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Breaking the Ice

STORY BY

BENJAMIN LERNER

PHOTOGRAPHY

JIMMY iENNER, JR.


Renowned fishing and hunting guide James Vladyka shares crucial ice fishing technique and gear tips and reflects on his most memorable outdoor experiences.

It’s a crisp and cloudy winter afternoon on Lake Bomoseen, and the owner and founder of Fish Hounds Outdoors, Captain James Vladyka, is in truly rare form. Although he is kneeling down on the ice in the middle of a frozen lake, his affect is warm and gregarious. Rising to his feet, he holds his graphite fishing rod in one hand, brandishing a recently-caught freshwater crappie in the other. As he stands near a narrow, circular fishing hole, a fleeting ray of sunlight casts faint shadows on his Vexilar electronic fish finder and Clam drill plate. It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in an award-winning outdoor sports documentary, but for Vladyka, it’s just another day at the

office.


While the tools and techniques that he uses in his fishing quests may seem intimidating or complex to a casual observer, Vladyka prides himself in his ability to create enjoyable, accessible, and memorable experiences for his clients. Through his work as a fishing and hunting guide, Vladyka shares his passion for outdoor recreation with anglers and hunters of all ages and skill levels, providing them with critical instruction that helps them elevate their knowledge and mastery of their chosen sports. Vladyka has built a respected name for himself as an ambassador for Vermont fishing and hunting, and his ice fishing exploits have been featured on a number of high-profile media outlets, such as World Fishing Network and Outdoor Channel.


In the middle of the busy winter season, Vladyka stepped away from the ice to share some valuable gear and technique tips and fun fishing stories with VERMONT Magazine. Whether he’s out on the ice with his clients, enjoying the great outdoors with lifelong friends, appearing in televised features, or conducting informative seminars at industry conventions, Vladyka applies the same spirit of adventurous joie-de-vivre to all of his endeavors. By the time he packs up his gear and heads home for the night, he always manages to break the ice in a way that leaves a lasting impression.


Good Gear, Great Preparation – Priceless Memories


Vladyka says that whenever he makes tentative plans to go ice fishing, there is a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. “Whether I’m going out there to have a good time with my friends or I’m going out there to be serious and try to catch a big fish, I just can’t wait to get out there.” He adds that regardless of your experience level, it’s always incredibly important to properly prepare before heading onto the ice.


According to Vladyka, the ice in Central and Northern Vermont is usually thick enough to support ice fishers by January. “It can get up to three feet thick on some of the lakes. Still, you shouldn’t judge the thickness of the ice by sight alone, even if you see someone else on it. The same body of water can freeze thicker or thinner in different spots. It depends on factors like currents and water depth.” Vladyka says that certain pieces of safety gear are absolutely essential—especially in the earliest part of the season. “You never want to walk out there without a rope and some ice picks. That way, if you or someone else that you’re fishing with falls through, you can move to the edge of the ice and get pulled out more easily.”

To that end, Vladyka recommends bringing a friend for the first voyage of the season, regardless of the time of year. In addition, a flotation device, such as a life jacket, is potentially lifesaving. Vladyka wears his Clam Ice Armor, which is lightweight with significant flotation properties. “It’s very maneuverable,” says Vladyka. “It’s not heavier than normal gear, and it doesn’t have any extra bulk.” He also emphasizes the importance of spud bars, which are chisel-tipped tools that allow ice fishers to properly assess the thickness and integrity of the ice. “If you hit down on the ice with a spud bar and it goes through after one hit, the ice is definitely not safe. If you hit down and it just barely goes through, that’s questionable. If you can hit the ice twice with a spud bar and it doesn’t go through, you can usually pass through that area safely.” When moving forward on the ice, it’s wise to continue hitting down with the spud bar as you proceed. By doing so, you will know if it’s safe enough to continue. Vladka adds that flotation gear is also essential in the later part of the season. “Even if the ice is thick where it would normally hold you throughout the season, the warmer weather and the sun deteriorates the ice. It turns the ice into what is known as ‘honeycombed ice,’ which can be very unsafe.”

