Friends, fish and frozen fun

Ice fishing a north country favorite to beat the winter blues

An old-fashioned tip-up sits near a makeshift shanty as fishermen wander off to check on a variety of tip-ups scattered across the north end of Black Lake. A variety of tip-ups ranging from the 1950s style seen here to more modern, spring-loaded versions are used. Photo by Amanda Morrison/NNY Living.

For more than 30 years, Walt Savichky has made the trek from New York’s Southern Tier to Black Lake on the south side of St. Lawrence County to catch fish in the dead of winter.

And while Black Lake and many other north country waters offer some of the best ice fishing around, it’s not the lure of a prize-wining northern pike that keeps Mr. Savichky coming back to bore holes in ice that often freezes to more than a foot thick. Like most people who don heavy winter clothing and drag a seemingly endless supply of equipment onto the ice, the catch is exciting, but not as rewarding as the camaraderie that ensues while waiting.

“Fishing is just an excuse,” said Jim Savicky, Walt’s cousin, whose last name is pronounced the same but spelled differently. “This is our annual guys’ weekend. If you catch a fish it’s a bonus.”

Judging from what lay on the ice next to where the men were hunkered down in their makeshift shanty, “bonuses” were in good supply. Most common this day in Black Lake were perch, which the men acknowledged would be good eating, but most in the group were angling for pike to freeze and take home where they’d pickle them in a recipe of spices, sugar and vinegar — a lot of vinegar — to soften the bones.

“They pickle really well,” said Jason Smith, who at 33 was the youngest family member in the group. “They come out a lot like pickled herring.”

Despite an early January thaw that weakened ice across the region and made fishing a bit riskier than usual, this particular Saturday Mr. Savicky, his cousin and four other men were well on their way to capping off another annual winter sojourn. By late afternoon, the men had been on the ice for three days, starting each morning at 7 a.m. and continuing until dusk, monitoring a swath of holes that covered at least a half a square mile on the lake.

“We shut down at dark and go in for a big meal,” Mr. Savichky said. “Tonight is prime rib.”

While the idea of sitting for hours on a frozen lake, waiting for a fish strike might be for some the last thing that spells fun, when the action does hit, it sends everyone flying to see what they might reel in.

In the case of Mr. Savichky and crew, the rush of tip-ups popping flags to signal a fish strike happened often enough to keep enthusiasm up. With six men on the ice holding state fishing licenses, each was permitted to drop five tip-ups, devices that suspend a line from a rig that allows it to be left unattended in the water. When a fish strikes, a spring-loaded flag is released and alerts the fisherman to a bite. That meant the six-man crew was watching some 30 holes in the iced-over lake.

Additional photos

“We have some friendly contests when we’re out on the ice,” Mr. Savichky said. “Our flags are different colors so we can tell which ones belong to whom.”

The largest catch that day: a 33-inch northern pike too large to pickle so it lived to strike a jig another day.

At roughly 26 miles long, Black Lake is the largest of the region’s many Indian River lakes and is often referred to as “nature’s fish hatchery” for its diverse habitat and naturally clean ecosystem. It also is the largest lake in St. Lawrence County and boasts a reputation among anglers as a preferred year-round fishing spot.

For Mr. Savichky, the tradition of Black Lake dates back nearly a half-century when his father, Walt Sr., built the family camp near Sitts Bay on the southeast shore of the lake in 1965, about five years before the younger Walt’s days as a forestry student at the New York State Ranger School in Wanakena. His father paid only $1,000 for the land at Black Lake. Today, the nearly four-hour drive from the Southern Tier is the only drawback to the trip north.

Besides some basic equipment that includes tip-ups or jigs, an ice auger and a skimmer, dressing well, being prepared with a good shelter, or shanty, and knowledge of ice safety is most important for any winter fisherman. Most experts advise at least five to eight inches of good, clear ice to ensure a safe outing.

Ice shanties run the gamut from the winter tent variety that can be found at most sporting goods stores to the more creative makeshift styles like the shelter Mr. Savichky and crew used. The latter was an improvised structure built from an old swing set, chicken wire and covered with a heavy burlap tarp.

“Our shanty does the trick,” Mr. Savicky said with a chuckle.

Ken Eysaman is editor for NNY Living. Contact him at 661-2399 or