Ice fishing season picks up in Erie County waters, especially on Presque Isle Bay

·8 min read

Chris Wernicki is a longtime fisherman, but he had never taken his son ice fishing before this week.

On Tuesday morning, though, Wernicki, a resident of McKean in Erie County, found himself in an ice hut with his son on Misery Bay at Presque Isle State Park. Jeff Wernicki had trouble finding time to go fishing when he was in college and then started working.

On this day, they joined dozens of others who were getting in some fishing during a frigid morning on the bay. Jeff Wernicki, who had pulled a bluegill through the ice earlier, appeared to already be hooked on the sport.

Angler Art Blum, from Erie, drills a fishing hole on his favorite spot with an electric auger on Tuesday at Presque Isle State Park's Misery Bay. Recent cold weather has produced about five inches of ice on Misery Bay.
Angler Art Blum, from Erie, drills a fishing hole on his favorite spot with an electric auger on Tuesday at Presque Isle State Park's Misery Bay. Recent cold weather has produced about five inches of ice on Misery Bay.

“I can see myself doing this more,” he said.

Chris and Jeff Wernicki are not the only ones lured by the region's ice fishing. Many anglers venture out onto the ice during the winters in northwestern Pennsylvania. Presque Isle Bay and its smaller bays, ponds and marinas are hot spots for fishing in the cold.

Erie County and northwestern Pennsylvania offer nationally renowned fisheries. During warmer parts of the year, the area is known for its bass fishing in the bay and walleye angling in Lake Erie and, in the fall, its steelhead fishing in the lake's tributaries. The ice fishing, when the conditions are right, is also an irresistible attraction for outdoors tourists.

In fact, FishingBooker, an online company that plans fishing trips to 2,000 destinations, ranked Presque Isle Bay in Erie as one of the top 10 winter fishing destinations in the country for 2022.

"Presque Isle Bay is the entrance to the world of Lake Erie ice fishing, which is what makes it such a loved winter fishing destination," the company said in announcing its list. “Presque Isle Bay is one of the first spots to provide safe ice for anglers to fish through, and this can happen as early as December. The prospect of yellow perch, northern pike and panfish will be enough for you to forget about the cold too."

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Ice cover has been inconsistent in the Erie region's waters over the past decade with some years featuring solid ice for much of the winter, and other years only brief periods of ice-up because of milder temperatures.

Last week, the ice thickened on lakes throughout the region when a persistent cold front parked itself over the area.

Ice fishing huts sit on a frozen Misery Bay in Presque Isle State Park in Erie County.
Ice fishing huts sit on a frozen Misery Bay in Presque Isle State Park in Erie County.

That led ice-fishing enthusiasts to descend on Presque Isle Bay and other popular inland waters. The temperatures were expected to remain below freezing at least through this weekend.

Safety first on ice

One rule of ice fishing is emphasized above others by Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission officials.

"No ice is 100% safe," said Chad Foster, the education and outreach supervisor for the commission’s northwest office.

Ice conditions vary widely on different bodies of water in the region, and sometimes they vary on different parts of the same lake or pond. Foster warned about underwater springs and changing temperatures.

“They’re iced over, obviously, and each lake is different. You have to keep that in mind when you are traversing out across the ice," he said. "You need to check it as you go. ... You should carry a spud bar or some way to check to make sure the ice is hard and not brittle where you’re not going to fall through."

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Anglers also should use proper footwear on the ice to avoid falls. And dress warmly, since the wind can howl on area waters, lowering the wind-chill factor.

Ice huts help protect anglers from the frigid conditions.

Crappies were the catch of the day after a morning of ice fishing on Tuesday at Presque Isle State Park's Misery Bay. Recent cold weather has produced about five inches of ice on Misery Bay.
Crappies were the catch of the day after a morning of ice fishing on Tuesday at Presque Isle State Park's Misery Bay. Recent cold weather has produced about five inches of ice on Misery Bay.

Bait shops prosper

As the wintry weather takes hold and draws anglers onto the ice, Erie County bait and tackle shops that remain open through the winter see the positive effects. They sell equipment and bait to many ice anglers.

Jeramy Lee, an associate at Poor Richard’s Bait and Tackle in Fairview Township, said the season is off to a better start than in recent years.

After the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, cold weather stuck around and the ice thickened to 5 inches to 8 inches on most waterways.

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“It’s going well so far," Lee said. “It’s safe ice pretty much everywhere. The whole bay is locked up. A lot of guys are going to Misery Bay for crappie and perch."

Although the area is known for many fish species, yellow perch, bluegill and other panfish often take center stage in the winter.

