by Ken Perrotte
The Green Mountain State has great snow skiing, but anglers can ski across the ice for nighttime crappie as well.
“Come to the light,” James Vladyka eerily called out as he yanked yet another crappie from the circular hole in the 10-inch-thick ice beneath his feet. Delivering that line from the old movie “Poltergeist” seemed appropriate. Between the emerald-green glow emanating from the Hydro Glow Fishing Lights positioned just below the ice and the frantic, colorful display of the Vexilar flashers resting adjacent to the holes, the humans topside of the hardwater were fully bathed in a surreal aura.
Vladyka, a licensed captain and owner of Fish Hounds Outdoors in Benson, Vermont, proved adept at coaxing crappie to the “other side.”
The scene was Lake Champlain’s Lapham Bay in mid-February. The 120-mile-long Lake Champlain and some larger Vermont ponds are increasingly popular as a year-round crappie fishery. Vladyka was one of the first guides in Vermont to take anglers ice fishing for crappie.
“I’ve been fishing for crappie though the ice since I was a kid but guiding since 2000. We run trips from December to March,” Vladyka said. “We are blessed with some very good crappie fishing on my end of Lake Champlain (southern). We have both white and black crappie in just about all of our lakes and our ponds have black crappie.”
Many people associate warmer, southern states with big crappie, but Vermont is no slouch when it comes to slabs. The state record crappie is 3.85 pounds, caught in Lake Hortonia. While winter crappie can be a little finicky and nomadic, Vladyka said late winter is a good time to find chunky fish.
“The larger crappie come in the basins, feeding as the ice is about to go out March and April. The bigger ones stage up on the weed edges and drops, but they can be found in all depths throughout the season depending on lakes and food,” Vladyka said.
He said water in the lake starts to turn over around mid-February. The bite becomes tough and that becomes a favored time for night fishing with the hydro glow lights. In theory, the lights attract baitfish which attract bigger fish. In reality, it works.
Bait selection varies. Many locals love minnows and Vladyka likes fishing deeper basins with a Clam rattlin’ blade spoon or a leech flutter spoon tipped with a fathead minnow. In shallower water, he likes Clam’s drop jig tipped with a Maki Plastic offering.
A flasher unit is almost always part of the toolkit, giving an angler skilled in its use real-time information about what their lure is doing and how fish are reacting. Learning how to read it takes practice. Vladyka was teasing plump crappie into biting just three feet away from me while I kept missing bites. It is a unique form of finesse fishing.
Family Fun – On and Off the Ice
Anglers inexperienced with ice fishing can benefit from hiring a guide or tagging along with someone skilled at understanding ice safety and where to drill the best holes. Plus, guides will have the needed equipment.
The Green Mountain State celebrates itself as a winter playground, loaded with options for family fun. An ice fishing expedition offers ample side excursions.
Vladyka said his clients love winter visits, noting, “We’ve got a ton of awesome local microbreweries and some amazing skiing.”
Ice fishing can be as relaxed or diehard as you want to make it. Relax while jigging in the warmth of a pop-up shelter or go whole hog and set up a full complement of the authorized 15 tip-up rigs. Tip-ups are especially popular when targeting larger species, such as northern pike. Depending on ice conditions, people can take breaks to skate or tool around on snow machines or ATVs.
Vermont is renowned for its ski resorts. Killington, the East Coast’s largest ski area is only about an hour away from southern Lake Champlain. It has more than 200 trails, geared toward skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels. One beginner’s trail is a leisurely six miles long.
Bromley Mountain and Okemo Mountain Resort, both touted for family-friendly activities, are also in close proximity. Even the storied village of Stowe with all of its winter splendor is just two hours up the road in the heart of the Green Mountains.
Vermont’s quaint mountain towns and larger cities — although larger is a matter of scale since Burlington, Vermont’s biggest city, has just 42,000 people — have an abundance of hotels and inns. Staff can point you to many quintessential New England winter experiences.
In years with good snow, many inns and farms offer traditional horse-drawn sleigh rides. Bigger resorts often list snowmobile touring in their repertoire. Visits in March and April, as the ice is “going out,” can coincide with the advent of maple sugaring season. Sap starts flowing and sugarhouses statewide transform the sweet nectar into a variety of tasty syrups and candies.
Between the superb ice fishing and bountiful snow-based experiences, it is easy to see why Vermont is easily defined as a “winter wonderland.”
(Ken Perrotte is an award-winning writer and photographer, with more than 2,000 published articles. Articles have appeared in USA Today Hunt & Fish magazine, Safari, Outdoor Life, the Military Times Media Group’s publications, Recoil, Blue Ridge Country, North American Hunter, Virginia Wildlife, Turkey Country, Ducks Unlimited, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, Mule Deer, Whitetails Unlimited, and more. He is an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Southeastern Outdoors Press Association and current Vice-President of the Great Lakes Outdoors Writers. Visit his website, The Outdoors Rambler.)