Once a group of ice fishers arrives at their chosen spot, they drill a hole through the ice with a tool known as an ice auger. Although there are manual, electric, and gas-powered ice augers sold by a variety of high-quality brands, such as StrikeMaster, Eskimo, and Jiffy, Vladyka is partial to the Clam Drill Plate, which he attaches to his K-Drill ice auger. Vladyka elaborates: “When I first started fishing in the 1980s, many people were using a lot of gas-powered augers. Later on, electric augers became more common. The problem with electric augers is that the batteries can be very heavy, but the Clam Drill Plate solves that problem. It’s powered by a standard cordless drill with lithium-ion batteries. The drill gets mounted onto the drill plate with a K-Drill attached on the other side. Unlike standard batteries, lithium batteries don’t lose any of their battery life in the cold. I think it provides a great solution to a common issue.”

Vladyka says that although the standard size of an ice fishing hole ranges anywhere from five to eight inches, holes with a diameter of five to six inches are not well-suited for a commonly-used method of ice fishing known as “tip-up” fishing. He explains that a tip-up is a fairly simple instrument, which has become a longstanding hallmark of Vermont ice fishing. Ice fishers who use tip-ups can set up multiple fishing holes and fishing lines, and are able to monitor them from a distance while achieving maximum efficiency. When using tip-ups, a line with hooked bait is attached to a platform that holds a flag or weighted bar. When a fish latches on to the bait, the force of its movement pulls the flag or bar on the tip-up, alerting the ice fisher that a fish is on the hook. “It’s a good technique if you want to spread out across multiple spots,” says Vladyka. “Tip-ups come in a lot of different styles, but when I first started, I used the classic ‘Champlain Jack’ tip-ups with sliding metal weights.” These days, Vladyka strictly uses underwater tip-ups for multiple reasons, such as the fact that they keep the lines from freezing up and the holes from freezing over. “The great thing about Vermont is that every licensed fisher is allowed to run up to 15 tip-ups on the 163.4-mile expanse of Lake Champlain,” notes Vladyka. “On Vermont’s smaller inland lakes, you can run eight tip-ups at a time.”


When Vladyka is fishing without a tip-up, he likes to use his Clam Scepter Rod. “It’s got a short handle on it, so when you hold it, it doesn’t stick out too far. It’s balanced very well, and the tip is nice and sensitive, so you can really detect the bite.” In terms of lure setups, Vladyka tends to gravitate toward the “Dropkick” jig from Clam Pro Tackle. “The Dropkick is a horizontal lure with a decent-sized hook shank on it. It has a really nice shape, which gives it a great pendulum motion when you’re fishing at any speed.” The Dropkick jig comes in three different sizes: 1/32-inch, 3/64-inch, and 1/16 inch. “The 1/32 is what we typically use when we’re fishing for crappie and bluegill. The larger models are good for bigger fish, because it allows for bigger presentation. They’re good for perch, trout, or any other fish you’ll find in Vermont. I like to fish with plastic lures more than live bait, so I pair it with my Makiplastic Clam Pro Tackle lures, including the lure that I helped to design myself, the ‘JAMEI.’”

Vladyka says that one of the most invaluable tools in his ice fishing arsenal

is the Vexilar flasher, a fish-finding machine that allows him to track the movements of his lure and the fish underneath the ice through electronic signals. “With a flasher, you can see everything that’s down there. I like to think of it as taking the blindfold off.” The Vexilar detects objects of varying

densities in the water using a spherical sensory instrument, which is known as

a transducer. Once an ice fisher drills a hole, they set the transducer in the water underneath the ice. It relays an electronic message to a display screen, which shows any object that breaks the path of the sonar’s return signal underwater in real time.


The display screen has tiered subsections on it that correspond to different depths in the water. Objects underneath the surface appear on the Vexilar screen as colorful lines, which are color-coded to match their relative density. For example, red lines on the Vexilar screen indicate a dense, solid object, such as a fish or the floor of a body of water, and green lines indicate less dense material, such as weeds or other aquatic plants. When an ice fisher drops their lure into the water, they will see a colorful line moving downward on the Vexilar’s screen. If a fish is interested in the lure, they will see the fish displayed as a separate color line, which moves upward towards the color line that corresponds to the lure. This allows them to adjust the motion and depth of their lure to better attract their fish. The Vexilar’s magnification scale can also be adjusted to accommodate deeper waters, as well, allowing ice fishers to move between different bodies of water with minimal complications.

