Events, features and things to do for families in New Hampshire
All ages can enjoy ice fishing, a traditional New England winter pastime
By Jacqueline Tourville
It’s the middle of January and our breath hangs in the cold air as we begin to carefully make our way out onto the frozen waters of Pemigewasset Lake in New Hampton. My nephew Andrew, 13, is visiting from New Jersey and, determined to show him that life outside Guitar Hero actually exists, I have decided to take him ice fishing.
Armed with a brand new NH fishing license and vivid memories of ice fishing with my dad and uncles when I was a kid, I take the lead as we crunch across the ice, dragging along the sled that contains the many items we need for this outing -- some things to catch the fish, but most of the items we bring are intended to keep us warm and safe while out on the ice.
We finally reach a spot that looks like it’s far enough away from shore to harbor fish and set up shop, using an auger to drill a hole in what turns out to be 6-inch deep ice. I teach Andrew how to bait the hook and set the tip-up, a little spring-loaded spool contraption that allows for hands-free fishing by sending up a flag signal when a fish takes the bait.
Our line set, we sit on the small seats we’ve brought and wait. At first we watch the tip-up intently, expecting to see the flag pop up at any moment. When that doesn’t happen, we look out at the rest of the lake, counting how many anglers are giving us competition for the pickerel, perch and bass that supposedly lurk in the depths below.
We don’t say much. It’s cold and after 30 minutes I start to think I’ve made a terrible mistake in my choice of aunt-nephew bonding. But then, without warning, the flag pops up.
Our catch is a yellow perch, a nice-looking fish, but for Andrew, a suburban kid whose idea of catching fish for dinner is picking up a container of sushi at the grocery store, watching this fish wriggle out of the hole we’d cut is like witnessing a bonafide miracle.
I pour some hot chocolate, we toast our catch and then suddenly we are talking. Bragging about how impressed his mom will be that we actually caught a fish (she had doubts) and guessing how long it will take to catch another. And then we’re not talking about fishing at all, but about the rock band he’d just formed with some buddies, the girl he asked to the winter dance, and about how much he misses his dad stationed in Afghanistan.
Another cold hour passes without a bite, but we barely notice as we chat the time away. When dusk begins to cast deep purple shadows over the ice, we reluctantly gather up our things and begin to retrace our steps. Standing on the shore, looking back at where we just were, Andrew sighs happily and asks if we can come back tomorrow. I hope we can.
From other ice fishing families I’ve met along the way, I’ve heard similar stories. Parents bonding, and actually having fun, with their usual sulky teens; little kids showing sudden focus and determination to bring up a fish; and older and younger siblings enjoying the same activity together, without the usual fights or boredom.
Maybe it’s just too cold to bother complaining, or perhaps it’s the thrill of walking across a lake you splashed around in only months before. Whatever the sport’s secret ingredient may be, ice fishing is a fun, and surprisingly easy way for families to stay active and get outdoors during the winter months.
Want to give this venerable New Hampshire pastime a try this year? Here are some expert tips to get your family started.
Where to go
For families new to ice fishing, the first challenge is usually figuring out where the fish are biting. Granite Staters are lucky, according to John Viar, a fisheries biologist with NH Fish and Game, because most small- to medium-sized lakes and ponds scattered across the state harbor good populations of fish that tend to be very cooperative through the ice, especially chain pickerel and yellow perch.
“These are great beginner species since they typically provide faster catch rates, and there is no better way to keep the kids interested than action. Simply lowering a live shiner [bait] 2 to 5 feet off bottom under a tip-up is often enough to catch these fish.”
For specific locations that offer easy access for kids, plenty of fish and good ice conditions, Viar recommends Hawkins Pond in Center Harbor, Lily Pond in Gilford, and Pemigewasset Lake in New Hampton in the central part of the state. To the north, you can try Grafton Pond in Grafton and Burns Pond and Forest Lake in Whitefield. To the south, try Turtle (aka Turtletown) Pond in Concord, Northwood Lake in Northwood, Massabesic Lake in Manchester, and Robinson Pond in Hudson.
Checking ice conditions
During the typical New Hampshire winter, smaller ponds and lakes are typically frozen over by mid-January; if winter temps are unseasonably warm, though, ice may not form until late January or early February, if at all. To check conditions, first observe the lake or pond. Are others already fishing on it? If so, the ice is likely 4 inches in thickness or more, the amount needed to support an adult’s weight on the ice. See trucks parked on the ice? This means the ice cover is at least a foot thick. Also look around for and heed any warning signs for thin ice.
Next, take a closer look at the ice at the shoreline. If it is thick, bluish-white and smooth, without any slush or breaks, edge your way out cautiously. Follow the path left behind by other anglers or snowmobile tracks, if possible, and stop after 15 feet to test the ice, using a specialty ice drill, called an auger, to drill a test hole. If the thickness is at least 4 inches, keep edging your way out, continuing to evaluate ice conditions. Because ice fishing with kids in tow can be tricky, especially if they get too cold, you might want to limit how far you walk from shore to avoid a long, cold trudge back to the car. Also avoid ice covered with snow because thickness may be unpredictable and difficult to gauge.
What to bring
Besides wearing the usual warm layers required to withstand outdoor winter activities in New Hampshire, there are an assortment of supplies to tote along whenever you head out on the ice.
Basics you need include the auger ice drill, a long-handled skimmer to scoop out ice chips and slush from the hole, fishing line and hooks, a tip-up or a short “jigging rod" for those who prefer to hold the rod as they fish, bucket of live bait (minnows work well), seats and comfort items such as a thermos of hot chocolate and snacks and portable heaters and cooking stoves designed for use on the ice.
Safety items to bring include a long rope, compass (in case a sudden whiteout obscures your way back to shore), flashlight or lantern, basic first aid kit, extra clothes and a cell phone. Shanties, or bobhouses, offer shelter from the wind, but aren’t necessary for shorter outings. But do use a sled or toboggan to bring all your supplies to and from your fishing spot.
In New Hampshire, another important item to bring with you is a fishing license. The same license applies to both open water and ice fishing and is available as a year-round, one-day, and three-day temporary license. Residents age 15 and younger do not need a fishing license, but each accompanying adult who participates in fishing must carry a license.
“To try it out with the whole family, a parent could buy a license and take the kids (15 and younger) fishing on that "one" license. If another parent or other adults want to fish, though, note each individual adult does need a license to participate in the actual fishing activities. Another parent can spectate or help out with the kids on the ice without a license, but they can't tend the lines or drill holes,” Viar said
For more information on ice fishing, personnel from the Fish And Game’s Depart of Aquatic Education conduct basics ice fishing classes as part of the Meredith Rotary Ice Fishing Derby, held every winter on Meredith Bay (Feb. 12-13, 2011). Geared toward families, the course focuses on everything from ice safety to basic fishing technique and includes some all-important "on the ice" training.
Ice is nice
As for Andrew, we have already made plans to go on another ice fishing trip in early February. He began posting links to ice fishing websites on my Facebook wall about a month ago, so I know he’s serious. The thought of my now very grown up, 14-year old nephew talking with such excitement about spending time with me out in the frozen cold of winter is just enough to melt my heart.
Jacqueline Tourville is a freelancer from Nashua, and a frequent contributor to Parenting New Hampshire Magazine.
Last updated by Morgen Thiboult Feb 4, 2011.