Cliff Miller had no problem plucking pickerel from beneath the frozen surface of Mariaville Lake over the weekend.
The ice angler from Altamont estimated he pulled out about 70 of the fish Saturday and Sunday. But he threw them all back — none were worthy of hauling back to the Mariaville Lakeside Country Store to put up against the specimen hooked by Jeremy Wilson, a resident of the hamlet who set the standard for the tournament with the prize-winning 24.5-inch pickerel he caught Saturday.
Aside from its volume, Miller’s catch during the competition wasn’t much to write home about. None came close to the 26-inch fish he caught with his father to win last year’s competition.
All told, Miller hooked two bullheads, five bluegill and three perch. The rest of the roughly eight dozen minnows he bought for bait went toward the masses of pickerel hovering beneath his tip-ups, including one that didn’t appear to be much more than a foot long as he pulled it onto the snow early Sunday afternoon.
“They’ll eat anything,” he said of the colorful fish flopping around the snow. “They’ve taken over the lake.”
And that makes catching the big one all the more challenging. Nearby, Carl Orminski pulled what initially appeared to be nearly as big as the winner from the five tip-ups he had laid out in a semi-circle he cleared with his four-wheeler.
But when the fish was placed up against a ruler, Orminski measured it out to be 21 inches long — not even his best of the weekend. A trip out to the lake a few weeks ago yielded a pickerel that neared 25 inches — a fish that would have won the tournament and the lion’s share of roughly $1,800 worth of prize money.
“Sometimes you get lucky, you drop it in and they nail it,” he said of the big fish. “They’re not biting for some reason today.”
Of course, the tournament arranged by Country Store owner Dave Pirrone isn’t all about catching the largest fish. A lot of the event seems more geared toward being outside with friends and family in an environment that turns the frozen snow-covered surface of the lake into a small community.
Out-of-towners set up tents, while hamlet residents relax in the comfort of shanties around the lake. The serene environment is only disturbed by the intermittent buzz of a passing snowmobile or four-wheeler.
“It’s fun,” said Orminski. “You come out and hang out with your buddies and fish.”
Pirrone started hosting the tournament about 10 years ago to bring families out onto the shallow lake during the winter. Every cent of the tournament’s $10 entry fee goes into the prize money that is doled out the anglers who bring in the three largest fish, which is added incentive for ice fishermen to stay on the hunt for the big one no matter the temperature outside.
Over the weekend, Mariaville Lake proved to have just about perfect conditions for ice fishing. With temperatures hovering in the 20s, low wind and more than a foot of ice on the lake, none of the estimated 180 tournament contestants seemed to be packing it in early Sunday.
“They don’t come in a lot,” said Pirrone from the warm confines of his store, which actually delivers food out onto the lake. “They come in when they have a fish.”
Pirrone keeps the winning fish in barrels stowed in the cold of his shop until the end of the competition. Then once the winner has been announced, he slips the big fish back into the lake.
“I want them to keep getting bigger,” he said with a smile.