February Ice Fishing in New Brunswick
In 1969, the Rolling Stones came out with their song, "You Can't Always Get What You Want", something that often is lived out in our lives inside and outside the wilderness. In life as with planning for time outdoors, things don't always go as planned. Weather doesn't often cooperate, animals and fish don't react the same way each time, life changes happen... you certainly can't always get what you want no matter how well you prepare or plan.
This past weekend the Wilderness Obsession crew was planning to head to Grand Manan for the final weekend of the sea duck hunt in New Brunswick zone 1. We were being hosted by Guide 1 outfitting, and we were very excited to be able to chase our first eider/scoter. Unfortunately, it became apparent that the weather wasn't going to cooperate and we were forced to cancel the trip due to steady winds over 50km/h (and gusts to 70km/h). The sea duck hunt will have to wait for another day...
Instead of cancelling all our activities for the weekend we decided to roll with the punches, and we began planning for a different outing. Thankfully, we didn't have to look for long before we arranged an outing to explore and attempt our first experience with ice fishing in the New Brunswick tidal waters with our friend Craig, who often accompanies us chasing smallmouth bass in the spring/summer.
Ice fishing in New Brunswick is an experience mostly done in tidal waters. For a variety of reasons, there are few interior lakes open to ice fishing and the majority of ice fishermen take part in the sport in tidal waters where no licence is currently required. Smelt are the main target although some also chase the elusive hake. In some places, the chase for smelt is so popular it looks like a small city of camps has popped up on the ice, some even equipped with generators and satellite dishes.
Wilderness Obsession believes that we need more people out fishing and hunting and enoying the outdoors, so in this article we will be sharing techniques and information to help the beginner to get started with ice fishing and be successful.
Although we have had a very nontypical winter for New Brunswick, the ice conditions were good so we decided to venture out with a friend who goes chasing smelt nearly every weekend. He had all the required gear, and was willing to show us the ropes for our first experience. As mentioned, the wind was strong so we bundled up in layers and headed out to Renforth, NB to meet up with our Craig and learn about how to catch smelt successfully.
When we arrived in Renforth we were struck with how close the little ice-shack village is to the shore. It is extremely close to the wharf, but the water is still about 30' deep at that point and it's a great place to catch smelt. There were around 20-30 ice shacks of all shape and size, some constructed and others of the tent style. The homemade ones each showed a bit of the owner's personality and there was even one that looks like a little church out there. There was also a wide variety of people out fishing of all ages, and men and women likewise. After last year had a quick thaw/ice breakup and a number of ice fishing shacks were trapped in the ice and unable to be removed, the municipality and province have tried to enforce old and new rules on the ice shacks but it looked to us like they haven't been entirely successful. Each ice shack is supposed to have the names and addresses of the owners on them, and supposed to have skids underneath so they can be removed easier, but both of those things we found to be less than 100% compliant.
There were also fishers who chose to just come out and sit beside holes in the ice, unprotected from the wind and temperatures by a shelter. It really seemed like a friendly bunch out there, with everyone willing to chat or ask about what is working for them. We were eager to get started so we made our way to Craig's «shack» and got ready for our ice-fishing lesson.
Craig has a flip-up tent style portable ice shack that is one-piece with a sled and two flip-up seats on the sled. He has been happy with the compact design and the reliability of it, and he's able to fit it into his little Mazda5 with the seats flipped down.
Getting right down to the fishing, Craig said the fish were biting well that morning and he was often pulling in two at a time. Craig doesn't keep a lot of the smelt but generally tosses them back as safely as possible, but we were going to take some with us on our trip to be able to review the taste.
Craig says he cuts up prawn as bait and rolls the pieces in corn meal and has found that to be the most successful for him. Others have success with powerbait or even little pieces of red yarn. He finds sharp salmon hooks to be the best in his experience. He ties on two hooks and uses a sinker at the bottom. Craig prefers a medium ice-fishing rod with a bite indicator on the tip to give him the ability to hook the small smelt easily. He says he tried a light rod but found it bent too much to be able to get a reliable hook set and he was losing too many fish. Basically you bait both hooks, drop the rig into the water through the hole and let it sink to the bottom, make sure the line is taught... and just wait. No snapping is needed to hook the smelt, you just need to pull it upwards when you feel the smelt on the hook and it sets the hook well.
After watching him pull in a number of smelt, we both took our turns over the holes and were able to bring in smelt reliably and regularly with his setup. I was able to pull up a «double-header» with smelt on both hooks, and David caught both the smallest and the largest smelt of the day. Craig said they don't always bite that reliably but when the fishing is good you might be able to limit out in an hour (limit in that tidal area is 60 smelt).
We found ice-fishing to be an enjoyable time in a group, and the camaraderie is a large part of why it is so popular along with the inexpensive and easy setup. Ice shacks are not required so one could literally grab an ice rod, some bait, and a bucket and get out there, as long as they have a way to drill through the ice. There are a wide variety of augers available including manual ones but Craig prefers one that is used with his battery-operated drill that we found to be reliable and quick. We even observed others breaking open holes by slamming a sharp pole through to re-open past holes.
After we caught a number of smelt and felt we had enough, Craig asked us if we wanted to move on and try for some hake. Hake are a larger fish with a pleasant taste, and they need to be found out deeper. There used to be a commercial fishery in the Renforth area that Craig said decimated the population but they have bounced back to the point where they are fishable again recreationally. They generally average 15-18 inches in the area these days. We walked out across the ice around a kilometer to a place Craig had previous success, stopping along the way to drill test holes and ensure the ice was a suitable thickness to continue. Wilderness Obsession recommends that you proceed safely when ice fishing, and 6 inches of ice is recommended for foot traffic. Interestingly, the clear ice is the strongest and the white ice is less stable and generally shouldn't be trusted when measuring the thickness of the ice.
Craig's setup for hake included using either full prawns or smelt on a larger 2/0 hook. Again he used a weight at the bottom below two hooks, but this time used a spinning reel on either the medium ice rod or a full-size spinning rod. Alas it was not to be on this day as we spent a couple hours trying in several spots but the hake were not to be found before the deteriorating weather conditions forced us back in for the day.
All in all we can say it was a great time, and after cooking up some of the smelt we can see their appeal! Rolled in flour and spiced and then fried, they offer a very pleasing and unique taste that is definitely a tasty treat. We can see ourselves heading out for another ice fishing trip in the future!
In closing, one thing we found disappointing in the ice-shack area was the amount of garbage (specifically cans) strewn across the little village. We collected a few of them to clean up, and saw another fellow doing the same dragging a box behind him. It would be a shame to see those cans and garbage end up in the waterway after a thaw up, and we would encourage all ice-fishermen to be good sportsmen and clean up after themselves on the water. Please be good stewards of the environment and even try to leave the area better than you found it! Our sport and world depends on it...
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