By Vic Attardo
Most normal folks will, at some point in the winter, swing their legs up on a couch and watch a football game. Even those not into sports will use their couch for comfort viewing of some TV game.
But dare I say it, Vermont’s Jamie Vladyka and many of his ice fishing friends are not normal — and they are proud of that fact.
Instead of sitting on the living room or den couch, the lads that ice fish mammoth Lake Champlain will sit on the “couch” in their truck — either the front bucket or bench seats — and work the lake’s thick frozen water from the vantage of their cushioned derriere.
They call this winter ice-fishing madness from a Dodge, Ford, Chevy or Toyota, “Vermont Couch Fishing.”
That’s their term, not mine.
While some people use Rangers, and others use Tritons, in a cold New England winter, these lads use their six and eight cylinder or diesel powered vehicle to move high speed around the crappie grounds. Actually the ice.
Then they sit inside their trucks and with the driver’s and/or passenger doors wide open they lean out over the frozen lake, drill quick holes in what could, and should be, a foot or better of solid ice, drop their lines down the eight-inch wide rabbit holes, and jig up some of the nicest crappie you’ll see anywhere, no matter what the season.
The lads have the game so worked out that they hang their bulky augers — the device used to drill holes into the white crust — over their truck doors. These augers — gas, propane or electric powered — dangle as casually on the inside of the doors as a wedding garter from the truck’s inside mirror. When it’s time to move to the next hole, whether a few yards away or the adjacent neighborhood’s frozen bay, the truck’s doors are only partially closed, the augers still hanging inside from the widow ledges down, and the driver takes off for his next frozen target.
See what I mean when I say these boys are not normal.
Of course you might do sort of the same thing from the seat of your snowmobile or ATV but then you couldn’t run your truck’s engine with its oh-so pleasant heater going full blast. (Imagine not having cold feet when you ice fish.) And did I mention the radio or stereo system blaring away — Heavy Metal music is preferred — while you reel up a fine crappie.
These lads may not be normal but they don’t evade the creature comforts. And ‘couch fishing” is really only done from a truck.
There is indeed a truly serious purpose for Vermont couch fishing. Winter crappie on this big lake, and other lakes where ice motoring is practiced, can be anywhere at anytime. Particularly in the mid-to-late part of the New England season, large-water crappie will circulate like mice in an attic. You know they’re up there somewhere, but exactly where does one place the traps? That’s where the truck comes in.
First the truck and its accompanying couch can be taken a long, long distance out into the widest parts of wide Lake Champlain. Then once a general reference place is reached, the scouting begins.
Like on a city bus route, the driver stops on every corner until he picks up a full contingent of passengers. In this hard case, until a lode of crappie are located and the targeted fishing can begin.
Along with the auger, Vermont couch fishing consists of using a sonar, usually a flasher. The actual sonar device is also hung over the door or placed on top of the dashboard, over the truck’s instrument panel, while the cord and the transducer are draped where it can be reached. After a new hole is drilled, with the driller still sitting on the couch, the first thing that goes into the newly opened divot is the transducer. The driver/ice fisherman reads the screen to determine if there are fish down there and whether it’s worth staying at the location. If the screen shows fish, the ice jig or spoon is the next thing to follow.
Most likely, the couch angler is fishing over deeper water than he’d likely fish on a smaller lake or a small bay. To get deep quickly, Vladyka uses an eighth-ounce jig tailed with Lake Fork “Live Baby Shad” soft plastic. He’ll also use his shorter jig sticks, two-feet or less, because there is no need to hang a longer rod out the truck. You want to keep the truck door open, slide around a bit in the seat and have the rod tip between you and the semi-open door.
Insider’s view from the passenger side of an ice-fishing couch, with equipment hanging neatly from the door while a short rod is used to jig crappie.
When you go couch fishing with Vladyka, or any of his loony friends, you better park your fears in the back seat. One late afternoon, the veteran guide announced that we were taking to the ice on four wheels. He also noted that while there was plenty of thick ice across the state of Vermont, the frozen surface of Lake Champlain was “getting soft” and that the following week would probably be the last for couching fishing there. That’s not the kind of thing one wants to hear when venturing out in a half-ton pick-up. But I’ve been in enough lunar spots with Vladyka to trust his judgment.
As we started down from hard ground onto wet-looking ice and a distant part of the lake, Vladyka jumped out of the truck a couple of time and made a number of test bores. He wasn’t just looking for ice thickness per se; he wanted to see if there was water running between the layers which would indicate weakness.
“It’s what’s on the bottom of the ice that’s important, not just what you see on top,” he said.
Despite his affirmation, I was still saying my Hail Mary’s and we scooted across the tundra.
Eventually, way way out in Never-Never land, we came to a spot where his Vexilar marked fish over 15 feet of water, adjacent to a channel some 30 feet deep. And by studying the flasher screen he was able to determine whether the fish down below where White crappie or Yellow perch.
When the bulky lines on the dial screen divided into several thinner bars on their way to the bait indication, then the fish was a perch. But when the bar stayed bulky, basically the same size as it rose from the bottom to the bait, these were White crappie. Vladyka taught me that before we started and the practice proved true.
“White crappie are almost like a cat wiggling and setting its hind end before they jump out and pounce,” he said.
Seeing the Vexilar mark rise up from the bottom, Vladyka would raise and lower the rod, wiggling the tip. He was teasing the crappie into striking.
Understand that in Vermont couch fishing you’re sitting several feet above the ice hole. Unlike ground-ice jigging, the rod tip is elevated above the ice rim. This means there’s a couple of feet of line over the water — not a good stance for light-line vertical jigging.
To combat this Vladyka did not rely on the reel or the rod to set the hook and raise the hooked fish. Instead at the slightest indication of a strike on the limber rod tip, he’d reach out, grab the line at the tip and yank hard. Then instead of bringing the fish up with the reel, he pull it up taking the line hand over hand until the fish was surfaced. This method was much quicker than the reeling method.
Over the course of few hours before sunset, we stopped, started, tested, and dunked baits in several places and over a considerable distance. The first area did not pay off but eventually Vladyka and his truck found the fish. It was so darn cold on the wide lake, it felt good to keep the truck’s heater going.
But then I had to exit and walk around the vehicle to get photos, standing and freezing in the frigid breeze that blew across the lake. Vladyka never got off the couch.
So you might ask, which of us was the real crazy?