Dick Pinney's Guidelines: Good year for tidal water ice fishing
WELL IT finally happened. After several years, Great Bay's ice has formed like it hadn't done in quite a few years. From my residence on the south side of Great Bay, the only open water visible is at the entrance of Little Bay, a deep water area called Thurber's Straight.
So now the highly vaunted and fun Great Bay smelt fishing can go full tilt for a long season, as once that kind of ice cover has formed and a snow storm or two comes to insulate that ice, we're going to have good ice for several weeks to come.
For those not that familiar with tidal water ice fishing, know that the tides and your location make all the difference in the world. The smelt will retreat to the deep water at low tide, leaving all but the channels from the Bay's tributaries with little or no water. In fact, in most areas, the ice will be resting on the muddy bottom until the flood tide lifts it.
People that fish the channels of the Squamscott (often called the Exeter) River, the Lamprey River and the Oyster River will have fishable water depths at low tide, but often these fish have also moved downstream into the deeper areas.
You have to be a crystal-ball watcher to know which areas will perform the best. My guess is that early in the season the Greenland Bay area, although having very poor public access, may produce the best luck as historically that's what goes on. When the ice lifts a lot of the things that smelt feed on will be frozen to the bottom of the ice, drawing in schools of smelts feeding on this easily picked food.
But history hasn't worked as well over some of the recent years as places like the limited access at River Road off Route 33 in Stratham that leads to that part of the Squamscott River, especially on night tides, have been the most productive. Parking and access to the ice pack over a tippy plank bridge is one of the obstacles to face here.
A favorite place for us to fish is off the Old Landing Road in Durham that puts you on the Oyster River. There always seems to be good parking available and your walk to the ice can be a scant 30 or 40 feet. This area is somewhat sheltered to the wind so fishing "in the open," as opposed to using a shelter, is quite popular. A heavy load of anglers on the ice there creating quite a disturbance can cause the smelt to be very picky or just not bite at all or they may have moved downstream because of it. We've never fished this area at night but hear that the night tides are way more productive than the day tides.
Traditional fishing often means accessing the ice at low tide and staying through the incoming and outgoing tides. This is especially important when extra high tides have made getting on and off the ice pack difficult or impossible, as a stretch of open water between the shoreline make access an egress impossible or at the least, pretty dangerous.
The area of Fish and Game's parking lot in Newmarket that accesses the Lamprey River is a great spot at times for not just smelt but for the white perch that live in the tidal water. This spot can be both dangerous and deep so we don't like to fish there until visible signs of angler action signal that other people have been there. I like it even better when getting there, other people are out on the ice there.
To get back to the Greenland Bay area, if you don't mind a quarter-mile hike to get to the shore, there is a Fish and Game access and parking lot off Bayside Road in Greenland. This area was initially purchased for waterfowl hunting but some use it for smelt fishing access. Over on Newington Road in Greenland there is land owned by the Great Bay Estuarine Reserve you can access but no parking available. Parking is available at Len Thomas' Great Bay Retreat with voluntary pay for parking and access. This is probably the easiest and best bet, especially for newcomers to the smelt ice-fishery.
The traditional bait for catching smelt has been sea worms - both sand and blood worms. But there are a lot of other baits that will work, even the common earthworms when the marine versions are not available. We've caught smelt on little hunks of native shrimp. Small slivers of smelt flesh work and although we've never tried it, I'd bet the farm that small slivers of mackerel would be kick-butt bait because of the oily scent trail they'd produce. We've been wanting to try this out for a couple of years but the lack of ice has caused us to abandon that thought.
There are a few businesses that really cater to this fishery. Probably Suds-n-Soda Sports run by the MacKenzie family would be the one that has historically supported this fishery but people coming from the Dover, Barrington and west would be surprised to find that Taylor's Sporting Goods in Madbury has bait and supplies and in the Hampton area, Pete Tilton at Defiance Lobster off Landing Road is well stocked.
If smelting is your game, caution should be the name. Be careful and have a great season.
Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDuckInn@aol.com.