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Ice fishing newcomers turn to free classes to learn the Vermont tradition

A photo of a man who appears white holding an image of a fish on a frozen, snow-covered lake.
Mikaela Lefrak
Corey Hart with Vermont Fish and Wildlife shows a photo of one of the fish species that populates Shelburne Pond.

On a recent subzero Sunday, Corey Hart, an education specialist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, set up a plastic folding table in the middle of Shelburne Pond. He and three local volunteers had just finished drilling a dozen holes into the frozen lake in a wide semicircle nearby.

As he arranged stacks of equipment on and around the table — augurs, bait, tackle and tip-ups — about a dozen people clomped across the lake and gathered around him. They were there to learn how to fish.

When the ponds and lakes freeze over, many Vermonters take to ice fishing as a way to enjoy the long winter months. It’s common to learn how to ice fish from parents or older relatives — Hart, for one, learned from his father. But for people without those family traditions, an introduction into the popular winter activity can be hard to come by.

To meet that need, Vermont Fish and Wildlife runs free classes at ponds and waterways across the state. The department earns a portion of its operating budget from selling fishing licenses, so it's in its best interest to bring in new demographics of people, like women. According to a 2020 survey, about 78% of Vermonters with fishing licenses were men.

More from VPR: How dunking in the icy waters of Lake Champlain helps one woman grieving the loss of her husband

Most of the people at the Shelburne Pond class were parents with their young children, there to create a new family tradition and break up the monotony of winter weekends.

"We've been so excited to come out here and learn," said one participant, Jennifer, who brought her two sons and an exchange student from the Canary Islands, Al, who is living with them for nine months. (When asked how he was enjoying his first Vermont winter, Al said, in no uncertain terms, "I do not like it.")

Over the last 30 years, Vermont Fish and Wildlife has documented a decline in overall fishing license sales. The number of ice anglers has dropped from 46,947 in 1990 to 28,718 in 2019.

But during the pandemic, the department has noticed a surge of interest.

"We saw a resurgence in fishing license sales," said Eric Palmer, Vermont Fish and Wildlife's director of fisheries. "Some of the best numbers we’ve seen, frankly, since the early 90s."

The department is hoping to ride that wave. Palmer noted that ice fishing is a financially accessible sport. He estimates it would cost about $150 to purchase all your basic gear (not including good winter clothes). The biggest hurdle, he acknowledged, is not having anyone to teach you how to do it.

"Having a mentor to kind of take you out, show you the ropes, really helps get folks engaged and helps them to appreciate the opportunity without having as many challenges in figuring out where to go, what to wear, what gear to bring," he said.

"Having a mentor to kind of take you out, show you the ropes, really helps get folks engaged and helps them to appreciate the opportunity without having as many challenges in figuring out where to go, what to wear, what gear to bring."
Eric Palmer, Vermont Fish and Wildlife

During the lesson on Shelburne Pond, I latched onto a volunteer teacher named Frank Hagerty as a mentor. Between helping students set their tip-ups and select their bait, he extolled the virtues of spending a brisk winter day out on the pond.

"If you get a nice sunny day with no wind, it’s really nice out on the ice," he said. "You just sit on your bucket, everything’s great."

When asked about his ice fishing beverage of choice, Hagerty said he was carrying chicken noodle soup in a thermos and a bottle of water.

Hart spent the morning teaching his students about ice fishing regulations, safety and basic technique. He passed out live minnows and maggots as bait, and helped each family get set up around a hole.

After about an hour and a half on the ice, my fingers were frozen solid and my audio recorder's batteries had died from the cold. When I left, they hadn’t caught anything yet. But as my new mentor Frank Hagerty told me, it’s not really about the catch. It’s about sitting on your bucket and enjoying the winter as the fish swim beneath you.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with VPR's Mikaela Lefrak @mikaelalefrak.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
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