Story & Photos by Darl Black
At 17,000 surface acres, Pymatuning Lake is Pennsylvania’s largest inland body of water. Therefore during January, February and early March, it becomes the Keystone State’s biggest ice cube. Anglers from across Pennsylvania and surrounding states journey to the lake during ice season to fish for a variety of wintertime species, including walleye, white bass, bluegill, yellow perch and crappies.
For over 60 years, Pymatuning has been one of Pennsylvania’s best all-around warmwater fisheries. As far back as the 1950s (over a decade after being impounded) crappies began a long-running supportive role on the lake, while walleye maintained headliner status. But over time the stocked walleye population fluctuated, often falling so low that anglers became discouraged when trying to catch them. Meanwhile, natural-reproducing crappie held their ground gaining new converts among fishermen.As the shallow wood cover deteriorated and water clarity gradually improved, aquatic vegetation gained a foothold. This resulted in a shift within the crappie population as the dominant white crappie population slipped some while the black crappie population expanded. Today the lake’s population is roughly 50% white and 50% black.
During the winter, crappies are generally caught at depths from roughly 10 to 15 feet, usually around submerged stumps, brushpiles or channel drops. On this shallow impoundment with a maximum depth of 25 feet, only a couple bays near the dam have water deep enough to host winter-over crappies. Therefore, the better crappie catches will be made on the main lake.
Typically the main lake does not freeze until January. But while waiting for safe ice, anglers can test their techniques from the docks in the Jamestown Marina where fishing is permitted once the slip renters remove their boats in the fall. The docks are designed to remain in the water through winter; depths under the docks exceed ten feet. With ice too thin to walk on, anglers stand on the docks to drill holes in the ice. Then from the dock, they drop lines to crappies and bluegills holding around dock support poles and brushpiles.
While walleye continue to hold the interest of many ice fishermen, veteran angler Ken Smith has little interest in catching ‘eye. When he heads to Pymatuning, his focus is panfish. According to Ken, the best bite for quality crappies occurs during the latter part of February and the first week of March.
“During January I generally fish a lake closer to home, but in February I start making the Pymatuning trek. Sure you can catch crappies on first ice on Pymatuning if you’re a risk taker, but I like to wait until the ice is at least 8 inches all the way across the lake. In late February it seems the bigger crappies are feeding more, perhaps in preparation for spring movement towards shallower water.”
Ken targets offshore flats in 11- to 13-feet of water. Based on his open water experience at Pymatuning, he knows which flats have the best submerged brush structures, often relying on old-fashioned triangulation to identify areas to ice-fish. When drilling holes, he does not attempt to have each one over a brushpile – just as long as he is near it.
“I am satisfied with knowing cover is in the immediate area. I am a run and gun kind of guy on the ice. I drill a lot holes and move from one to another until I find active fish. When those fish stop biting, I’m off to a different hole. I don’t believe every hole needs to be drilled directly over cover because the crappie schools are moving around a lot at this time of year. They move; I move.”
Ken does not use live bait in his ice-fishing as many crappie anglers do. Instead he employs small compact ice jigheads make of tungsten with a #4 hook. He tips the head with a small plastic body which looks somewhat like a nail with a stubby flathead at the tip of the tail.
“If it’s an overcast day, I use dark colors including black and motor oil. However, under a clear sunny sky, I go with lighter, brighter colors; Glow White is my favorite,” states Ken.
“Pymatuning crappies consistently run larger than crappies in other regional lakes. I typically catch more black crappies when on the ice at Pymatuning. White ones are taken too, but the blacks have thicker bodies and yield a nicer fillet.”
With numerous launch ramps/parking lots around the lake which are plowed by State Parks, access to the lake shore is relatively easy. However, snowmobiles, quads and motor vehicles are not permitted on this two-mile wide lake. So, with the better fishing spots often some distance from shoreline, you may end up walking a long distance pulling a sled with gear. But due to the excellent fishing opportunities, few people are dissuaded.
Add the availability of comfortable state park cabin rentals along the lake in both Pennsylvania and Ohio, and it is easy to see why Pymatuning is high on the list of favorite places to visit for a week or weekend during the winter.
Ken says there are a lot of frozen lakes in Pennsylvania and Ohio to ice-fish. But if you want to fish the best one for crappies at the peak time, you should be making plans immediately for a visit to Pymatuning Lake.