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In iceless winter, fishing is a no-go

Organizers scratch local tournament

Gary Kobel of Norton showed off his catch during an ice tournament last year, when conditions were very different. Gary Kobel of Norton showed off his catch during an ice tournament last year, when conditions were very different.
By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / February 9, 2012
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It’s a bummer of a year for ice fishing.

Normally, on a clear morning in February, Joe Wood greets the yellow glow of daybreak from the middle of a gloriously frozen body of water. He likes a good 7 inches of ice, enough to hold a truck full of gear.

He and some 350 people would have been out on Monponsett Pond in Halifax last weekend, cutting holes in the ice with power augers and setting up their portable tables and chairs, tents, and grills. They would have enjoyed a day of friendly competition in the Bristol County Ice Masters Ice Fishing Tournament - would have, of course, were it not for the open water on the pond.

Ice-fishing tournaments have been canceled this year in Southeastern Massachusetts and throughout much of the state. Although tournaments south of Boston often get postponed a week when the ice is too thin, the warm temperatures this winter have left organizers with little hope of rescheduling.

Wood, a Lakeville resident and chairman of the Ice Masters, canceled not only the original date last Saturday but also the “no ice’’ date this Saturday.

“It’s just not going to happen around here this year,’’ he said.

It’s the warmest, most ice-free year he can remember, and the forecast doesn’t show enough cold weather to give him much hope things will change. Toward the latter part of February, even in a normal year, the days are long enough and the sun strong enough that not much new ice forms, he said.

Another local tournament, the carpenters’ union derby scheduled for Feb. 19 on the Norton Reservoir, has been canceled as well. It would have been the fifth derby hosted by Norwood Local 535 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Organizers of tournaments at Lake Nipmuc in Mendon and at the Easthampton Rod and Gun Club also said they were likely to cancel.

Joe Broderick, business manager of Local 535, said he was disappointed not only to miss the fun, but also to lose the opportunity to give one-quarter of the proceeds - usually about $1,000, he said - to a foundation that benefits students at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton.

“I’m absolutely bummed out,’’ he said. “It’s a good time to get together with like-minded people.’’

The disappointing year for ice fishing has meant hard times for suppliers of bait and tackle. Tom’s Wholesale Bait Shop in Middleborough, a sponsor of the Ice Masters tournament, sells bait to 72 shops in Massachusetts and about 15 in Rhode Island, owner Thomas P. Stankauskas said. This is the worst year he can remember.

“It couldn’t affect us more. It’s like having the opening day of baseball and no baseball,’’ he said.

In a normal year, he would have shipped 300 to 400 pounds of bait to Rhode Island last week, he said, but he shipped only 35.

“I’ve never, ever, ever seen a season anything like this,’’ he said.

Stankauskas also said small tackle shops depend more than ever on selling bait, because sporting-goods chains have taken tackle business away from mom-and-pop stores. Some of his customers aren’t sure how they will make it until spring - though an early start to the warm-weather fishing season will help.

“When you have ice, it can’t get any better,’’ he said. “When you don’t, it can’t get any worse.’’

Fishermen said the only tournament they know locals are still looking forward to this year is the Meredith Rotary Club tournament this weekend on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, a derby so large that the grand prize is a $24,000 ice-going vehicle. For information, see meredithrotary.org.

At tournaments, keeping warm by the grill and sharing food and good company are the order of the day.

Fishermen arrive early to cut their holes in the ice, and each licensed fisherman is allowed five “traps,’’ or lines, Wood said. They may or may not use poles. The key piece of gear, beyond hook, line, and bait, is a “tip-up,’’ a device with a small flag that tips up to signal when a fish has hit the line. It generally holds a spool of line and has a bar that suspends it across the hole.

When a fish hits, the fisherman goes to the hole, tugs on the line to set the hook, and brings in the fish.

Depending on the tournament, fish may be weighed live or dead. Many fishermen release the fish, but they have the option to keep and eat them. When all the weights have been recorded, it’s prize time.

For the Bristol County Ice Masters tournament, cash prizes were set in advance, with the top prize of $1,000 for the heaviest bass, $750 for second place, and smaller prizes down to fifth place at $100. The top three pickerel would have earned $400, $250, and $100.

Fishermen bring food to share - perhaps venison from a previous hunting trip, Broderick said, or rib roast cooked with potatoes and carrots. He uses a small kettle grill fired with charcoal and wood. Sitting in a chair on the ice, he can slide the grill under his legs to warm him up.

Wood found ice last month in the Berkshires. Pontoosuc Lake had 8 to 10 inches, he said, but even there, he had to use a plank to cross thin and broken ice at the edge.

“It gets kind of saucy, and people don’t want to go in up to their knees,’’ he said.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.

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