The future of ice fishing on Lake Simcoe

Are you ready? Another exciting winter of hardwater fishing is upon us. Lake Simcoe is often regarded as the ice fishing capital of North America and routinely has over 3,000 registered huts on it.

Every day during the winter hundreds more fish from portable huts, on the open ice and from one of over a dozen ice hut operations around the lake. Lake Simcoe sees more anglers fishing it in January, February and March then it does for the rest of the nine months combined! It's the most intensively fished inland lake in the province - but only because of the winter fishery. Why is the lake so popular among the ice fishing community … and is all that about to change? Read on and we'll examine the future of ice fishing on Lake Simcoe…

Lake Simcoe Ice Fishing

Why Simcoe?

A large portion of the lake lies in the Greater Toronto Area which has a population of seven million people. So, at less than an hour's drive from the most urbanized region of the country, Lake Simcoe has been the closest and most convenient ice fishing destination around. Combine the local 'within an hour's drive' factor with all those living just a couple of hours away throughout the 905 and 519 and even nearby 705 area code regions of southern Ontario and you have another million potential anglers thrown into the mix. Of course non resident anglers from states like Michigan, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania also flock to the lake every winter in large numbers. To illustrate this, a few years ago, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources' Conservation officers conducted an enforcement blitz on the south end of the lake and almost half of the anglers checked were non residents from the US.

A Trip around the Lake:

Wil with Simcoe perch

For those living on the east side of Simcoe coming from the south - the 404 highway brings them within reach of the Georgina ice fishing communities of Keswick in the south with access to Cooks Bay and then, Roaches Point, Willow Beach, Jackson's Point, Virginia, Pefferlaw and Port Bolster. Further north along that eastern corridor of the lake, you have Brock Township's villages of Beaverton and Gamebridge that also rely heavily on the business that ice fishing brings every year. In Ramara Township just past Brock you have access to the lake from Brechin to Atherly. On the west side of the lake, Innisfil Township boasts communities like Gilford to the south with access to Cooks Bay, and then Lefroy, Belle Ewart and Alcona that are mere minutes away from highway 400.

And just like their counterparts across the lake, these communities also boast an assortment of commercial ice hut operations catering to the visiting ice angler. North of Innisfil abutting Kempenfelt Bay is Barrie … the largest and fastest growing city on the lake - let alone the fastest growing Census Metropolitan Area in Canada. With over 150,000 residents of Barrie are on the doorstep to some of the lake's finest fishing.  As we complete the tour across the north end of the lake into Oro-Medonte Township communities like Shanty Bay (aptly named for all the 'shanties or ice huts found there each winter) Carthew Bay, Eight Mile Point, Oro Beach and Hawkestone are all visited by ice anglers because of the quality of the fishery.

Of course being the closest place around to go ice fishing isn't the only reason so many hard water enthusiasts love Lake Simcoe.  If the quality and diversity of the fishery was not up to their standards, then repeat business from all these anglers would have dwindled long ago. At 745 square kilometres the lake is the largest inland lake in southern Ontario with enough room to hold all these anglers regardless of what they are fishing for.

The most common fish caught during the winter include lake trout, whitefish and perch. There are also lots of northern pike in the lake and a fair number are caught through the ice, but they still aren't as popular as the other three. Black crappie - are a highly sought after species ...and the lake has its fair share of big slabs ... however with such a featureless bottom and little structure holding these fish - they are extremely difficult to target and catch consistently. Walleye grow big on Lake Simcoe and every year there are reports of 10-15 pounders ... however the relatively low numbers of walleye make targeting them a rather futile endeavour so most anglers consider them a bonus fish for Simcoe.

Let's Look East and How Those Lakes Affect Simcoe:

Since around the 1920's most of the Kawartha Lakes Region just east of Lake Simcoe has been closed to ice fishing. The exception has been Lake Scugog and every winter from Jan 1st to the last Saturday in February thousands of anglers pound the lake for walleye and recently for black crappie. The many other highly fertile and productive lakes however have remained closed to ALL fishing - from November 15th to the last Saturday in April.

So all those avid anglers living in Kawartha based towns like Peterborough, Lindsay Bobcaygeon and others have had to travel outside of their Fishery Management Zone … FMZ 17 to go ice fishing.  Although quite a few would head north to Halliburton Lakes or east to the Bay of Quinte … the vast majority would make the jaunt west to Lake Simcoe.

For the last three years the FMZ 17 Fisheries Advisory Council, made up of stakeholders from around the Kawarthas and coordinated thru MNR Peterborough District, has been meeting monthly to discuss various fishery related topics for their zone. First and foremost was evaluating and revamping many of the outdated fishing regulations for the Kawarthas. After exhaustive exercises reviewing fisheries reports and documents the group made several recommendations that would increase fishing opportunities and enhance the fisheries in their zone.

Increased Ice Fishing Opportunities Next Door:

One of the recommendations would see a year round open season for pike, sunfish, crappie, perch and northern pike. Another would see a first time limit on sunfish - a generous 300 for those with a sport licence (only 30 could be greater than 18 cm). Only 15 could be taken with a Conservation Licence. Crappie would have a limit of 30 with a sport licence and 10 with a Conservation Licence. Yellow perch would go from no limit to a 50 perch limit with a Sport Licence and 25 with a Conservation licence. Other recommendations included a longer bass and muskie season (Dec.15 instead of Nov 15) as well as new slot sizes for walleye: They must be between 35-50 cm with a limit of 4 for those with a sport licence and 1 with a Conservation Licence.

