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Cold Comfort: A Good Winter For Ice Fishing

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At Cedar Lake, and other lakes around Connecticut this winter, the ice fishing has never been better. With the recent cold snap, the ice was 10 inches thick.

Let’s be clear — Connecticut is not Minnesota, which can have fishable ice in October and fishing shacks are booked for vacations. But the cold wave here has produced some of the best ice fishing in recent memory.

“It’s been about five years since we’ve had fishable ice for this long,” said Mike Beauchene, supervising fisheries biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “Because of the cold, there’s definitely been more days to get out there.”

Valinn Ranelli of Old Lyme was setting his tip-ups over freshly bored holes in the ice recently.

“Last year, I had like, one day of ice fishing,” Ranelli said. “I’ve been ice fishing every day for a week already.”

The zero and even sub-zero weather means hard, thick ice — and that’s very reassuring.

As Don Dandelski says about ice fishing: Falling in is easy; it’s getting out that’s hard.

On a recent day at Cedar Lake, he showed off his hand spikes, which fishermen use to claw up onto the ice if they fall through. Hand spikes are worn on a cord around the neck for quick deployment, but Dandelski doesn’t think they have been necessary lately.

“We’ve had lots good ice already, and it looks like that’s going to continue,” said Dandelski, a hunter and trapper from Wallingford. “Last winter, it was too warm.”

The popularity of the sport was evident at recent DEEP event at Burr Pond in Torrington, where some 700 people turned out for an ice fishing demonstration. The event was part the department’s “No Child Left Inside” program.

“We had a lot of people who never tried ice fishing before,” Beauchene said. “It was great to introduce new people to [this winter activity].”

A little before dawn on a recent Saturday, Dandelski and his fishing buddies, Jules and Peter Perreault and Jerry Getman, towed their sleds across a beach at Cedar Lake where a solitary lifeguard’s chair stood facing the frozen, snow-covered expanse.

Later, when the sun rose, other figures were visible on the 60-acre lake, each group marked by orange tip-ups — the wooden or plastic rigs that wave a little flag when a fish hits the line.

Ranelli and his friend, Sam Johnson of East Haddam, stood about 100 feet from shore.

“The great thing about ice fishing is that you can go anywhere and you don’t need a boat,” Ranelli said. “I fish all year long, but ice fishing is special. You don’t get to do it that much — at least in Connecticut. And fish caught through the ice always taste better.”

Farther out, Tim Shine of Higganum was using a sounding lead to set the depths of his rigs. Six rigs are allowed per fishermen, or five plus a jigging rod.

“I try out different depths to see what works,” said Shine, wearing camouflaged bib overalls and fur-lined boots. “There’s some good-sized brown trout in here, which are found in about 8 to 12 feet of water. Bass will be deeper, basically off the bottom. I’m using live shiners.”

Shine said many ice fishermen employ a portable sonar unit, called a flasher, to locate fish. Ice fishermen love their gadgets. Gear is towed onto the ice in plastic sleds — power augers to bore holes, bait buckets, tackle boxes, jigging rods and dozens of tip-ups.

“That’s the only exercise we get, running to check our rigs,” said Jules Perreault, who pulled in a four-pound largemouth bass that morning.

Perreault and Dandelski’s encampment looked like a tailgating party, with coolers, folding chairs and burgers sizzling on a gas-grill. Being hunters, the burgers were venison. They were also passing around venison jerky.

“Ice fishing is more social than rod and reel fishing,” Perreault said. “The fun is getting outside and enjoying nature. If you catch some fish, even better.”

By ERIK HESSELBERG, Special to The Courant

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