Friday, January 30, 2015

Sandy Pond on Ice

By Spider Rybaak

Ice shanties on Sandy Pond.
You seldom hear Lake Ontario and ice-fishing in the same breath. That’s because you can’t trust the wind out there. Even during the most severe winters, when the lake is entombed in white for as far as the eye can see, the ice is brittle at best and all it would take is a Canadian sneeze to fragment it, blowing it south to pack sunny Oswego's beaches in an icy, pizza-like crust.

That’s why nature gave us the Eastern Lake Ontario Dune and Wetland Area, 17-miles of sandy beach stretching from the mouth of the Salmon River to just north of the Black Pond Wildlife Management Area. And while the dunes and magnificent shoreline draw countless sun worshipers from around the world in summer; and the viewing platforms spotting the wetlands see hordes of birdwatchers spring and fall; winter gets into the act, too, beckoning legions of anglers to the ponds tucked-in behind the dunes, to walk on water and drill for fish dinners.

Eight large ponds grace the place. The northernmost, Black Pond, is unpredictable; a couple years ago high water broke through the sand barrier at the beach and drained the thing, leaving nothing but a skinny creek. And South Sandy, the southernmost pond, doesn't offer any public access. The six in-between boast fish year-round and some, like South Colewell Pond, even have public launch sites with parking, but they’re not always plowed.

That leaves the biggest in the system, North Sandy Pond. Measuring about 3 miles long and over a mile wide, fed by numerous creeks, loaded with habitat warm water species thrive in and boasting some of the first safe ice in the county, it’s the premier ice-fishing destination on this corner of the big lake.

The pond is best known for its northern pike and perch fisheries. Northerns ranging from 22 to 28 inches, and perch running from 7 to 10 inches are plentiful, and quite a few larger specimens are available. Lake walleyes are becoming more and more common under the ice around here. Their hormones hooked out in the lake by the pond’s fragrant plume, big females start trickling in around late February, and spawned-out males hang around for a couple weeks after the season opens. Look for them over rocky bottoms on the south end, near the mouth of Little Sandy Creek.

This is also the best spot to catch steelhead on their way to spawn in Little Sandy Creek. Crappies and sunfish are also popular, and mostly targeted on the north end.

Limited street parking, a large pay lot, and free pond access (the slot on the east side of the restaurant) are available at the end of Wigwam Drive, off CR 15. Free parking and winter access (though not always plowed) are available at Sandy Pond Beach, at the end of CR 15. Woody’s Tackle, a full service bait shop located on NY 3, about three miles south of the pond, can provide up-to-the-minute fishing information. Call 315-298-2378. Sandy Pond is ringed in private property. Don’t venture on anyone’s land without permission.
Iced jack perch. 
Walleye on ice.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Crown Jewel at First Ice: Big Bay

By Spider Rybaak

Hardwater village on Big Bay
One thing you can count on to grace the face of New York’s inland lakes this time of year is safe ice. And while all the ponds in the northern tier can make that claim, none comes close to hooking the imaginations of as many Northeastern anglers as Oneida Lake. The ice bite is so superior, the world’s most popular freshwater fishing magazine, “In-Fisherman,” lists it regularly in its winter edition’s “Adventure” section as the place to go for hardwater fish dinners.

All the warmwater species popular with ice-fishermen thrive here: schools of keeper-sized walleyes, dream-sized yellow perch, black crappie and sunfish, great quantities of pickerel, and a smattering of northern pike, tiger muskies and burbot (freshwater cod).

The shallow water that makes this lake so productive (it averages 22 feet deep) makes fishing relatively easy, too. And although just about any spot produces at one time or other, the crown jewel at first ice is Big Bay.
Its massive weed bed, shallow water and the slightly warmer temperatures pumped in by tributaries like Big Bay and Little Big Bay Creeks make it the lake’s most heavenly spot for panfish at ice time.

The northwestern corner offers the hottest action. On a good weekend, up to 100 shanties spot the ice within a stone’s throw of Woodworth Road in West Monroe.

