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Breaking the Ice With the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department

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Corey Hart demonstrating how to set a tip-up - JORDAN BARRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
  • Corey Hart demonstrating how to set a tip-up

Anthony Bourdain skewed my perception of ice fishing. Since watching him in the Québec episode of his food and travel show "Parts Unknown" in 2013, I've dreamed of an elaborate meal in a decked-out ice shanty: a multicourse feast served on vintage dishware with oysters, foie gras, lobster with shaved black truffle, an overly fussy cake, wine and Chartreuse.

Before his meal, the late chef briefly sat with his hosts around a hole drilled into the three-foot-thick ice of the St. Lawrence River, pretending to fish.

His takeaway? "It's one thing to work outside in this wintry mess, but it takes a strange and wonderful kind of mutant to actually find it pleasurable."

The pleasure, in Bourdain's case, came from a slab of foie gras seared on the shanty's wood-burning stove — or maybe from the Cuban cigar that followed. The fishing was just an excuse to escape for an afternoon and indulge.

My first ice-fishing expedition did not have foie gras or Chartreuse, though the herbal liqueur would have been a delicious addition to my thermos full of hot chocolate. But you have to start somewhere, and I started with an Introduction to Ice Fishing clinic hosted by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.

The free clinics are part of the department's Let's Go Fishing Program, hosted around the state to give beginners like me the basics necessary to fish safely on their own.

On a windy, flurrying Friday morning in late January, I headed to Shelburne Pond, where I joined 20 other bundled-up participants in a 200-yard trek out onto the ice. We gathered in a semicircle around the clinic's leader, Fish & Wildlife education specialist Corey Hart, and a table full of equipment.

Thankfully, Hart started the clinic without an icebreaker. He did, however, begin by gently scolding the group for following him blindly onto the ice.

"We would never have had you come out here if the ice were bad," Hart said, "but when you go on your own, you have to check to make sure you have enough ice."

I've been afraid of falling through ice since reading Little Women as a kid, imagining Amy's plunge into frigid waters every time I get near a frozen body of water. The month of January had been so cold, though, that I'd let my guard down.

But even a brutal string of temperatures below zero doesn't guarantee safe ice, Hart said, especially if it's really windy. The only way to know for sure is to whack the ice with a metal rod delightfully known as a spud bar.

"Walk out, whack. If it goes through, go back," Hart said — a mantra that looped in my head throughout the three-hour clinic.

To be safe for walking, ice must be about four inches thick and solid black, he continued. At around six inches, you'll start to see snowmobiles; at eight to 12, small cars and pickups. In the middle of the 452-acre Shelburne Pond in late January, we were standing on at least a foot and a half of ice.

Fish & Wildlife doesn't recommend driving vehicles onto a lake. "But if you're hesitant, and you see a Chevy driving around on the ice, that's usually a good indicator you can go out and walk," Hart said.

Bait dealers are another good source of knowledge about ice conditions; they talk to anglers all day and tend to know where the bad spots are on a given body of water. "And they want you to come back and keep buying bait," Hart added with a laugh.

Next, he covered safety equipment, showing off the spiky ice picks he wears around his neck, a rope to throw from a safe distance if his fishing partner were to fall through, ice cleats to prevent slipping and falling, and his float coat.

I was woefully unprepared, gear-wise. I wasn't even wearing snow pants, which I haven't owned since elementary school, when they were required for recess.

I also didn't have a fishing license. As Hart got into the regulations portion of the clinic, he reassured us that we didn't need a license to fish that day. And the next day, January 29, happened to be Vermont's Free Ice Fishing Day, so we could put our new skills to the test license-free then, too. After that, if we were mutant enough to enjoy fishing in the cold, we'd have to make the investment, $28 a year for a Vermont adult.

Ali Thomas, the department's outreach director and education programs coordinator, handed out glossy magazines full of the official state regulations — including license details, catch-and-release tips, fish species identification, and where to fish.

During the clinic we fished for northern pike and yellow perch, "one of Vermont's favorite food fishes," according to the guide.

"I can almost guarantee we'll get some yellow perch before we leave today," Hart said.

No catching happens without holes in the ice, of course. Hart held up a corkscrew-like hand auger — an affordable option for beginners. "The downside is, it's all you power," he said.

The Fish & Wildlife team had already predrilled eight-inch holes with battery- and gas-powered augers for the group. But with temps in the teens, a few participants gave hand drilling a try to generate body heat.

State regulations allow each person to put up to eight lines in the water, using either tip-ups or jigging rods. To quote an old infomercial, tip-ups are the "set it and forget it" of the ice-fishing world. A stand sits over a hole with a baited line dangling down; a bright flag pops up triumphantly when there's fish on the line. Handheld jigging rods are like typical open-water fishing poles but shorter.

I chatted with Wendy Eberhart and Brian Ebel as they put out a tip-up stand in a freshly hand-drilled hole. The Shelburne couple said they'd attended the clinic to learn the basics before heading back out to ice fish with their two young children — "maybe on a warmer day," Ebel said.

"With cocoa and hot dogs, so there's food no matter what," Eberhart added.

Farther out on the pond, seventh grader James Waite was setting a tip-up of his own. His dad, Miles Waite, had let him take the morning off from school to attend the clinic.

"I've never ice fished," James said. "It's really fun. I just like being out in nature and seeing a bunch of cool wildlife."

I grabbed a jigging rod of my own and placed the line in a hole. I opened the bail and let the tackle drop until I felt it hit the bottom of the lake. Raising it up by a foot or so, I flicked my wrist to mimic a tasty morsel.

"It's really effective to use the eyeballs of smaller fish as bait," Thomas told the group. She did her best to gross out the crowd of newbies, detailing the process of poking out a perch eyeball. Then she pulled a container of 100 maggots out of her coat, where she'd been keeping them warm to preserve their wiggle.

"I've definitely [accidentally] left them in my pocket and created flies," Thomas said.

The cold started taking its toll after a couple of hours. Even the fish were wary of the wind — nobody caught anything, despite Hart's confidence. Walking back to the parking lot, one participant recited the fishermen's adage: "That's why they call it fishing, not catching."

At the clinic, catching wasn't really the point. "It's a beautifully relevant and equitable way to get people out, connecting with nature," Thomas said. Ice fishing is particularly cool, she said, because you don't need a boat to access the whole lake.

Fishing and hunting license sales have increased over the past two years. A big motivator, Thomas said, has been Vermonters' interest in sustainable and accessible food sources.

Recent research by the National Food Access and COVID Research Team found that fishing, hunting, foraging and other home food production increased during the pandemic, particularly among food-insecure households.

"We don't call fishing a sport very often," Thomas said. "It's fine to do it without eating [what's caught], but it's really about local food procurement for a lot of people — of all different ages and backgrounds."

In addition to the roughly 30 ice-fishing clinics it hosts each winter, the department offers year-round programs through Let's Go Fishing that focus on how to process fish. It also offers more advanced, species-specific fishing clinics. The department serves between 5,000 and 6,000 Vermonters per year through all of its 100 to 150 fishing clinics.

If my shanty meal dreams come true — and my fishing luck improves next time I hit the ice — I'll skip the foie gras for yellow perch, lightly battered and fried in brown butter.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Breaking the Ice | Angling for a new winter hobby with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department"