When fishing with the Vexilar, Vladyka uses specific techniques to maximize the efficacy of the technology. “You never drop into exactly where the fish is. You always stop above them. Think of it like a Christmas tree—you’re going to stop at the top of the Christmas tree and work your way down. If the fish are down there and you drop down and stop above them, you can get them to come up. If a fish comes up and separates from the rest of the fish, the other fish are less likely to scatter when that fish gets hooked.” Vladyka adds that it is also important to use a subtle cadence and not move the pole back and forth with exaggerated movements. “You don’t want to move it very fast, and you don’t want to completely stop moving, either. I always tell clients that it’s similar to a dog chasing a car. If you drive past your neighbor’s dog very fast, he’s not going to chase you back home. If you come by the neighbor’s driveway and stop in front of it, the dog’s not going to be interested in the car. If you drive at the perfect speed, the dog will follow you all the way down the road to your house. You have to find a happy medium. By the same logic, if you drop the line right above the fish and pull it back up very slowly, the fish will most likely follow you until it bites. You just have to read the situation correctly, which comes with time and practice.”

For ice fishers who are looking to camp out on the ice for extended periods of time, Vladyka highly recommends investing in a shelter. He touts the versatility of the Clam Flip-Over shelter, and says that it is a perfect fit for ice fishers who want to travel lightly. “It’s basically like a sled that has a tent on it. You put all of your gear on it and drag it behind you. When you get to the place that you want to be, you drill your hole, flip it over, and you’re ready to fish. If you bring a portable heater with you, you can stay nice and warm in there when it’s freezing outside.” Fishers who are interested in setting up multiple tip-ups and cooking food out on the ice would be wise to purchase a Clam Hub Shelter. “They’re good for bigger groups, and they’re very easy to set up.”


Many of Vermont’s most avid ice fishers build durable, solid shelters called “hard houses.” Some hard houses are driven out by four-wheelers or trucks during the apex of the season. “People build extravagant things,” notes Vladyka. “They’ll take old pop-up campers, take the sides off of them, open them up, and build new sides. You’ll also see wooden hard houses. People customize them and paint them. I’ve seen one with a picture of Bart Simpson from The Simpsons on it. It’s a fun way for ice fishers to express themselves.”


One of Vladyka’s favorite shelters to fish in is his old camper shelter, which is outfitted with a comfortable seating area, which is routinely used as a fishing perch by Vladyka, his clients, and his loyal and rugged dog, Stormy. The camper also houses a flatscreen television with an underwater camera, allowing visitors to watch the fish move through the water in high definition. A hole through the bottom of the camper’s floor allows Vladyka and several other fishermen to drop their lines into the water below the ice, providing an ideal setting for extended fishing sessions. “No matter what shelter you fish in, you’re going to have a good time ice fishing here in Vermont,” says Vladyka. “You can catch perch, crappies, bluegills, bass, pike, pickerel, and trout. We even catch catfish and bullhead through the ice.”


The Captain’s Journey


Through his work as an outdoor sports guide, Vladyka has turned his lifelong passion for fishing and hunting into a successful business. A consummate outdoorsman, Vladyka is well-versed in multiple disciplines of hunting and fishing. Vladyka embarked on his first ice fishing adventure with his father, Larry Vladyka, when he was five years old. He went on to refine his skills in the woods and waters surrounding his hometown of Benson throughout his childhood and adolescence. Vladyka recalls: “My parents would drop me off at a fishing spot on Lake Champlain called ‘Singing Cedars’ with my pop-up tent. I’d either stay there all day or I’d camp out overnight with one of my best friends. When we saw our parents pull up on a nearby road to pick us up, we would always pretend that we couldn’t see them because we wanted to keep fishing.” Growing up, Vladyka idolized the legendary ice fisher, Dave Genz, who is known for building the first flip-over ice fishing shelter, known as “The Fish Trap.” Genz also designed and developed many other revolutionary pieces of fishing gear, such as the aforementioned Dropkick jig and the Blue Box, which allows anglers to safely keep their Vexilar flashers off the ice. Vladyka didn’t know it at the time, but Genz would end up playing a pivotal role in his professional development later on.