After extensive public consultation and posting on the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) the majority of the feedback for these proposed changes was quite positive. Although no one was sure these changes would be approved by MNR Minister Donna Cansfield, let alone in time for the 2010 fishing season … it came as a pleasant surprise to many that not only did she support and approve all these changes but she was determined to have her ministry implement them for January 1 2010.

Ice Fishing In the Kawartha Lakes ... At Long Last!

So, for the first time in almost nine decades ice anglers who would customarily hit Lake Simcoe, on January 1st 2010 suddenly had other options. Would they fish the Tri-Lakes - Pigeon, Buckhorn or Chemong? Perhaps a visit to the most popular of all Kawartha waterbodies … Rice Lake was in order? Maybe it would be Stoney Lake or possibly Sturgeon. What about Balsam or Canal Lake? Of course smaller Head Lake and Dalrymple that border the northwest end of FMZ 17 would be open for the first time as well.  So many great lakes to choose from and so little time … ah the dilemmas of the southern Ontario ice angler just became more complex.

Naturally all of the above lakes have long ago gained a reputation as very good open water lakes for warmwater species … so they not only became regular spots for locals but prime destinations for those from throughout the GTA, the 519, 905 and even 705 area codes. Why many of the lakes have also developed into favorite panfish (bluegill and crappie) destinations for our American angling brethren from Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Do these locations sound familiar?

Yes, interestingly enough, the above locations are also where Lake Simcoe draws its ice anglers from. There is no question for many ice anglers who live closer to one of the Kawartha Lakes that there will now be viable options for the first time in their lives. Likewise for those who prefer bluegill, pumpkinseed sunfish or even black crappie - all of which are present in Simcoe - yet like we said, very difficult to target and catch consistently. Many will fish these lakes simply for the thrill of fishing new waterbodies or because they are intimidated by the incredible size of Lake Simcoe and are ready for a change.

Naturally many of the open water fishing opportunities - those for bass, muskie and walleye, will not be available during the winter in FMZ 17. Walleye were excluded from the open winter season because the science shows their numbers are simply too low and an open season in the winter cannot be justified. Therefore any walleye caught incidentally will have to be released immediately. Opening up crappie in the winter is actually expected to boost the walleye fishery by increasing harvest of the crappie. (Crappie are a newcomer to those lakes and wherever crappie and walleye exist walleye populations usually suffer. Crappie love eating walleye eggs and young fry) Pike (another non native fish to the Region) seem to be spreading throughout the Kawarthas - and are already well established in Canal Lake, Mitchell, Dalrymple - and recently even found in Balsam. Opening pike up year round for the Kawartha's is an exciting option for those who like bigger fish than panfish.

Other Lake Simcoe Challenges:

There's no doubt fewer American visitors are currently making their way across the border to fish Simcoe because of the economy, the strong Canadian dollar and new passport rules.  However other challenges that affect all anglers, from locals to day trippers to those making the long haul also exist.  The greatest challenge by far however is ACCESS! Declining access to the lake and the poor quality of so many existing access sites that have no nearby parking is the single greatest deterrent to increased growth or even sustaining the number of anglers we now have fishing Lake Simcoe. This hurts not just anglers but local communities and their businesses who sell everything from bait, tackle, food and accommodations to visiting anglers. All those who fish Simcoe regularly know about the year round parking challenges, the lack of signage, inadequate ramps, docks, on ramps and other amenities visiting anglers need to feel welcome in Simcoe-based communities. It's time each one of us feels responsible to stand-up for our rights to maintain free and proper access to this public waterbody.

Ah ... but Lake Simcoe is Still a Gem

Yes it is ... Big Time! Despite the current shortcomings, we are still blessed to have one of the most remarkable fisheries in North America. The ice fishing traditions of so many anglers will not suddenly change overnight and they will still make Simcoe their primary winter fishing destination.
Without a lake trout or whitefish fishery in the Kawartha's - those wanting to catch these BIG coldwater species will still have to travel to Simcoe to get their fix. Fortunately the fishing for both of these highly desirable species is not just steady but actually seems to be getting better. In fact with natural reproduction increasing for both species the laker and whitie action just seems to be getting better.

Yellow perch have certainly never had any problems reproducing in Lake Simcoe and their population is known for both quality and quantity.  All the Kawartha Lakes have perch and ice anglers there will definitely have ample occasion to target them … but alas the reputation that Simcoe has for its' yellow perch fishery will be tough to top. Keep in mind a few years ago our friends at the Minnesota based In Fisherman Magazine dubbed Lake Simcoe as the finest world class yellow perch fishery remaining in North America.

So, in closing the Lake Simcoe winter fishery is about to change forever. In the long run, as we continue to see increased urban sprawl and rapid population growth ... the added fishing opportunity next door is bound to benefit Lake Simcoe. With so many new and exciting opportunities and options now open nearby, it's bound to shift some of the hard water pressure away from this 745 square kilometre gem. We may still retain our standing as the most intensively fished inland lake in the province because of our fabulous winter fishery for many years to come. But, with the opening of the vast FMZ 17 and all those Kawartha Lakes offering additional fishing opportunities for so many anglers, there is now hope that despite projected population increases Simcoe will remain sustainable for generations to come.

Wil Wegman is an award winning outdoor writer and avid Lake Simcoe angler. He was part of Team Canada at the World Ice Fishing Championships on Lake Simcoe in 1991 and won the Perch Trap Attack in 2006. In 2004 he won the Bill Bond Memorial Award for his dedication to promoting & conserving the Lake Simcoe fishery.

Visit author's site: www.wilwegman.com

Last modified on Friday, 03 February 2017 08:39
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