GREAT SACANDAGA LAKE Friday morning, Dave Allen will have 300 pounds of bait minnows darkening the water of backroom tanks in his Mayfield tackle shop. Within a day and a half, those tanks will be empty.
Allen chatted with patrons of his business, Dave’s Bait and Tackle, on Tuesday afternoon. The place is a rough-hewn outbuilding next to Allen’s house on Bunker Hill Road near the shore of the Great Sacandaga Lake. The walls are layered deep with tackle and lures. A wood stove crackles down some stairs behind the counter.
“Some people call the Sacandaga the Dead Sea,” said regular customer Garrett Atty.
At a glance
Saturday’s sixth annual Walleye Challenge on Great Sacandaga Lake is closed to further entries, but there’s still time to enter a contest featuring three other popular game fish:
WHAT: Great Sacandaga Lake Fisheries Foundation ice fishing contest
WHEN: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Measuring, awards at Sacandaga Boating Club, 129 Merriam Road, Broadalbin
FEE: $20 today, $25 Saturday; DEADLINE: 10 a.m. Saturday
PRIZES: $2,100 total for four largest pike, perch and trout; $500 for each of six orange-tagged trout (only GSLFF members eligible for tag prizes)
INFO: Jack Smith, 863-1062, or Randy Gardinier, 848-7248; or visit www.gslff.com
“Those are the people who don’t know how to fish,” replied Allen.
The place maintains a general relaxed air most of the year, but things are about to get busy.
On Saturday, Sacandaga ice will bear the weight of several thousand fisherman from all over the eastern United States. They’ll descend on the area for two simultaneous events: the sixth annual Walleye Challenge, sponsored and organized by local Fuel-n-Food owner Louis Stutzke, and the Great Sacandaga Lake Fisheries Federation Ice Fishing Derby, for all the people who didn’t make Stuzke’s 1,750-entrant limit.
For Allen, it’s one of the largest weekends of a short season.
“You get three good months in the summer in this business,” he said, “and three good months in the winter.”
Tournament competitors tend to buy a lot of tip-ups and ice augers from Dave’s, but he goes mainly through minnows.
Over the past few days he built up a stock of hunters, icicles, suckers and other main bait species. Tuesday, he had a little more than 100 pounds of wriggling fish split between three stainless steel tanks and roughly 1,700 gallons of water. He said his wholesaler would be bringing in another 200 pounds.
Most years, a combination of sportsmen and other bait shops buy out his inventory. There are a few shops in the area, including Fuel-n-Food, that cater to ice fishermen, but Allen said those shops have only 100-gallon tanks. They tend to run out and drive to Dave’s to restock.
It’s not just bait shops that benefit from the event. In the evening, Atty said, Lanzi’s on the Lake throws a massive party with thousands of thirsty fishermen toasting to a good day.
“All the motels are booked up days in advance,” Allen said.
Like many rural upstate areas, Sacandaga shore communities tend to hibernate over the winter. The walleye tournament jolts the local economy awake for a day or two.
The tournament wasn’t always so successful. Six years ago, Allen said, Stutzke struggled to get enough people signed up. Now though, slots are in demand.
“I’m hoping to do some fishing and make some money,” said Greg Johnson.
Johnson stopped by Dave’s on Tuesday for some custom-tied wire leaders. He was one of the final 50 lucky people to buy $40 walleye tournament entrance tickets.
He attributes the event’s success to roughly $70,000 in cash and prizes set to be handed out in raffles and to hourly walleye size winners.
“There’s no other tournament in this area with those kinds of winnings,” he said.
But Atty said the prizes are secondary. Tonight, he explained, the usual fishing shanty villages that long ago sprouted out on the ice will grow into small cities. “You fish with that many guys,” he said, “it’s camaraderie.”
He wasn’t fortunate enough to get in the tournament. Instead, he’ll be cooking for some buddies as they fish.
By all accounts, this year’s tournament is expected to be safe and successful. A week ago, when unseasonably warm temperatures and rain raised the Sacandaga reservoir by 4 feet, Hudson River Black River Regulating District Executive Director Mike Clark had his doubts.
Clark analyzes the water levels in the reservoir. Since the Great Sacandaga was just a river before the Conklingville Dam was built, he explained, ice coverage is less predictable than on other lakes.
“When the water goes up or down,” he said, “there can be wet spots or pressure ridges along the edges.”
Last week, he said, a few thousand fishermen riding snowmobiles onto rising plates of ice could have been a significant hazard. But now, with colder temperatures settling in once again, there’s plenty of thickness.
“With temperatures like we’re having,” he said, “we’re adding 2 inches of ice a night.”