ALTHOUGH we've been through quite a thawing of the ice here on Great Bay, what remains looks like - at least on some of the tributaries - we'll have enough good ice to fish on. But knowing that this column was written a few days before print, it's "buyer beware" as the saltwater ice is famous for being here one minute and gone the next.
We've lived on Great Bay for most of our adult lives and have seen some incredible changes in the ice coming and going - especially when considering the calendar. In our younger years you would know, positively, that you'd be able to get on the ice at the Greenland end of the Bay, where the vast majority of the smelt fishing was taking place, on New Year's Day.
And in the early spring, most of the fishing would stop, not because of ice conditions, as it usually stayed fishable until the first week or so of March. Nope, it was because the smelt started to turn soft and mushy from their spawning conditions and were not the quality to bother fishing for.
There were lots and lots of smelts back then. Enough so that commercial netting was allowed, most of which took place on the Squamscott River, which is the tidal section of the Exeter River. Huge triangular hoop nets were set through elongated cuts in the ice and the tide currents would bring the smelts into the net. This fishing was almost universally done at night, and the only reason that we could come up with was that in the dark more smelts couldn't see the nets. This practice has been banned for several years, but during the last of it there weren't enough smelt for many nets to be set.
In that same area, it's hard to believe now but we've seen photos of good-sized striped bass piled up on the ice that were taken by the same netting methods! That run of stripers into the Squamscott and presumably some of the other Great Bay tidal rivers has long gone. It's obvious that this strain of stripers had been wiped out by one means or another as only an occasional leftover schoolie-sized striper is now caught from the ice.
The one non-smelt but valuable Great Bay species left to ice fish for is the small vestige of what must have been huge schools of white perch. Most white perch are not being caught by being targeted, but are caught by the smelt fishing group. For the last few years, a growing amount of angling pressure is being seen in the early spring on the sea-run white perch population. We have to admit that we've been fishing for these white perch for several years when there was only a remnant population and had been successful in catching a dozen or more each time out. For the last few years we'd been caching more and more of these great fish and now lots of other people have caught on and it seems that hasn't put a dent in their growth in numbers.
For the last few years there has been very little chance to fish for any of the ice species here on Great Bay because of ice. What little fishing there has been was on the tributaries and in some instances some really nice catches have been made; not in the hundred of pounds like could be caught 50 years ago, but catching the legal limit of 30 pounds can be achieved if you hit things right. And that usually takes place on the Squamscott River and in some cases the Oyster River in Durham.
We used to be able to catch smelt by accessing Great Bay from our shore-side home, but for reasons unknown there are few, if any, fish in our location any more. So what little smelting we've done has been at the Oyster River off the Town Landing there.
That place is very easy to fish from and there's ample parking and only a few yards walk to the ice. Usually there are plenty of old holes that are fishable, so cutting a new hole often is not needed. We usually just clear off the skim ice from someone's yesterday fishing hole and put our couple of jig rods to work there. When we do have to cut a hole we'll use our hand auger and only cut five-inch round holes that are pretty easy to do.
If we catch a couple dozen fish, we're happy. That feeds Jane and I and tends to fill the tradition of many years.Think safety first if you go. Saltwater ice is tricky. Good sense is to go where others have gone or are currently fishing. Drop us an email at DoDuckInn@aol.com and enjoy the winter.
Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News.