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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

'The Ice Fishing Capital of North America'

Ontario's Lake Simcoe an icefishing pageant
This Canadian outpost is billed as 'The Ice Fishing Capitol of North America'

While throngs of American anglers go north each summer, not too many head that way in winter.
So perhaps it seems odd for me to suggest you might want to try a northern foray this month or next; but hear me out, even if you're not an icefishing enthusiast.
If you take a 75-minute drive north of Toronto, you'll find one of the most amazing fishing scenarios you can imagine: thousands of people and thousands of temporary shelters scattered over the frozen surface of Lake Simcoe — this is in addition to a conglomeration of trucks, ATVs, snowmobiles and shuttle vehicles.

In the summer you would call this crowded fishing, but in winter, and on Simcoe, it's a party with a good time being had by all.
Lake Simcoe is part of the navigable Trent-Severn Waterway connecting Lake Huron's Georgian Bay to the northwest with upper Lake Ontario at the Bay of Quinte to the southeast.
covering 287 square miles, Simcoe is a large lake, although fairly shallow. On any winter weekend, people are almost everywhere on this lake.

With an average of perhaps four holes per angler, and with estimates of up to 6,000 fishermen on a good weekend, there are a lot of circles and squares cut through that hard, white lake.

Of course, the ice is thick enough to handle all of this.
(Editor's note: Much of the northern United States and southern Canada has had
a very mild winter so far, and ice is dangerous in some places. Canadian news
sites reported two men died and a third was treated for hypothermia after their motorcycles fell through the ice on Lake Simcoe early Sunday, Jan. 29.)
In fact, from ice level the assemblage of huts, vehicles and people looks more like a territorial community, sort of what you might imagine to be an unorganized gold rush town in winter.
Replace tents with huts, and substitute horses and wagons with many hundreds of trucks, snowmobiles and ATVs, and you have a large temporary prospector's community.
The finny treasure being prospected is about as diverse as you could want.
Simcoe has perch, walleye, pike, trout, herring, whitefish, bass and even muskellunge among its fisheries; though perch (especially early in the winter), lake trout, walleye and whitefish have the biggest constituencies.

We're talking serious icefishing here.

A Lake Simcoe icefisherman holds a lake trout caught from inside a rented hut.

This is where commercial hut operators cut tub-size holes with chainsaws fitted with 36 inches.

Where an auger isn't worthy unless it's powered and capable of 10-inch circles at a minimum.

Where vehicular travel routes are marked like a highway.

Where you drive 5 miles across the ice in a heated vehicle, then brave 20-below temperature for the time it takes to get into a heated hut housing a pre-made ice hole.

Local folks used to call Lake Simcoe "The Ice Fishing Capitol of North America." The canadian Ice Fishing Championships will be held here in late February.

But a decade ago the region hosted the World Championships of Ice Fishing and international participants said they'd never seen anything like this place. Now they've dubbed Simcoe "The Ice Fishing Capitol of the World."

You don't have to visit Simcoe — one of Ontario's largest non-Great Lakes waters — with all of the latest trappings for icefishing.

Indeed, there are many services here that rent huts or even provide "icefishing vacations," which include a heated fishing hut, pre-cut hole, bait, ice transport and expert advice, in addition to B&B accommodations and meals.

Just bring your own tackle, food and drink, and appropriate clothing, headgear and footwear.

The huts, which accommodate four to six people, are so warm inside that you will be compelled to take your coat off and stay quite a while to fish. Outside temperatures, however, can range from a balmy day in the 20s to a frigid one with a bad windchill factor.

it's been several years since my last visit to Lake Simcoe. If I was not tied down for the winter writing a book, I'd be tempted to visit again next month.

When I last fished there, it was with the owner of JR's Fish Huts, John Reddings, who has since passed away, and Toronto pal Jimmy Kano.
Reddings transported fishermen via Bombardier Caterpillar to his heated huts and helped them get set up. On busy winter days Reddings took as many as 70 people across the ice to his contingent of shacklike shelters with pre-cut ice holes.

His Bombardier was a 20-foot, go-anywhere motorized rig that epitomized all-wheel-drive. This vehicle, or others used today, are necessary not just for transport, but because Simcoe ice can be tricky.

A power auger is a necessity for Simcoe's iceanglers.

Pressure ridges build up in various spots on this 30-mile-wide lake and aren't safe to cross just anywhere. Hut operators regularly scout the ice, check thickness and constantly establish safe travel routes.

Routes change because there's current in Simcoe, and because the places where these operators fish vary.
Many relocate huts as necessary, according to fish movement, angling success and species sought.

Many private anglers benefit from the efforts of the hut operators, too, coming out in late afternoon to fish the holes they've vacated, or following their tracks through the snow and ice and across pressure ridges.

The access to the lake is so well traveled that the near-shore area becomes like a deeply rutted road of dirt or sand.

Most iceangling here is done with bait, primarily 2- to 3-inch shiners.

On Simcoe, few anglers use jigs; they prefer multiple-bait rigs for trout and whitefish, using a spreader to keep shiners apart, as well as having another shiner higher up.
There's a lot of baiting and chumming in the holes. Ten or 12 baitfish are frequently scooped out of a bucket and placed without water in a small container, which is covered and shook vigorously. The disoriented baitfish are dumped into the hole, usually swimming straight down.
Like everywhere else, some Simcoe icefishermen seem to do better than others, and many are primarily out for the social camaraderie.
There's certainly no lack of company.

Vehicular travelers are regularly pulling in for progress reports and to see what there is to eat or drink.
With a cacophony of saws, augers, snowmobiles, ATVs, trucks, Bombardiers and even chair-bound anglers with radios, Simcoe in winter is an interesting spectacle. But it is not your peace-and-quiet, contemplative, Canadian-wilderness fishing.

But with a third of Canada's population in the province of Ontario, much of it relatively close to this region, what else would you expect from a capital lake?

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