Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hit the North Shore’s Bars for a Grand Slam

Spider Rybaak

Dennis, Pittston, Pa, a guest of Anglers' Bay,
holding an  "eye" he took between Cleveland and Vienna Bars

Early last week, I was trolling along NY 49 for some juicy quotes and photos for my next book, “Fishing Oneida Lake” (Burford Books, Ithaca, NY, scheduled for release in autumn, 2014). A group of guys standing around in the parking lot of David C. Webb Memorial Park at Taft Bay caught my eye. They looked too burly, hairy and ugly to be trying out for the Olympic figure skating team. So I figured they must be ice fishermen.

I approached them slowly. When you look like me, you walk gently so’s not to scare anyone.

“How were they hittin’, fellas,” I asked.

All but the hairiest remained silent. 

“I got my limit of walleyes,” he answered “but came up a little short of a Grand Slam.”

“Say what?” 

“I was trying to hit an Oneida Lake Grand Slam,” he answered, looking at me askance, like I was really dumb. “You know, a limit of walleyes and a limit of perch,” he continued, with great patience and understanding.

“Of course I know what you mean,” I protested.

I mentioned what I was doing and Craig Storms immediately volunteered to take me ice-fishing, to show me “How to pick up walleyes and perch on the North Shore’s bars.”

Surprisingly, all the other guys started opening up, too. True to the tradition of camaraderie Oneida Lake ice-fishermen are known for, they all pitched in with stories of their day. Everyone agreed to having a ball, even though the day was the coldest so far this winter.

An aspiring guide, Craig volunteered to take me fishing to show me how it’s done. We agreed to meet 6:30 a.m., on January 8, at Apps Bait, tucked into the northeastern corner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Cleveland Docks Public Fishing Access Site. 

We ended up heading out at Anglers Bay, just west of Vienna Bar, because we were “walkers” (the term mechanized icers use to describe their pedestrian counterparts), and that’s where the steep drop-off into the lake’s deepest area comes closest to shore. About a quarter-mile out, Craig pulls out his smart phone, goes to the Navionics App and starts looking for the 20-foot depth on the drop-off, more specifically, “a bend in the structure.”

Craig likes to fish the bends because they attract more fish. When he finds one, he digs a hole and lowers his MarCum LX5 sonar into it. 

“The bottom’s carpeted in fish,” he announces with the excitement of a man who just had the world’s most beautiful woman invite him over for a chat. 

He digs a couple more holes. Setting up his Otter Double--a two-man shelter--he pulls out a jigging rod loaded with a Slender Spoon, hooks on the top half of a pinched buckeye (he actually lets his left thumbnail grow all winter so he can pinch bait--and irritate his wife). Dropping it to bottom, he lifts it a couple inches and starts jigging pretty forcefully, in 4- to 6- inch sweeps, punctuated every 6th time or so by lifting it to arms-length.

I tie-on a Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, bait it, and follow his lead.

After about 30 minutes, our arms are twitching … Nothing.

We move about 10 yards north, into 28 feet of water. Craig drops his bait. A line separates from bottom and rises toward it (the lake floor, fish and the lure all appear as short horizontal lines on the graph).

“Seeing a separation head for your bait is very exciting. When it merges with the bait, the temptation to set the hook can be overwhelming. But don’t do it!” he says, with a look as serious as cancer. “Wait until you feel the hit before setting the hook,” he advises.

The fish hits. Barely legal, we agree it’s still a nice one. Breaking out in a smile, the master says “I can’t remember ever seeing a bad one, come to think of it.”

Dropping his lure back down, Craig gets another hit almost immediately, but loses it.

Things are starting to smoke, I think.

I get a hit without seeing a separation. The fish sped in out of the sonar’s range. It’s a shorty, too.

A couple minutes later, I watch a separation rise to my lure. Then it goes down again. Then it comes up. 

“Steady…steady,” Craig instructs.

After playing a mind game for a couple minutes, the fish hits. The fight is a good one. We’re using 4 lb. test line so it takes a couple minutes. But it appears, dodging maddeningly in and out of view. Finally, it goes vertical and Craig pulls it out of the hole.

