Ice fishing's opening day depends on weather, waters

Bob Frye
| Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010

Western Pennsylvania outdoorsmen can, with one exception, count on consistency in the timing of their seasons.

Deer season always opens the Monday after Thanksgiving. The flintlock season always starts the day after Christmas. Trout season is always the first Saturday after April 11.

But the ice fishing season?

There's no official opener for that. It varies from year to year, and even lake to lake, based on weather.

This year is proving no exception.

Pymatuning Lake in Crawford County, for example, had 6 inches of ice as of last Thursday, and fishermen were hitting it heavily, according to a condition report provided by state park officials. Yellow Creek Lake in Indiana County had six inches, too, while Raccoon Lake in Beaver County had five and Keystone Lake in Westmoreland four, park officials said.

But Lower Twin Lake in Westmoreland County had less, as was proven when one angler fell through the ice last week. The water was only waist deep and he was able to free himself, but that points to the need to be careful.

"Just remember, there is no such thing as safe ice. There is only good or bad ice," said Dam McGuire, a waterways conservation officer for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission in Somerset County.

The commission tells anglers they should look for a minimum of 4 inches of clear ice before venturing out onto any frozen lake. But they need to be aware of fluctuating water levels, primarily at flood control dams, too, said Denny Tubbs, spokesman for the commission's southwest region office in Somerset.

He points to his own experience at Curwensville Lake in Clearfield County a few years back.

"We drilled through the ice, and then the auger dropped. We looked, and there was a 10-foot air pocket between the ice and the water," he said.

"Sometimes, in those situations a lake freezes, and then the water level drops and you have little support for the ice. You just have to be extra careful when you're ice fishing."

If conditions are right, ice fishermen can do very well at catching fish for the table and even the wall. Commission records indicate some of the largest northern pike, walleye and bass caught in a year's time come in winter.

But this may not be the best year for that.

The best weather for making ice involves prolonged cold spells with daytime highs in the teens and nighttime lows in the single digits, said Bob Smerbeck, senior meteorologist for

"That's probably not likely to happen" in western Pennsylvania this year, he said.

"We really don't foresee periods of bitter cold that will last that long. We expect this winter may be at or even a little warmer than normal, so ice fishing conditions are going to be a little inconsistent," Smerbeck said. "Fishermen are going to have to pick their spots."

Additional Information:

Ice safety tips

Most local lakes -- especially Fish and Boat Commission lakes and county lakes -- are not monitored for ice thickness. Some state parks lakes are, however.

You can visit the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' winter activities page to check out conditions at some, though not all, parks.

Keep these safety tips in mind:

• Blue/black ice is stronger than milky white ice.

• Perimeter ice is weaker due to shifting, expansion and sunlight reflecting off of the bottom.

• Avoid areas with protruding logs, brush, plants and docks, as they can absorb heat and weaken ice.

• If you go on the ice, wear a life jacket and take ice awls to help you get yourself out of the water if necessary.

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