“For the most part, our ice anglers in the northwest target panfish,” Foster said, especially around Erie County, Presque Isle Bay, Horseshoe Pond and Marina Pond.

“Misery Bay is often targeted with large bluegill," he said. “Really, it’s a good year to head out and go out ice fishing."

On the bay along Chestnut Street, anglers were finding jumbo perch early this week. Lee said there are a lot of fish, but anglers are catching many smaller fish and returning them to the water.

“You’re going to catch a lot of small ones, but there are good numbers of big perch out there guys are doing well on," he said.

Howard Eaton Reservoir, near the New York border, can offer nice largemouth bass as well as chain pickerel, and northern pike with their setups. Other inland lakes in Erie County provide fishing for many kinds of fish, as does Pymatuning Reservoir to the south in Crawford County, where walleye are a popular catch. The PFBC said that another Crawford County fishery, Sugar Lake, has reported catches of panfish, chain pickerel and bowfin through the ice.

"Horseshoe Pond is producing a lot of bluegills and a lot of guys are trying Pymatuning for walleye and doing well there for perch," Lee said.

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“There are plenty of lakes and plenty of areas in the northwest to target a bunch of different variety of species,” Foster said.

As a result, Poor Richard's bait sales have been busy.

“A lot of grubs, lot of maggots, waxworms; it's kind of hard to keep them in stock, honestly, as we go through so much," Lee said, noting that emerald shiner minnows have been working, too.

Foster said license sales in the northwest have been steady early this year because there is good, fishable ice available.

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Angler Gary Schuller of Millcreek Township, fishes on ice at Misery Bay in Presque Isle State Park.
Angler Gary Schuller of Millcreek Township, fishes on ice at Misery Bay in Presque Isle State Park.

Anglers enjoying success

Erie is such a hot spot that Gary Schuller moved in 2015 from northern Pittsburgh to Millcreek Township in Erie County for the recreation and, “because I love ice fishing. ... I like all kinds of fishing, but ice fishing is the best.”

Regarding the northwest Pennsylvania region, he said, “It has everything. There are casinos, horse racing, beaches and fishing. That’s why I moved here."

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At age 69, he recalls a lifetime of fishing that started with trips with his father. Now he enjoys going about every day he can and has a friend he fishes with who keeps a logbook of their success. In 2021, they caught 2,169 perch. Through Monday , he was up to 24 perch this year.

“They start adding up when you catch your limit,” he said about the good memories on the water.

The water was just under 12 feet deep where Schuller was fishing Tuesday on Misery Bay. He attached maggots or waxworms to shiny spoons that look like minnows to catch most of his fish.

“Mostly they hit the waxworms,” he said, adding that maggots come in a close second.

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Rob Simora of Erie was fishing Tuesday morning on Misery Bay with his friend Dave Hammer, also of Erie.

“We were getting a mixed bag,” Simora said about earlier success in the season with perch, crappie and bluegill. He estimated it was the sixth time he’d fished on the ice this season.

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“We’re getting a bunch of keepers,” he said, noting that he's been finding fish on the bottom of the lake by using grubs and waxworks.

This is Hammer's first year ice fishing, and he wants to learn from Simora, who is a veteran angler and former co-worker.

“I hooked up with this guy steelhead fishing and it went to this,” Hammer said. He’s starting to enjoy ice fishing, as “there’s always something going on.”

Anglers from left, Evan Carll, Jay Carmichael and Henry Yoder look for a fishing spot on Misery Bay.
Anglers from left, Evan Carll, Jay Carmichael and Henry Yoder look for a fishing spot on Misery Bay.

Art Blum of Erie spent Tuesday morning on Misery Bay ice fishing for perch with jigs and grubs. He’s been fishing for 40 to 45 years and said the fishing is good, but “years past it was better.”

Jay Carmichael of Youngsville, Evan Carll of Erie and Henry Yoder of Sugar Grove fished several locations to find the perch. Carll described the fishing as “decent, pretty good. They are biting on a little bit of everything."

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The ice fishing has been good thus far, but the day is only a success if anglers return home safely.

Foster stressed that people should have safety equipment with them when venturing onto the ice.

“Always keep a pair of ice awls on your person so if you do fall in, you can quickly grab those to get out as well as consider buying a float suit or float coat and bibs," he said. "They are designed to have flotation built right in. So if you do fall in, they will keep you afloat.”

He also advises to fish with a partner, or at least let someone know where you are fishing.

"If you’re going to get out, be safe," Lee added.

Brian Whipkey is the outdoor columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at bwhipkey@gannett.com and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website's homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Ice anglers enjoy success after Erie County fishing waters freeze up

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