‘Experience has taught us to roll with whatever the weather gives us,’ says local ice-hut operator, who has had to cancel ‘several’ bookings
Once the open water turns to ice, Lake Simcoe comes alive with more anglers than it sees all three other seasons combined.
With several ice-hut operators around Ontario’s sixth largest inland lake, people come from far and wide to take part in the popular winter sport.
But this year has been a much different story. Most of Lake Simcoe is still open water.
Wil Wegman, who is a Canadian Angler Hall of Fame member and ice-fishing seminar host, says in a typical cold winter, more people fish Lake Simcoe than any other lake in the province.
However, “this is not happening to any degree, as ice has been sporadic at best,” he said.
Simcoe County’s portion of Lake Simcoe harbours whitefish, lake trout and yellow perch, the three most popular species in the lake.
In a normal winter, Wegman said the shallower waters of Cook’s Bay freeze early, allowing perch anglers to fish before the new year, or shortly after, but the milder-than-normal temperatures have put a damper on the season.
“With the current weather keeping folks off the ice, we are not seeing visiting anglers or locals, several of whom could be driving further north in search of safe ice,” Wegman said.
Economically, the ice-fishing season is big business in the area. Wegman said of all those who recreate on Lake Simcoe, ice anglers out number them by far.
“Before COVID-19, we would have significant numbers of ice fishermen from the border states — especially Michigan — visit the lake, and Simcoe County in particular,” he said. “The longer visiting anglers stay in a community, the more money they spend there.
“There is no doubt local businesses feel the pinch when factors such as COVID-19 or lack of ice deters visits,” Wegman added.
It’s something Donny Crowder knows all too well. He runs Hot Box Ice Huts in Innisfil. Normally, he said they would still be in the process of setting up their ice village, known as ‘HawgTown,’ but they would be on the ice and offering opportunities for people to get out.
“We have already had to cancel several bookings,” Crowder said. “If we don’t have safe ice conditions, we won’t get out. Hopefully Mother Nature calms down and chills so we can get to doing what we do best.”
“Experience has taught us to roll with whatever the weather gives us,” he added.
Crowder noted that last season wasn’t too bad. While they did have a bit of a later start, they were able to operate up to the March 15 deadline for hut removal.
Not only is the ice-fishing season important to Crowder’s business, it’s also pivotal to the local economy.
“Ice fishing on Lake Simcoe generates at least $20 million in revenue for the tourism industry, and some estimates have suggested that number has doubled in recent years,” he said. “Many count on safe ice, such as hut operators, private guides, bait shops, restaurants, and accommodations providers.”
Is there still hope for a successful season?
“So far, the long-term forecast looks in our favour, although things could always change,” Crowder said. “Time is tough to come by in this industry, so we are taking advantage of a later start by really sprucing up our huts.”
Wegman also believes the season can be salvaged.
“Absolutely! Ice anglers are the eternal optimists and we’ve had late and shortened season before,” he said.
While many people are eager to get out and cast a line, safety is paramount. Tourism Simcoe County encourages all ice anglers and others enjoying the lakes in winter to be extremely cautious. It says those on foot require at least four inches of clear blue ice, while those on a snowmobile or ATV need a maximum of eight inches.