Paradise on Ice: Ice Fishing on Chautauqua Lake

Photo by Walt Pickut Kyle Keys (left) and Mason Smith left Springville at 6:00 am to find the perfect spot 100 yards offshore on 10 inches of ice.
Photo by Walt Pickut
Kyle Keys (left) and Mason Smith left Springville at 6:00 am to find the perfect spot 100 yards offshore on 10 inches of ice.


Photo by Walt Pickut A fisherman's ice palace on Chautauqua Lake.
Photo by Walt Pickut
A fisherman’s ice palace on Chautauqua Lake.

Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut


They call it a shanty but it’s really a palace… if you love ice fishing on Chautauqua Lake. Wintertime anglers call it “Paradise below Zero.” And if you haven’t tried it, you are missing something special according to the folks who populate the shanty villages dotting Chautauqua Lake far offshore at this time of year.

Thirty four million Americans spend $76 billion every year on hunting and fishing. The slice of that pie spent on ice fishing, naturally, depends on the weather.

This year, local outfitters and bait & tackle shops report a big jump in sales over the last two years which had brought disappointingly warm weather and skimpy ice cover. Paradoxically, this season, with wind chills lower than 20 degrees below zero, it has been too cold for even the heartiest enthusiasts some days.

But the good news is that Chautauqua Lake ice reached nearly 12 inches thick last week. In the eastern part of New York State Lake Champlain is boasting 24 inches of solid blue ice cover.

But fish beware! Ice anglers have mastered the tricks of drilling through your roof. If a handheld auger, a giant corkscrew-shaped drill, isn’t good enough, gasoline motor driven augurs will do the job in moments. A 12-inch hole and a fishing jig can yield 50 good pan fish in a morning.

“Ice fishing is a great way to spend a day and meet new friends,” one local ice fisherman told a visitor to his shanty as he flipped burgers on his charcoal grill atop about 45 feet of water 100 yards out on the lake. “And sometimes we even catch some fish. That’s a plus!” he added laughing. Ice fishing is often a social event with lots of good conversation and groups of people clustered around a single fishing hole enjoying good food and hot beverages inside a portable shanty set up on the ice. It is all quite unlike the summertime version of the sport.

Tournament Ice Fishing
This year’s New York State Pro Am Fishing Tournament on Chautauqua Lake netted local fishers $25,000 in sponsored prizes across a field of 87 anglers from as far away as New York City, New Jersey and Colorado. Later in February the tournament moves eastward to Tupper Lake and Sodus Bay. According to Tim Thomas, Director of the NYS Ice Pro-Am Tournament Series, it’s coming back to Chautauqua Lake next year, probably in January again.

What to Catch
Yellow perch are generally found everywhere in Chautauqua Lake, from the shallows to the deeper holes, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC reported last week, however, that action has been better in shallow zones of 8 to 15 feet of water.

Mayville has been most mentioned, but other areas of the lake, including Long Point, have produced well too. The DEC reports, “Anglers are catching decent numbers of keeper perch (with many more small throwbacks) on jigs with grubs and slender or small spoons with small minnows or a gob of spikes.”

Bluegill catches have also been good in the shallow zones off Mayville and around the south basin. Crappies have shown well at times during low light periods. Anglers take crappies in shallow zones on jigs with grubs, small jig heads with a minnow, an emerald shiner or by dead sticking a minnow.

Last week was reported to be slow for walleye, but some have been picked along the deeper drop-offs in 30 to 40 feet of water. Walleye generally bite better during low light periods with jigging Rapalas designed to swim in circles under the ice to tantalize a hungry fish or with spoons or shiners on a tip-up.

The Jargon
All anyone needs for ice fishing is warm clothing, a little gear, enough of the right chatter to feel at home with the old timers…and a sense of humor. Start with your “spud bar,” a long ice chisel for checking the thickness of ice in the direction you are walking (no swimming-life guard off duty) and to re-open holes that freeze over. Don’t forget your auger, the ice drill…it’s a long walk back to shore. Drill all holes too small to slip through; 12 inches is usually just fine.

Jigs and lures are supposed to look like tasty little fish to the bigger fish you’re trying to catch and they have hooks on them. They are good if you don’t like sticking dead or live little bait fish on hooks. Icicles and hunts and grays are all names for minnows. Spikes are maggots.

An ice fishing pole looks like a regular pole that never grew up; it’s not much more than a foot long. But it has a reel for line and needs only to reach from your seat on the ice hole. A good one needn’t cost more than $20 to $40, reel and all. Some people just call the simplest ones “sticks.” Fishing with these poles is called “jigging.”

A tip-up is even simpler than a pole. You don’t have to hold it. It is a line with bait attached to a lever sitting above the hole. It tips up a flag when a fish bites the bait and tries to swim away. When an ice fisher yells, “Flag!” go get your fish.

One local angler offered the phrase “Stewey Stuff.” It might be something made in a Crockpot and taken to the ice and reheated. “But you would not want to know what all is in it,” he warned.

A Last Word from DEC
In New York State, general angling regulations limit anglers to two jigging lines (or hand lines) and five tip-ups in most waters. Each tip-up must be marked with the operator’s name and address; the operator must be in immediate attendance when the lines are in the water. For more information on ice fishing regulations in Chautauqua County call 716-372-0645.

Photo courtesy of NYS Ice Pro-Am Tournament Series The pan fish divisions winners show off their trophies at the 2014 Chautauqua Lake Event.
Photo courtesy of NYS Ice Pro-Am Tournament Series
The pan fish divisions winners show off their trophies at the 2014 Chautauqua Lake Event.

Ice Thickness Table
Clear, blue, hard ice over non-running waters

Ice Thickness – Permissible Load
2” – One Person on Foot
3” – Group in Single File
7.5” – One Car (2 tons)
8” – Light Truck (2.5 tons)
10” – Truck (3.5 tons)
12” – Heavy Truck (7-8 tons)
15” – 10 tons
20” – 25 tons


Clear, blue ice over running water is about 20 percent weaker and slush ice is about 50 percent weaker.

Safety-minded ice anglers usually prefer at least five inches of ice under foot, and no less than 15 inches under a pick-up truck. Use common sense!

“Bubblers” used to protect docks can produce thin, unsafe ice some distance away. Be especially alert in areas near shore, over moving bodies of water and on lakes and ponds where streams enter or exit.

Remember, always use the buddy system while ice fishing – it saves lives.


Photo by Walt Pickut A good morning's catch: one nice walleye and a pile of pan fish perch.
Photo by Walt Pickut
A good morning’s catch: one nice walleye and a pile of pan fish perch.
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Walt Pickut
Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.