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Ice fishermen seek cold water for hot winter action

| Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Last week's arctic chill is gone, and the relatively balmy weather upon us is surely a welcome change for many.

But not for everyone.

For ice fishermen, deep freezes like the one the region just endured are what make their sport possible.

“Yeah, we love it. We're all a little sick in the head, but we love it,” said Nathan Krusko, a resident of Hamburg, N.Y., and a promoter of the North East Ice Fishing Circuit, a tournament series that will hold six events in three states this year, two of them in Western Pennsylvania.

The change in the weather — marked by a temperature swing of at least 40 degrees since midweek in places — means opportunities are scattered now, though.

Lake Arthur in Butler County had consistently been giving up fish through the ice when conditions allowed, with fishermen catching everything from largemouth bass to crappies and bluegills, said Jerry O'Donnell of O'Donnell's Sports Supplies in Portersville. One local angler, Carol Danbaugh of Ellwood City, caught two bass longer than 20 inches among many others in the 16- to 17-inch range, he said.

But good ice has been no sure thing.

“It comes and goes,” O'Donnell said. “That's the problem. Guys were on it, then it disappeared, then they were on it, then it disappeared.”

Things have likewise been “pretty sketchy” at Pymatuning Lake in Crawford County, which will host one of the circuit's tournaments, said Chris Hall of Espyville Outdoors in Espyville.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission recommends anglers stick to ice at least 3 inches thick. There were spots on Pymatuning with that much last week but others with less, Hall said.

Things have been different in the Laurel Highlands.

Glendale Lake in Cambria County had 4 inches of ice midweek, while High Point Lake in Somerset had 5, according to waterways conservation officers. Anglers were doing well, too, with Glendale producing crappies and High Point giving up chain pickerel, northern pike, and, to a lesser extent, bass, yellow perch and walleyes.

The best ice fishing of the season is yet to come, though, if history holds.

The Fish and Boat Commission's “angler awards” program offers certificates to fishermen who catch fish meeting certain minimum weight requirements. A northern pike qualifies for an award if it hits 11 pounds, for example. A largemouth qualifies at 5 pounds and a crappie at 1 pound, 4 ounces.

A look at the awards handed out for fish pulled from lakes in January, February and March of 2011, 2012 and 2013 reveals some interesting trends and a few potential hot spots.

The commission awarded certificates for 30 yellow perch, 29 crappies, 21 largemouth bass, 13 pickerel, 10 northern pike, four walleyes, three bluegills, three catfish, two muskies and two white bass in those times.

Fifty-four of those fish came from Western Pennsylvania lakes. Twenty-six were caught over the last three Februarys. The months of March accounted for 18, and Januarys 10.

One of the hottest spots has been Lake Arthur. It accounted for eight citation largemouths — more than one in three statewide — and four of the crappies, along with one yellow perch.

Pymatuning Lake accounted for nine citation crappies, almost one-third of the statewide total. The lake also gave up three citation white bass, two walleyes, two yellow perch and two muskies.

Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie combined gave up seven yellow perch, more than anywhere else, along with one northern pike, one crappie and one walleye, while High Point Lake gave up one northern pike, one largemouth bass and one chain pickerel.

Crooked Creek Lake in Armstrong County produced one citation largemouth and one crappie. Glendale Lake produced one northern pike, as did Yough Dam in Somerset County. Sugar Lake in Crawford County gave up one citation largemouth.

Now it's just a question of getting and keeping ice.

Tom Qualters, manager of the Fish and Boat Commission's southwest region office in Somerset, is hopeful, at least as it relates to lakes in the Laurel Highlands. Chances are they'll keep their ice for a while, he said, given that nighttime temperatures were forecast to hover at or below 32 degrees.

“As long as the nights go down below freezing, even if temperatures go up during the day, I think you can pretty much hold your own,” Qualters said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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