After high-fiving, and taking hero shots, I decide to lay the thing down near the graph to get a photo of our set up.

Craig warns me not to…But no, I don’t listen. Somehow, that big, fat walleye managed to stick her head back into the hole. Craig grabbed her, but she slipped through his fingers like an exciting dream when you wake up. 

The Cleveland, Phillips and Vienna Bars boast drop-offs where walleyes and perch gather in winter, and slowly move west. Find the magic depth and you’ll stand a good chance of pulling fish dinners out of the hole until your arms hurt.

Still, Craig reminds everyone: “Grand slams don’t happen very often; only about 1 in 25 times out. But that’s what makes ‘em so worth it.”

You can access the best walleye spots from the Cleveland Docks Fishing Access site at the sharp bend on the hamlet’s east side, and at the little park at the end of Mill Street in the village of Constantia. 
Craig landing a good one.

One of our shorties

Craig on Ice

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Icing Hawg Perch

By Spider Rybaak
Burt with Billington Bay ice hawg.
Oneida Lake is one of the most productive lakes in the country. No matter what warm-water species you have swimming in and out of your imagination all day long, the place is full of ‘em.

Still, yellow perch ranks as top dog, year-round. And lately, they’re bigger than ever and more plentiful than at any time in recent memory. In fact, 2014’s first weekend saw colorful shanty cities sprout all over the lake, and the perch spread on the ice outnumbered all other species by about 10 to 1.

So when Burt Menninger called, saying: “Sorry to call you on such short notice Spider, but there’s a good perch bite on right now.  My contacts caught their limits yesterday and they’re well on their way to matching that today. I’m leaving within the hour. Wanna come?”

His words launched me into a flurry of activity that had the whole house (four cats and my sweetheart) running for cover.  What can I say?  My stuff is stashed all over the house and I had the opportunity to go ice-fishing with one of the lake’s living legends; nothing was gonna stand in my way.

You see, Burt has lived on the lake for almost 60 years. In that time, he’s fished every inch of the place. In fact, his reputation for catching walleye and perch was so widespread in the last century, a popular refrain around the lake was “If Burt ain’t catching fish, no one is.” And while 75 years of life have slowed him down a bit lately, he still knows his stuff.

Before long, we were standing on the ice in the fish-rich southeastern corner of Oswego County’s territorial waters. Cazenovia’s Michael Sattler (an old friend of Burt’s) and son Hunter did their reconnaissance well and a batch of perch was sprawled out in front of their ice shanty like a Persian rug.

We stood on ice 11 inches thick, over 18 to 20 feet of water. Burt started catching perch, including monstrous 13-inch hawgs, on hardware tipped with a perch eye. Mike and Hunter were doing equally well on buckeyes. I started nailing them on flatheads. Jim Evans, another buddy of Burt’s who was already out there when we arrived, was running around tending tip-ups loaded with buckeyes.

At one point, Jim’s action was so fast and furious, he called Hunter over: “There’s a load of them down here. Fish one of these holes before they move.

They moved, eventually, over to my hole, then over to Burt’s, followed by Jim’s tip-ups, one after the other…round and round.

So dig a couple holes in a 50-foot radius and when they stop hitting in one, do “the ice fisherman’s troll:” move to the next.

Rick Sorensen, over at App’s Landing, a bait and tackle shop at the Cleveland Docks, says the perch are scattered all over the lake, and any spot can produce right now.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Web site offers an informative feature on ice fishing, covering everything from clothing to tackle and techniques. Check it out at If you’re new to ice fishing and don’t have time to read the above article, the most important thing you should know is the power of ice. While many veterans won’t go out unless the lake is paved in at least 3 inches, the DEC considers 2/3 of that safe.

Below is a short list of DEC’s recommendations drawn from the article:
Ice Thickness               Permissible Load
2 inches                       one person on foot
3 inches                       group in single file
7.5 inches                    one car
10 inches                     light truck (2.5 tons)
In addition, stay away from open water and tributary mouths.

Hunter's bucket running over.

Michael next to his rug of perch.

Jim with three in five minutes.