utica, you can order a pizza from a nearby pizza shop – they will deliver. This one showed up with a slice of bluegill.
Any of you who can’t take the chill — if you cringe when the thermometer goes below 40 — better get off now, or buy yourself more UnderArmor.
We’re going North my fellow crappie anglers. North to where the land is white and the water grows hard and slippy. This is no place for a boat, but you can jump on my snowmobile, ride the ATV if the white cake is thin, or if you’re dog enough, just pull the sled yourself.
Also leave those 14-foot B’n’M poles behind (love them as I may), this is the time for 18-inch rods. Yes, I said inches. It’s also the time, and these are the places, for rods with only three or four guides down from the handle, not a dozen on a long buggy whip. Indeed with the short, feather-weight jigging sticks we’ll be using, you can’t even swat a fly. I’ve tried.
In my time on this Earth I’ve ice fished in some pretty strange places for some pretty strange fish. In Greenland I actually ice fished for Greenland sharks; around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, I ice fished for pike the size of an unfriendly Florida gator and in the granite realm of northeastern Maine I frozen fished for landlocked salmon and whitefish on a lake so large the horizon was its shores.
But those trips weren’t for crappie.
The Erie Canal was a prominent achievement in the early story of America. No wonder that catching crappie on its historic waters makes one feel patriotic.
For cold crappie I’ve also ice fished in some pretty strange places, places that a lot of other ice anglers haven’t gone — and may never thought of going — but I’ve done it. And if you can imagine yourself on the ice catching 13, 14 and 15-inch crappie, then you should it give a go yourself.
For instance I bet you’ve heard of the Erie Canal. You know the song, “Low bridge, coming to a crossing ….. da, da, da, on the Erie Canal.”
In the Northeast, through New York, the Erie Canal tied our emerging industrial country into a commercial powerhouse. Today major portions of the Erie Canal still exist much as they were but they’re used more for recreation than as a commercial venture. The canal’s locks have been rebuilt and on a summer’s day boats of all sizes ply the Erie’s narrow waters.
I’m pretty sure that when the canal first opened in 1825 the last thing its makers thought it would be used for was ice fishing — and ice fishing for crappie at that. Ah, but there’s that Law of Unintended Consequences for you.
New York guide John Wainwright of the White Dog Trail Company (JwainwrightF@aol.com; 315-894-5834) knows the Erie Canal like an old-time bargeman and he has twice taken me to its frozen waters where crappie thrive. It’s the Erie’s locks, he notes, away from the conjoined Mohawk River that make ice fishing possible.
When the locks are closed, such as Lock Number 18 at Jacksonburg near Utica, the canal fills up, becomes still and in cold years freezes solid. There are a lot of cold years in upstate New York.
When we drilled into the Erie we had over 12 inches of ice. And we had crappie.
The whites struck in about seven-feet of water across what is the canal’s general shape, a fast sloping U. However, with its rock walls and aging construction, the canal has succumbed to mud bars and slides. I’ve found that it pays to work off the deep edges of these impromptu structures.
The first time I was out on the canal it was a darn cold day and Wainwright and I scrambled down a steep riprap wall – coated with dead zebra mussels — near the Mohawk-Herkimer gate and onto the ice. The canal there is some 30 yards wide from riprap to smooth shore, the width depending on how high the water, or the ice, is.
My jitters were immediately calmed as looking towards Jacksonburg I saw other ice fishermen, and ice fisherwomen and ice fishing kids. Indeed besides a scattering of the typical slovenly dudes you’d expect to see bundled like walrus, there were also women and children all tending to the canal’s frozen divots. One extended family had established a tent, tables and an American flag smack in the middle of the frozen Canal.
It was then I learned the secrets of the canal’s crappie, lessons I have applied on subsequent trips.
More Unusual Weirdness
Leave it to Vermont guide Jamie Vladyka of Fish Hounds Outdoors (www.fishhounds.net; 802-774-8042) to lead me to two of the strangest places I’ve ever ice fished for crappie. Both of them were rivers, or at least parts of rivers.