Bluegills wider than a giant man’s hand fill most of the space in the buckets being hauled back to shore. Most are taken on ice dots tipped with mousies or spikes.

Perch, predominately in the 6- to 8-inch class, are also available and strike the same baits the sunnies do.
Crappies running from 9 to 13 inches are plentiful, too.  They prefer larger baits like waxworms tipped on Swedish Pimples, and buckeyes and fathead minnows fished plain or tipping rattling hardware.

Panfish move around a lot throughout the water column, so fish at various depths until you find ‘em. Pickerel thrive in the bay, and the lake’s dwindling population of northern pike, as well as an occasional tiger that comes up the Oneida River, hang out in the weeds clinging to the drop-off at the bay’s mouth.

Burbot, a native species requiring cold water, normally occupy spring holes in the deepest parts of the lake. The state’s only indigenous fish that spawns in winter, they come into relatively shallow water where they’re likely to hit minnows targeting pike and perch. Since most anglers have never seen one, they mistake it for a snakehead or other alien and toss it on the ice to die.

And that’s a terrible waste because, like all cod, burbots are delicious. In fact, Minnesota has been holding an annual eelpout  (the Midwestern name for the species) festival for 30 years (

Jack and Jake Hackett of Fulton and one of their bluegills

Burbot may look ugly but they sure taste good

Friday, January 2, 2015

Winter Swans and Soft Water Fishing

By Spider Rybaak
A couple hardy anglers trying for the last pike of 2014 at Cleveland Docks

The calendar says it’s winter; but all the mud outside says spring. Sometimes you have to laugh at the tricks nature plays on us; and go with it.

Last year folks were drilling through safe ice on Oneida Lake before Christmas, and the hard water stuck around well into March.

This year it’s an entirely different story. What little ice managed a toehold around the edge of the lake earlier in the month is gone, throwing die-hard icers into the depths of despair with worry they won’t have a season this year.

“Just look at the lake,” cried a grizzled old timer in a North Shore bar last weekend. “You’d be hard pressed to find an ice cube out there right now… In the end of December!…It just ain’t right!.”

As he sat hunched over, watering down his drink with tears, a guy comes in to show off a limit of walleyes he caught at Sylvan Beach by slowly walking the north wall, dragging a Rapping Jig, tipped with buckeyes, a few inches off bottom.

He claimed a couple guys were still “dredging for pike with jigs and worms on spinner harnesses, but a stiff wind just started blowing out of the north and staying put in the frigid air is very uncomfortable.”

The low hill on Cleveland’s north side carries prevailing northwesterlies over the village, dropping them a few hundred feet off shore. A couple guys took advantage of the cover.

Natives of North Bay, they stood at the lake end of the harbor wall, casting minnow baits anywhere there was water. Knowing their stuff, they and worked their baits in a variety of ways; steady retrieves, jerking, twitching on the surface, stop-and-go, you name it.

Their efforts netted 3 pickerel, including a 28-inch monster, all 3 to 5 feet down, over deep water.

A little further west on NY 49, just outside of Constantia, a flurry of white cruised gracefully on Sunset Bay: 40 or so tundra swans in route to winter range were taking a break, feeding on the vegetation in the shallow water.

Unlike mute swans, the orange-faced European imports you see at duck ponds, tundra swans have black faces with a yellow spot just before their eyes, and a faint strip of pink lining the back half of their lower jaw. Native to western and central North America, they spend the summer in arctic ponds and winter down south. In recent years, they’ve expanded their range further east, creating a new fly-way which carries them over Oneida Lake.

They’ll stay on Sunset Bay until ice or human harassment run them off.

The state’s largest body of water, Oneida Lake invites a wide variety of migratory waterfowl this time of year. NY 49 skirts long stretches of their favorite feeding sites. Better hurry, though, all it’ll take is a couple cold, quiet nights for ice to crown the lake, closing it to migratory waterfowl until spring.
Flock of Tundra Swams feeding at Sunset Bay