Early Ice Out on the Oneida River

By Spider Rybaak

Pennelville’s Jason Pope admiring a crappie just before releasing it.

One of the most reliable ice fisheries in New York, Oneida Lake normally freezes early and stays that way right to the close of walleye season.

Not this year. Open water ruled by the third week of February, and the first of March saw solid ice become as rare as whiskers on a perch. Indeed, last weekend courageous souls set out in summer boats to troll off Cleveland, Constantia and Sylvan Beach.

Average anglers, on the other hand, left their rigs in cold storage for another week or two and hit the Oneida River instead to fish from the bank and in the rapids.

Nice perch were available at Caughdenoy last Monday. Syracusan Mike Higgens took a batch, including a few 12-inchers, below the northernmost flood gate on minnows dangled a couple feet below a bobber.

“It’s still early,” claims the bass pro. “The skeins are still tight on the females and the males haven’t started milting yet. If today’s catch is any guide,” he predicts, “we’ll have some dynamite fishing for the next few weeks.”

Since my original plan was to surf-cast for browns on Lake Ontario, I was packing my favorite Abu Garcia Revo spinning reel and Fenwick rod. Putting on a spare spool loaded with eight-pound test Trilene, I tie on a Berkley PowerBait Atomic Teaser, tip it with a red Berkley PowerBait Honey Worm, attach a Rod-N-Bobb’s slip bobber, set it for two feet and take a position next to Mike.

Looking at my strange offering, and then at me in askance, “minnows are the best bait,” Mike advises.

“I know,” I confess, “but I wasn’t planning on fishing for perch. I always carry a supply of Atomic Teasers and Honey Worms, because they’re effective for everything from panfish and crappies to bass, pickerel, northerns and trout. You can’t find a more productive bait combination that ain’t slimy, doesn’t die, stink or spoil.”

I dropped my line into the eddy below us. Before he could respond, I’m into a perch of about nine inches. Not exactly a trophy like the ones in his bucket, but a very respectable jack.

Afterwards, I decide to follow the Oneida River into Phoenix to get on I-481 and continue north. Surprisingly, the bank at Big Bend was lined with anglers. Some were catching fish; others were watching bobbers as an excuse to soak in some sun; everyone was having a ball.

This year we’re being treated to the warmest late winter weather in a long time. Don’t question it. Just head out to the Oneida River at Brewerton, Caughdenoy or Big Bend (County Route 12, east of Phoenix) and relax, catch some early rays, and maybe a perch or two.

Crappie fishing at Big Bend.
Brave souls trolling off the ice pack on Oneida Lake last Sunday
Mike Higgens with a fat 12-inch jack.
Me with a smaller but equally respectible perch
Family fishing at Big Bend.