BRATTLEBORO—Ice fishing has happened for thousands of years in this area, explained Rich Holschuh.
Using a sharp instrument, an Abenaki angler would hack a hole in the ice, he said.
“And then the practice was to build a little tiny hut over [the hole] like a little tent, a little tiny wigwam, and that also had the effect of cutting down on the glare so that you could see down into the water,” he explained. “You would physically lay down on the ice and jig in the water with a little jig, which you might make to look like a little fish.”
For the anglers at the Feb. 16 online discussion, “Ice Fishing: Culture, Community, and Conservation,” their stories about ice fishing were also stories about community, food, a connection to history, and environmental conservation.
Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BMAC) and the Atowi Project, a cultural outreach and educational nonprofit associated with The Retreat Farm, hosted the online panel.
Holschuh, the director of the Atowi Project and liaison to the Elnu Abenaki, also serves on the Vermont Commission for Native American Affairs.
He explained that ice fishing was an activity for getting food. Once a fish was attracted by the jig or lure, the angler would spear the fish.
“We’re not dealing with tip-ups, and we’re not dealing with fishing poles with lures on them per se, because the technology for hooks didn’t really exist,” said Holschuh, who described himself as “a relative newbie at this point in my life.”
“I fished when I was younger,” he said. “And I’m just coming back into that now. And I approach that through a lens of wanting to understand traditional sustenance practices.”
Roy Gangloff, a West Dummerston ice fishing aficionado, said his father and grandfather taught him to ice fish as a child. Growing up, winter fishing served as practical fun.
“We had family of eight, we had to feed people, and those weekend trips put food on the table,” Gangloff said. “But at the same time, it was probably the most fun thing we did as kids, at least in the wintertime.”
“Unfortunately, most of them are gone. So I use ice fishing as a connection between them,” he said.
Paige Blaker, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department fish production supervisor at the Ed Weed Fish Culture Station in Grand Isle, started ice fishing in college. She likes the different types of fish that can be caught, as well as the opportunities for people to get outdoors.
For Clay Groves, a New Hampshire fishing guide and “chief executive fish nerd” at The Fish Nerds Podcast, his obsession with ice fishing started 25 years ago after he shared a six pack of beer with a man at Squam Lake, northwest of Laconia.
“I walked out to him and put the beer down,” said Groves. “I said, ‘Can you show me how to do that?’ And he didn’t say a word to me, just cracked a beer open, drank it, and handed me his rod. I thought, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,’ and I’ve been addicted ever since.”
Groves said he loves the “nerdiness” of modern ice fishing. People geek out with high tech, with some sportspeople going so far as mapping lake bottoms.
The Feb. 16 discussion was part of BMAC’s series on winter fishing. Along with the online panel discussion, the museum has hosted photography exhibits as well as community events such as an online workshop for kids with Brattleboro sculptor and teacher Ross Smart on making mini ice shanties using recycled materials.
“This has been a little bit of a departure from what we generally do as a contemporary art museum,” said BMAC Executive Director Danny Lichtenfeld. “But it’s been really great. We’ve been learning so much and connecting with all sorts of people we hadn’t met before.”
In a separate interview, Lichtenfeld told The Commons that over the past six years, the museum has done other wrap-around projects where the museum hosts an exhibit focusing on a community issue surrounded by a series of related events.
For example, BMAC in 2016 partnered with the Windham Regional Commission in an exhibit that featured paintings of the forestry industry. The museum has also hosted projects focusing on recovery and guns.
One thing BMAC leaders appreciate about these projects is that “they seem to make the contemporary art museum relevant to some people who might not previously have really had an interest in the art pieces,” Lichtenfeld said. “I feel like they have actually truly legitimately created occasions where you have people from really different walks of life participating in a discussion together, and learning from each other.”
The ice fishing project grew out of an independent collaboration a few years ago with photographer Federico Pardo of Bogotá and the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.
Pardo had taken photos of ice shanties on the Retreat Meadows, Lichtenfeld said; the project then expanded to audio interviews with anglers. BMAC later became aware of Pardo’s work and brought the exhibit to the museum along with photos of frozen ice fishing holes by western Massachusetts artist Erik Hoffner.
Connecting to family, friends, and the environment
Roy Gangloff said that people who live in Vermont endure cold and often gray winters. Winter activities like ice fishing provide an opportunity to get outside, unwind, and exercise.
“So when I meet people who don’t ice fish or do anything in the winter, [who] just kind of stay indoors — I just wonder why the heck they’re here,” Gangloff said.
Lichtenfeld, a complete newbie to the sport prior to BMAC’s ice fishing project, said he had previously “devoted very little brain space to thinking about ice fishing.”
“But as I’ve listened to the stories that are part of the exhibit, and met people who are involved, and been part of all these conversations, I have this whole different understanding of this as a wonderful pastime that is an important part of many people’s lives,” he said.
Lichtenfeld noted that overlap exists between ice fishing as a hobby, food source, social venue, and environmental conservation measure.
Gangloff said that the ice fishing community has grown over the years. “I’ve had lots of friends that I’ve made over the years [who are] people I never would have met otherwise,” he said.
Groves said that multiple online communities let people share tips and talk shop. “I think [ice fishing] really brings people together,” he said. “And I think that more people are fishing now than ever before.”
