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Crown Jewel at First Ice: Big Bay

By Spider Rybaak

Hardwater village on Big Bay

One thing you can count on to grace the face of New York’s inland lakes this time of year is safe ice. And while all the ponds in the northern tier can make that claim, none comes close to hooking the imaginations of as many Northeastern anglers as Oneida Lake. The ice bite is so superior, the world’s most popular freshwater fishing magazine, “In-Fisherman,” lists it regularly in its winter edition’s “Adventure” section as the place to go for hardwater fish dinners.

All the warmwater species popular with ice-fishermen thrive here: schools of keeper-sized walleyes, dream-sized yellow perch, black crappie and sunfish, great quantities of pickerel, and a smattering of northern pike, tiger muskies and burbot (freshwater cod).

The shallow water that makes this lake so productive (it averages 22 feet deep) makes fishing relatively easy, too. And although just about any spot produces at one time or other, the crown jewel at first ice is Big Bay.
Its massive weed bed, shallow water and the slightly warmer temperatures pumped in by tributaries like Big Bay and Little Big Bay Creeks make it the lake’s most heavenly spot for panfish at ice time.

The northwestern corner offers the hottest action. On a good weekend, up to 100 shanties spot the ice within a stone’s throw of Woodworth Road in West Monroe.

Bluegills wider than a giant man’s hand fill most of the space in the buckets being hauled back to shore. Most are taken on ice dots tipped with mousies or spikes.

Perch, predominately in the 6- to 8-inch class, are also available and strike the same baits the sunnies do.
Crappies running from 9 to 13 inches are plentiful, too.  They prefer larger baits like waxworms tipped on Swedish Pimples, and buckeyes and fathead minnows fished plain or tipping rattling hardware.

Panfish move around a lot throughout the water column, so fish at various depths until you find ‘em. Pickerel thrive in the bay, and the lake’s dwindling population of northern pike, as well as an occasional tiger that comes up the Oneida River, hang out in the weeds clinging to the drop-off at the bay’s mouth.

Burbot, a native species requiring cold water, normally occupy spring holes in the deepest parts of the lake. The state’s only indigenous fish that spawns in winter, they come into relatively shallow water where they’re likely to hit minnows targeting pike and perch. Since most anglers have never seen one, they mistake it for a snakehead or other alien and toss it on the ice to die.

And that’s a terrible waste because, like all cod, burbots are delicious. In fact, Minnesota has been holding an annual eelpout  (the Midwestern name for the species) festival for 30 years (www.eelpoutfestival.com).

Jack and Jake Hackett of Fulton and one of their bluegills

Burbot may look ugly but they sure taste good