If you want to test your nerves and mental stability, consider ice fishing on what would be flowing water during the unfrozen months.
Such was the case with both the Connecticut River and the Hudson River.
But before you get the impression that Vladyka is willing to put his clients at risk for the achievement of catching crappie, I have to reveal that both locations were backwaters, or at least somewhat off the main flow.
On the Connecticut River, Vladyka called it a “setback” and indeed the main river was a hundred yards away. Seeing some ice on the river proper I tried to get Vladyka to take me out there but he politely refused.
The setback had a narrow inlet/outlet that controlled the water level in the section’s 20-acres. When a large upriver dam on the main river is opened, water seeps into the setback. Except for a narrow and undefinable channel, the area holds only shallow water, 12 feet deep at the most.
Even under the ice, green weeds were still present but you had to search for them. They were scattered. And as you might expect, the crappie were usually scattered in the weeds.
One time when Vladyka and I fished the setback near Springfield (the Simpson’s movie debuted there), we had just drilled our divots when a veracious snow squall struck. A high cliff wall offered some protection but even so, we were better off in our Clam tents. Despite the storm, the crappie still hit.
Another time, on the Connecticut we enjoyed beautiful but frigid weather and still the crappie struck.
According to Vladyka, there are about eight ice-favorable setbacks between Wilder and Vernon, Vermont, a distance of some 75 miles. In that stretch, he regularly fishes six of these between six dams. This is the part of the river which roughly occupies the bottom third of Vermont and is joined with New Hampshire.
In size and practicality, CT River setbacks range from five to 25 acres and no two are structurally alike. Some have a single outlet and the flow changes direction according to the current of the river; others are fed and drained by what can be described as independent to-and-fro channels, basically setback islands in the stream.
Whatever the construction, frozen crappie fishing on the Connecticut River setback is phenomenal.
More Historic Irony
It seems that Vladyka doesn’t tire taking me to unusual and strange places to ice fish. Frankly I find it kind of mind expanding.
Last year after we performed some sedate ice fishing in some sedate places, he announced we were going to the Hudson River. Yep, another river.
Along the drive down the west side of eastern New York I imagined that Vladyka had finally found a spot to dump my body and that this was my last day ice fishing on God’s frozen earth. As we went I spotted the river at a distance and didn’t see any ice. But when we got to where the Hudson Canal intertwines with the river, I saw white. Vladyka never mentioned a canal.
He eventually led me to the bottom of the last lock on the Hudson Canal above Schenectady. From this vantage I could see the unfrozen river and the city below, but here at the lock the water was at most, sixty yards across and frozen fast. We then climbed down a canal slope and a wall ladder and pulled our equipment out to the center. I have to admit my first steps were performed with trepidation.
Then we started catching crappie.
Once again there were weeds and a hump in the canal bottom and the crappie were in the weeds and along the hump. Of all the places Vladyka had taken me to, these fish were the most beautiful black crappie we ever encountered ice fishing. We marveled at them.
But my day still wasn’t finished, and certainly not finished in terms of ice fishing strange places.
When the bite slowed (and I say that only quantitatively) Vladyka had another location in mind, this one on the Hudson River itself. We drove back north and eventually came to a marina. The marina contained a mess of old boats and sat on an inward curve of the mighty H.
Looking out I saw frozen water but I also saw wobbly docks suspended on the ice and open water at one end of the curve. If I’d owned horse blinders, I might have donned them for the next thing I knew we were pulling our sleds over a rocky jetty and out across pressure cracks that gave me the heebie-jeebies. But when you’re with Vladkya you sort of go with the frozen flow and soon we were again working the white for crappie. And catching. The Hudson River Canal and the Hudson River itself turned into a powerhouse destination.
You might say after reading this, that, “Oh-no, not me, I’m never going ice fishing for crappie. And I’m certainly not going with those guys: they’re crazy.”
Well, don’t worry about it. It takes a certain craziness to go out on the ice and fish for crappie. And I don’t mind the label because I know how much fun I’ve had being this loony.