Let’s be clear: Pittsburghers Jim and Perry Deem and West Virginian Gary Robinson are not being punished.
Yes, it is February. Yes, the air temperature is hovering around the freezing mark. And yes, they are standing on ice-covered Pymatuning Lake in Pymatuning State Park. But they aren’t being banished to this seemingly Siberian landscape. Instead, they are three of a crowd of people ice fishing. It’s a sport with a strong following in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a good excuse to get outside and get together,” said Jim Deem. “You catch a few fish, joke around; it’s just a good time.”
Some might find this hard to believe. After all, ice fishing in northwestern Pennsylvania requires stepping onto frozen water in the harshest months, often under rugged conditions.
But the popular winter sport is not necessarily the man-versus-nature test of will that it once was, says John Arway, a 36-year veteran of ice fishing and employee of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
In the old days, an ice fisherman laboriously chopped holes through the ice with a hatchet, as he guessed where the fish might be. He used a plastic five-gallon bucket for a seat and fished with a minnow dangling from a short piece of rod jammed into a broom handle. And he tried to stay warm wearing blue jeans over long underwear.
Today, hand- and gas-powered augers allow fishermen to drill eight-inch holes through 18 inches of ice in seconds. High-tech cameras detect fish under the ice, allowing fishermen to track them on a small screen. And special clothes, heaters and even ice-fishing tents designed to hold anywhere from one to four people allow them to fish in T-shirts in the most brutal weather.
Ice fishing is safer today than it once was. The frigid research indicates — four inches will support a 200-pound man, seven inches a 1,500-pound group of people and eight inches a 2,000-pound car — but just in case, anglers can wear life jackets that inflate with the pull of a string.
Of course, some things about the sport remain the same.
Anglers still reel in big fish through the ice, such as the state record 35-pound northern pike. Panfish like crappies, yellow perch and bluegills are commonly caught, as are trout and bass, the state’s two most popular game fish. And hard to wriggle-through-the-ice walleyes are prized as great table fare.
Ice fishing remains a social sport, too. A time-honored way of finding fish is to simply look for other anglers and then drill holes nearby. Gather round a portable grill (don’t worry, you won’t melt the ice) and warm up with a hot meal.
“It can be a lot of fun, especially when you’ve got a group of people. We like to take grills and grill kielbasa while we fish. It’s like having a little picnic out on the ice,” Arway said.
Hundreds of publicly owned waters across the state and weeks of ice formation — from mid-December to early March, generally — give anglers plenty of opportunities too.
“Sometimes you catch a lot of fish, and that’s fun,” said Bill Pagano, a Meadville ice fisherman. “But it’s just an excuse to be outside.”