Conesus Lake Fishing Tournaments Unite Conservationists and Monster Hunters
The first signs are the specks peppering distant lake ice as I ride down West Lake Road to the parking lot across from the Hook and Spoon.
Feeling the gravel crunching under tire, I eyeball where I can squeeze my little car between rusty pickups and Priuses. Cinching the key and planting my feet in the gravel, the air shocks my nostrils. Smells like fish fry and sounds like the live band is already warmed up. Today is Conesus Lake Frostbite Derby day.
I wander the Conesus Lake Sportsman’s Club. Normally, only a few chairs would be full. Today it’s standing room only. Seems like everyone has a plate and a smile. I load up on good stuff straight from the grill, and say hi to a couple friendly faces from Finger Lakes Bait and Tackle. Their shop is just down the road in Lakeville. It's always Finger Lakes Bait and Tackle's Facebook page that tips me off for upcoming ice derby dates (Feb. 15 and 16 in 2020).
I head out to the ice with camera in hand.
Not everyone is in an ice hut. It’s a calm day. Little kids are watching ice holes like iPads, rooted. A dark-haired man spins a wedding ring on his finger. Some sit back in lawn chairs and talk strategy. Some read, some laugh, some tinker with hardware.
Most say that the lake has seen a lot of good pike and walleye, especially since the DEC started seriously maintaining the spawning swamps at the inlet, the south end of the lake, in 1979.
All have paid a fishing license fee to the DEC to fish for the year.
A young couple wave from their buckets. Over a dozen hand-sized bluegills, a tasty panfish, lie cooling on the ice next to them. They say they make the drive from Alden, NY, just over an hour away. They plan to make a fish fry for their parents that night.
One bundled angler’s eyes snap to an ice hole a few strides away. A small orange flag, once bent, now stands at full attention. A fish has the bait. The angler walks over, slowly. She kneels. She carefully pulls the flag. An orange braided fishing line hangs below. It is tight.
She yanks the line to set the hook. Hand over hand, she retrieves the line. Hand by hand, a shadow approaches. The hole is suddenly full. A speckled back shows, and a golden fin. An eye. The angler reaches in. She lifts the pike, a ‘freshwater barracuda’ with a toothy grin.
Back at the country club, everyone elbows for a good photo of the weighing station. Old pike hang from the wall, already weighed.
Pike after pike is weighed and recorded.
Our angler smiles. With a pike just a hair under 15 pounds, hers is the heaviest. She wins $500.
She shakes some hands as the band flies into their last set. Back on the lake, the ice holes slowly freeze as the sun finally rests on clouds far away.