Better in winter
Groves described yellow perch as the tastiest fish. Blaker and Gangloff both said they prefer white perch. Holschuh said he likes “any fish I can catch.”
Groves said he loves ice fishing more than open water fishing. To him, ice fishing is specific. An angler picks a good fishing spot and stays there, no drifting away on the current.
In general, the types of fish that bite in the summer also bite in the winter, they said — except for one: the burbot.
According to New Hampshire Fish & Game, the burbot, also known as the freshwater cusk, is the only freshwater member of the cod family.
“Yeah, it looks like a catfish and an eel had a love child,” Groves said.
During the summer, burbot enter estivation, or dormancy. They emerge when the temperatures plunge to the frigid levels they require for breeding.
“And they eat like crazy and have giant orgies under the ice,” Groves said. “And that’s when you catch them. “
Not everyone who ice fishes has an ice shanty. Gangloff said he didn’t use one for almost 30 years.
He said that one of the important things to remember with an ice shanty is that it stays above the ice. A shanty will sink into the ice, even in temperatures below freezing. It needs to be on blocks, and those blocks must be added to over the winter. Gangloff advised that the shanty be moved during the winter as well.
The shanty’s “drip edge” will cut holes in the ice, he warned.
Groves shared a photo of one of his shanties that went through the ice when temperatures rose during a week when he was away.
“And that was my nightmare right there,” he said. “I had to pay someone to come out with winches and cranes and drag it up on the ice.”
Ice fishing 101
Paige Blaker said that in general, the ice fishing season is between December and March — or, if you’re lucky, even April.
Anyone interested in fishing, regardless of season, should consult the state’s regulations. Vermont’s differ from waterway to waterway and from fish species to fish species.
“No body of water is the same,” she said. “You don’t have the same predator species, you don’t have the same native species living in there, and so different species all interact in different ways.”
For example, if a body of water has a large mosquito population, then “there’s probably a good chance that that’s going to be a trophy muskie lake, and not necessarily a trophy brook trout lake. They’re just so different, because there’s so many different interactions,” Blaker said.
The anglers said that there’s no need to memorize all the state’s fishing regulations, just to know the ones for the waterway that you plan to fish.
“As always, know the type of bait fish you’re allowed to use, or if there’s no bait fish at all, know what species you’re going to be targeting and make sure you know how much you can catch and how big of size of the catch you can do,” she said, “because that will also change from pond to pond, or [between] different waterways.”
The state releases fishing regulation books annually. They can be found at vtfishandwildlife.com/fish.
The anglers said people should take ice safety seriously. Along with temperature changes, things like moving water and decaying vegetation can weaken ice.
Gangloff said he takes a pole with him and tests the ice in front of each step. He also cuts test holes to measure the depth of the ice.
“There’s no such thing as safe ice,” Groves said.
When fishing, Groves said he wears a float suit or a life vest. He also drags a rope with a throw device, like a lifesaving ring, from shore in case he needs to pull himself out or help someone else.
Blaker said most state regulation guides also include ice safety instructions. The state also runs workshops throughout the year.
Climate change and shorter seasons
Gangloff said he’s seeing the effects of climate change.
“To me, it’s very worrisome. I mean, not so far south of here, ice seasons have become a coin toss — 50/50 — whether they get safe ice to fish or not,” he said.
Blaker agreed, saying that the season is becoming shorter. She added, however, that people shouldn’t be discouraged from learning to ice fish because while weather is changing when people fish, it’s not changing how they do so.
“Climate change is making for shorter seasons, especially on the big lakes,” Blaker said. “Don’t be afraid to look to those smaller ponds and in different areas.”
Blaker said those smaller ponds “are going to give you some different ice fishing opportunities that might even last into April, maybe May, especially if you get up into a little bit higher elevations or, you know, places in the Northeast Kingdom that are staying a little bit colder for a little bit longer.”
Groves said that with changing weather, people need to remain vigilant on the ice.
“I live in the mountains in New Hampshire; we have ice that normally is safe for years and years and years,” he said. “And then the last couple of years, we’ve lost ice fishers because ice that they fished their whole life has changed.”
Groves added that most people who love the outdoors also have a conservation ethic. Yet, he said, sometimes tension exists between people’s old habits and better environmental practices — for example, using a gas auger to cut the ice rather than an electric device.
“There’s this terminology that you often hear which is ‘selective harvest’ — that’s allowing people to take fish but to be careful what they take,” Gangloff said.
Groves responded, saying that he feels frustrated with anglers who perceive some species of fish as “junk fish.” These anglers will kill these fish thinking they’re helping the environment.
But they’re not, said Gangloff, reminding the audience that the practice is also illegal, referring to it as “wanton waste of wildlife.”
Finding a community of one’s own
Lichtenfeld said that one of the things the arts does is bring people together.
“[The arts] provide outlets for people to express themselves and interact with others, and learn from others and experience new things, and become more deeply embedded in our neighborhoods and in our communities,” he said.
Yet, he cautioned, the arts aren’t the only thing that achieves community connection. The social aspects of sports, municipal gatherings and, yes, ice fishing can’t be underestimated.
“It’s much easier than people think to get started,” Groves said. “You know, if you want to do a Google search for simple ice fishing tactics, it’s going to show you just how simple it really is.”