CANADOHTA LAKE — Every winter, those who prefer tip-ups to rods and a shanty over waders descend on Canadohta Lake for the hard-packed ice.
As many have made plans to take off work months in advance, hundreds of “hard water anglers” spend the day on Canadohta Lake every February to take part in Van Tassel’s Timberland Bait Canadohta Lake Ice Fishing Tourney.
Back in the day, when it was a two-day event, some fishermen would spend the night on the ice. While the tournament has shifted to only being one day, would- be winners still have to brave the elements spending 10 hours with friends and family, or alone with their thoughts, trying to catch the biggest fish through a hole in the ice with wind whipping and temperatures well below freezing.
Ice fishing is very popular around the lake. Jerry Van Tassel, owner of Van Tassel’s Timberland Bait shop, and tournament host, said that there are more hard water fishermen in the area than open water fishermen.
This year, which is either the 13th or 14th annual tournament, depending on if you count last year’s canceled event, drew 248 competitors to the lake on Saturday to see who could catch the biggest fish. That attendance dwarfs over the attendance from 2018 of about 150-175 entries.
The event, which has grown in size over the years, attracts anglers from around the country and across the state. While Van Tassel has grown the event, there were ice fishing tournaments long before he came to the area.
Much in the spirit of ice fishing in Canadohta, Van Tassel was not always a natural at fishing through the ice. He remembers 22 years ago when he came out to an ice fishing tournament on the lake never having even set up a tip-up. It was on that day that Bernie Hartman, a local ice fishing legend, took him under his wing, gave him his first tip -up, “and really showed him how to fish.”
The passing down of knowledge and helping of strangers is still going strong more than 20 years later. Even Hartman is still around, and, as a surprise to no one, caught a winning fish yet again.
According to himself, Bernie Hartman has been fishing and competing on Canadohta Lake “long before Jerry ever took over.” Hartman, who has placed “in the money” five straight years in this tournament, has been fishing through the lake for over 50 years.
This year, Hartman won $600 when he caught a 27.5-inch Northern Pike. Hartman said he has watched over the years as the sport and the tournament have gotten more and more popular.
While he is now taking on hundreds of fishermen instead of dozens, Hartman isn’t worried about the competition as he will always have a leg up over others.
“I was born with a fishing rod in my hand,” said Hartman. “My dad got me into ice fishing in the 70s. I’ve been going out on this ice since I was three.”
Hartman remembers when the tournament used to be 48 hours long. He and his long-time fishing buddy, Brad Bucher, who have been fishing together since 1997, remember when the two would camp on the ice to compete.
The pair would bring “enough food to feed an army” with them. “We had a ball,” said Bucher.
The two said that anyone who wants to be a good ice fisherman has “gotta be able to handle the cold and have patience.” The two old-school anglers usually don’t even set up a shanty to spend their time in. While they did have two set up this year, the two explained, “if the kids and girls weren’t here we’d be out in the cold.”
While Hartman and Bucher have been fishing the lake for decades, another winning fishermen wasn’t even born when the pair first started carving through the ice.
The biggest fish reeled in over the weekend was a 43.75-inch Muskie caught by 18-year-old Jeremy Swisshelm.
Swisshelm, who lives in Hershey, returned to the lake with his family to take part in this year’s tournament. Originally from the area, the Swisshelms “come back every year” to the area for deer season and the fishing tournament. “It’s a guys family activity,” he said while standing near his uncles and father.
While some of the fishermen who come to the tournament are regulars, he admitted that this is “the only tournament I’ve ever been in for anything.”
To Swisshelm, the competition is secondary. “As long as I’m out on the ice, I’m having a good time,” he said. He even brought a friend with him from Hershey, continuing the tradition of teaching tips and tricks to those who have never fished below the ice before.
To aid the fishermen making sure they have warm full bellies, Jerry Van Tassel’s wife, Sara, daughter, Mallorie, and family friends, Lynora and Jim Rumm, were tasked with feeding the more than 200 people on the ice.
The group would fill bowls with chili, cover hot dogs with ketchup and take food and cups of warm coffee and hot cocoa right to the anglers.
The food was delivered via four wheeler. When asked why the family decided to take over the event years ago and feed the fishermen for free, Sara said “to bring the community together.” To the family it is all about taking care of family and friends and making sure the community comes together.
Ice fishing has meant a lot to many in the community. While past tournaments have come and gone, one thing hasn’t changed — fishermen waking up at the crack of dawn and battling the cold to catch some fish.
Hartman said that ice fishing has taken place at the lake “since it’s been here.” As this year’s attendance for the tournament was up almost 100% from the last time it was held, ice fishing looks as if it will continue at the lake for a long time going forward, and by the ages of this year’s “big winners,” the future looks to be in good hands.
— Muskie: 43 3/4-inch, prize $1000, Jeremy Swisshelm, of Hershey.
— Northern Pike: 27 1/2-inch, prize $600, Bernie Hartman, of Townville.
— Walleye: 21 1/2-inch, prize $400, Pat Burgess, of Union City.
— Crappie: 10 3/4-inch, prize $300, Nick Baysek, of Union City.
— Perch: 10 1/4-inch, prize $200, Curtis Jackson, of Corry.
Dvorkin can be reached by email at Gdvorkin@titusvilleherald.com.