The long, hard upstate winter has returned, and among the sure signs are the cars sitting on the Great Sacandaga Lake ice.
The ice fishing contest that drew flocks of sportsmen Saturday also took place last winter. But avid fishers remembered the lake seeming softer than usual, thick ice giving way to mush in some spots. No one would dare drive a car or truck out there.
“This week really helped,” said Randy Gardinier, warming up inside the Sacandaga Boat Club, a squat white building that sits on the southern outskirts of the lake on a dead-end road in Broadalbin. “We had those way below zero nights.”
Outside the club and down a slope, the Great Sacandaga Lake lay still and frozen Saturday, against a panorama of gray-blue mountains in the distance. Brown rocks popped up here and there, but for the most part the lake was a wide expanse of starchy white. Snowmobiles and four-wheelers left crisscrossing trails in the powdery snow that dusted the foot-thick ice.
The Great Sacandaga Lake Fisheries Federation Inc. has held an ice fishing contest in this spot for at least the last two decades. The annual contest allows the group, which was formed in 1984, to raise money and restock the lake.
For the last five years, the event has been held in conjunction with the Walleye Ice Fishing Challenge. This year, a total 1,877 people registered for both contests, with some participants from as far away as Kansas. Entry for the walleye contest is $30 and for the federation competition, $15.
“Another one’s come in, Randy,” someone shouted from a booth inside the club.
Gardinier, chairman of the fisheries federation, pushes out his metal chair and sees through the windows that a little boy has brought this one in. He grabs a white flag that reads “I (heart sign) fishing” and heads outside. So far, the kids are the only ones getting flags.
Gardinier plops the perch down onto a long metal ruler.
“Twelve inches,” he says. “Unfortunately, it’s not long enough to be in the money. You’ve got to beat 14. Look how bright this is, though.”
“Isn’t that nice?” exclaims Terri Savlov, of Gloversville, a friend of the boy’s parents.
“Yeah, it’s fat, isn’t it?” says Ron Blowers, a Northville man who’s fished for the last 20 years. He won first place in the walleye fifth-hour challenge Saturday with a 2.41-pound catch. “They’re so fat, they look bigger than they are.”
Shane Viscosi, his freckled cheeks a bright pink, is nonplussed by the whole thing until Gardinier pushes the perch into his hands for him to pose for a picture. The 9-year-old Glen boy says his biggest fish was a lake trout he caught some time ago. He’s been fishing since he was 4.
The Sacandaga is full of walleye, perch, trout and pike. Some fishers used to come up and compete in only the walleye contest, which draws a big crowd with raffle items like snowmobiles and four-wheelers, said Gardinier.
“A lot of the guys that fish in the walleye-only contest, they’ve expressed an interest in having some way to enter the other fish they might catch — whether it be a trout or pike or perch,” he said. “So that’s what we’re doing, we’re filling that void.”
By the time Pete Chupka had come in from the lake, where men and women had set up shanties for the three or four or five hours they anticipated spending in one spot, the men inside the Boat Club had filled a board with names and inch counts. The biggest perch so far was 14 inches; the one and only brown trout to come in was just more than 19 inches, and the northern pike had topped out at 40 inches.
The men were excited for Chupka’s perch, though. They thought it could be the one.
“Fifteen and one-eighth inches,” confirmed an excited Gardinier, pressing the cold fish’s tail down flat against the ruler. “If this were mine, I would mount it.”
Chupka, a Mayfield man who has fished the last 46 years and is a regular at the contests, said it was the biggest perch he ever caught.
“Over the years, you get to know a lot of the people,” said Gardinier, nodding to Chupka, who stood behind him chatting with the other men as they checked out the list of catches.
The annual ice fishing contest kicks off a series of events held by the Great Sacandaga Lake Fisheries Federation each year. The summer offers another fishing contest, but Gardinier confirmed it draws a marginally smaller and somewhat different crowd.
The people that ice fish might not have access to a boat in the summer, and sometimes are men who work in construction and have more free time in the winter. The people who fish in the summer but not in the winter tend to not have snowmobiles, four-wheeler or the confidence to drive a truck out onto a foot of ice.
“It’s fun,” said Gardinier, as the afternoon wound down. “It’s a good way to give back to the lake and to the community.”