For N.J. ice fishermen, the action heats up when the chill sets in

Winter can be an acquired taste. For many, the dropping temperatures, falling snow and shorter days mean more time inside. But for some of the Garden State's hardier anglers, winter brings the promise of ice and the call of the lake.

Zach Merchant is part of a group of Garden State fishermen who spend two or three months each winter trekking out with sleds full of equipment and supplies across frozen bodies of water to take advantage of the chance to go ice fishing.

"Ice fishermen are pretty much a different breed of people. Not a lot of people are willing to go out when its five degrees out, waking up at 4 o'clock in the morning and going out on a frozen lake," said Merchant, an avid fisherman who lives in Clinton. 

"I fish year round, and for me it's some different treat that you can't do every day for the rest of the year," said Merchant, who helps run the blog Round Valley Fishing.

How it's done

Ice fishermen use a rig called a tip-up rather than a traditional rod and reel. The tip-ups are simple contraptions that hold a fishing line submerged in the water. When a fish is hooked, the weight of the fish triggers a neon colored flag to pop up. The fish is then reeled in by hand and pulled through the hole in the ice.

"It's just different in the sense that you're not using a rod and reel," Merchant said. "You're just using your hands as a drag and your rod and all that. It's completely different, really."

Using tip-ups makes ice fishing a bit more hands off than open water fishing. It also allows for a party atmosphere on the ice; it's common for ice fishermen to bring a grill and a few beers with them. It may not be on the level of the shantytowns that appear on lakes in Minnesota each winter, but New Jersey's anglers say they still have a great time on the ice.

"It's more so just hanging out with your friends the entire time, and you just happen to be fishing," Merchant said. "That's what it is to me."

Is it safe?

Ice is safe to be on when it's four inches thick. The season typically lasts two or three months, depending on the winter. Merchant said that any winter with safe ice before New Year's is a good winter, and this season has been great.

"I've only been ice fishing for about five or six years now, but last winter, the winter of 2016, was the first winter I remember getting on the ice before Christmas," Merchant said. "In New Jersey, anytime you can get on the ice before New Year's is pretty amazing."

Where to fish

When the ice is good, Merchant is a regular visitor to Round Valley Reservoir, Spruce Run Reservoir and other lakes around Central and North Jersey.

While the ice is of course better up North, it's possible to go ice fishing throughout the Garden State. Manasquan Reservoir in Howell, for example, is open to ice fishing when the conditions are right. Merchant said that he has friends as far south as the Baltimore area that are able to get on the ice during winters.

What's biting

Some species of fish go almost dormant for the winter, floating near the bottom of lakes and ponds where mud and weeds can help them stay warm until temperatures rise again. But there's still plenty of activity in the water. Merchant said that while he usually targets Northern pike through the ice, it's normal to snag yellow perch, crappies, trout, bluegills and muskellunges while ice fishing.

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Muskellunges, or just muskies for short, are the trophies of the winter. They're massive fish, known to push 55 inches and weigh more than 30 pounds in New Jersey waters, and it takes patience to get one to bite. An angler by the name of Bob Neals was ice fishing at Monksville Reservoir in January 1997 when he pulled a 42-pound, 13-ounce muskie through the ice; that catch is still the state record for the species.

A good day on the ice

On a recent morning, Merchant started the day at Oxford's Furnace Lake before heading south to join some friends at Round Valley Reservoir in the afternoon.

There was only one other fisherman was out that morning, and Merchant set up on an opposite side of the lake. For Merchant, being alone on the ice is part of ice fishing's appeal.

"It's nice being out here all alone and just nice being being by yourself every once in a while, doing your own thing with nothing to worry about," Merchant said. "It's a good way to take your mind off things and not sit inside all winter."

Out on Furnace Lake, Merchant fished for muskies. He drilled five holes (the state limit) and baited each of his tip-ups with a live fish, either shiner or a yellow perch, in the hopes of attracting a monster.

After coming up empty at Furnace Lake, Merchant decided to pack up and head to Round Valley Reservoir, where a few of his friends were already a few hours into a good day.

Along the way, Merchant stopped to buy some bait at Hi-Way Sport Shop on Route 31 in Washington.

Ice on the lakes means a boost to business, said Keith Kurpicki, the store's manager. During ice fishing season, Kurpicki said he'll see some of his regular customers as well as plenty of new faces coming from other parts of the state to try something new.

"There's a lot of people from South Jersey," Kurpicki said. "You obviously have your locals, but there's a lot of people coming up from the shore."

At Round Valley Reservoir, Merchant met up with Nick Honachefsky, a freelance writer who lives in Lavallette, and Nick's uncle, Greg Honachefsky. Nick, now 43 years old, said that he's been ice fishing since he was 5.

"My dad used to take me and Greg up to Lake Hopatcong and fish up there," Nick said. "And his dad, my granddad, took him up there to Lake Hopatcong. So that's where we started ice fishing."

The morning session at Furnace Lake may have been dull, but there was no shortage of action for Merchant and the Honachefskys at Round Valley.

Merchant caught a bass, the first he said he's ever pulled through the ice; it was the highlight of the day for the group. Their final tally for that sunny yet chilly Thursday: nine perch, eight pickerel and the bass.

As the trio left the ice, Nick Honachefsky offered advice for anyone looking to give ice fishing a try.

"Bring your kielbasa, don't leave the beer at home and just hope you get a fish," Nick said.

Michael Sol Warren may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MSolDub. Find on Facebook.