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Jim Gronaw: Western Maryland holds plenty of ice fishing options | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

I have always been a fan of ice fishing ever since around the mid-1970s when “safe” ice — 4 inches of the clear, hard stuff — would form in lakes and ponds along the Mason-Dixon area and give us at least a few weeks of hardwater action. In the interim, years when it didn’t get cold enough to freeze safely, we would trek to western Maryland and fish at Deep Creek Lake, Rocky Gap State Park, Piney Reservoir (NOT Piney Run) or other small lakes along the way.

As I have grown older, but not necessarily wiser, I have reached a point where if I truly want to ice fish, I will have to do it on my terms. That is to include a warm 40-degree day, no wind, a late, 9 a.m. start time and many breaks in between. There has to be no snow on the roads and if the ice is thicker than 6 inches, I’ll need a young buck to hand-drill my holes. In other words, there is a pretty good chance that I could no longer survive even a moderate effort out on the ice, no matter how good the bite.


My fondest memories of ice fishing still remain at Garrett County’s Deep Creek Lake, the summertime vacation playground where solid ice usually forms, and a multitude of species are caught through the crust each winter. As of this writing, many of my Facebook angling friends are up there enjoying a good bounty of jumbo yellow perch, nice walleyes, bull bluegills and the occasional northern pike or chain pickerel as well. Crappie appear to be on the upswing as some posts are showing some dandies.

At 3,900 acres, DCL is our state’s largest reservoir and despite its vastness, access can be challenging. The Deep Creek Lake State Park can be tough to get into if the snows are deep, and roadside parking is tough as well. Most anglers know a few people and acquire access through them. The big draw is the enormous yellow perch, some of which can exceed 15 inches and 2 pounds. My “personal best” perch came from the Red Run area a number of years ago and weighed 2 pounds, 2 ounces, measuring 15¼ inches. Many 12- to 14-inch perch are taken during the ice season and the daily limit is 10 perch per angler, per day. Delicious in their own right, yellow perch fillets are a winter treat when deep fried and consumed with a favorite cold beverage.


Although tough to locate, DCL has gigantic bluegills and the current state record at 3 pounds 7 ounces came from this lake in August 1997 — a fish that may be out of reach for those seeking to eclipse that standard. My best ice gig ever on giant gills came from the Marsh Creek arm of the lake about a dozen years ago when I iced seven bluegills that weighed a little over 8 pounds, including an 11½-incher that remains my best Maryland gill from public waters. That catch also included a bunch of pound-plus perch and three legal walleyes up to 20 inches. Bigger walleyes over 8 pounds show up most winters. All of those fish came on a 1/32nd-ounce jighead with a waxworm for a tipping bait in about 24 feet of water.

Other species show up as well and I’ve seen several quality rainbow trout up to 4 pounds and some 5 pound and better largemouth bass. These are to be considered unusual catches, but every ice season there are some hefty northern pike iced that run 34 to 40-plus inches. Trophy fish for the most of us, many anglers opt to release these brutes to maintain a good fishery for the toothy giants.

At much smaller Rocky Gap State Park, 280-acre Lake Habeeb can offer a variety of panfish and some big largemouth bass as well. Crappies, bluegills, red ear sunfish and trout show up once the ice thickens to the safety standard of 4 inches and anglers can venture out. Once in a while, a big channel catfish in excess of 30 inches will cause some excitement and come up through the hole.

Maryland DNR shock surveys have recorded largemouths from this lake that have exceeded the 10 pound mark, true giants anywhere they are found. I have personally seen three individual fish that have surpassed the 6 pound benchmark with the topper going 8 pounds. Our best efforts there have delivered limit catches of big bluegills and red ear sunfish, some bass and a few trout and crappie, always enough for a meal and then some. Many fish hang around still green weed beds at the 10- to 12-foot level and take a variety of tiny jigs tipped with mealworms and wax worms. Meanwhile, over at Piney Reservoir just north of Frostburg, there are bass and panfish options that could get you away from some of the crowds if DCL is hoppin’.

To give you a rig rundown for ice fishing would require two or three more columns. Instead, search YouTube channels for solid instructional videos on ice fishing tactics for beginners and pros. There has been an explosion of ice-fishing interest as this multi-billion dollar industry has equipment and comforts for all income levels.

Western Maryland can offer up a good, long weekend of ice fishing provided the roads remain open and you keep your eyes peeled for access even after the roads are ploughed. It might seem like it should be the “offseason”, but with skiing, cross-country snow sports and weekend football parties leading up to the Super Bowl, it’s not. It can get busy, on and off the ice up there. Good Luck and dress warm.