As Vladyka’s fishing technique progressed, he was introduced to commercial fishing by the Beayons, a local fishing family. “It was a big deal when I realized that I could make money from commercial fishing. When I got my first boat, I would literally fill up the floor with fish.” Vladyka became a full-fledged commercial fisherman by the time that he was 14. After graduating from high school, he founded his own construction business, JV Construction. Vladyka effectively balanced his career as a commercial fisherman with his construction work for the next two decades, but he found his true calling when he gave his first guided fishing tours in 2000. “I took some clients from my construction business out for a fishing trip, and I made more money doing that than I ever did in a single day of commercial fishing. They didn’t even want to keep the fish. They just wanted to take some pictures, enjoy themselves, and create

a memory. I knew then and there that I wanted to be a fishing guide, so I founded Fish Hounds Outdoors.”


Over the next decade, Vladyka gradually grew Fish Hounds Outdoors through word of mouth. Eventually, his childhood dreams came full-circle when he was given the opportunity to take Dave Genz on a Vermont fishing tour in January 2008. “A friend of mine came to me and said that Dave had reached out to him. He told me that Dave wanted to come fish here, and he asked me if I would be interested in taking Dave around to all of the best spots.”


During their tour, Vladyka took Genz to a number of fantastic fishing spots on Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River. While fishing with Vladyka, Genz introduced him to the Vexilar, which changed Vladyka’s entire perspective

on ice fishing. Genz and Vladyka also formed a strong bond of mutual respect. “He was a very down to earth guy who loved the sport,” says Vladyka. “I was doing the best I could to make sure he enjoyed it, and he saw me killing myself in order to show him a good time.”

Several weeks later, Genz called Vladyka and asked him if he wanted to be a sponsored promoter for Clam. Vladyka graciously accepted, and a fruitful partnership was born. In the months that followed, Vladyka and Genz appeared at various outdoor sports conventions together, such as the Yankee Sportsman’s Classic in Essex Junction, and various Bass Pro Sports and Cabela’s events in Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Vladyka shared his ice fishing knowledge with large crowds, which attracted scores of new clients to Fish Hounds Outdoors.


Since then, Vladyka has joined forces with several other prominent ice fishers across the country, who are united under the collective banner of “The Ice Team.” They create fascinating content in multiple mediums, such as magazine articles and fishing videos, organize ice fishing events, and promote high-end ice fishing products made by companies such as Clam and Vexilar. “Nothing would have happened the way it did if it wasn’t for Dave,” says Vladyka. “He backed me at a time when it mattered most. Beyond the publicity and sponsorships, I’ve been able to use his endorsement to make a name for myself in the industry. Vic Attardo, who is a fantastic outdoor writer, also helped me a great deal. I’ll always be grateful to have been able to work with them.”

As a result of Genz’ mentorship, Vladyka has been able to use his newfound success to organize tournaments and events on a local level that spotlight Vermont’s ice fishing community. A prime example of this is the Champlain Valley Hardwater Tournament series, which will take place in February 2023. “People are coming from as far away as Minnesota to fish here, and Dave Genz will be at my first tournament series this year. We’re going to give away lots of prizes and trophies, and there will be competition events from the northern end of Lake Champlain all the way down to Lake Bomoseen.”


A Trip for Every Season


Regardless of when you book a tour with Fish Hounds Outdoors, Captain Vladyka offers an exciting range of outdoor adventure options to choose from.

The ice fishing season normally runs from late December to late February. After the ice melts, Vladyka takes clients to fish for pre-spawn freshwater crappies. He also offers bowfishing tours during the spring, where clients can hone their archery skills while shooting carp, gar, pike, pickerel, and bullhead with a bow and arrow. “Vermont is also one of the only places where you can shoot pike with guns, as well,” adds Vladyka. “It presents a cool opportunity for my fishing clients to try something different.”


From mid-April to Late May, Vladyka travels down the Hudson River to Kingston, New York, where he holds striper fishing tours. He then returns to the Green Mountain State in the early summer, where he takes his clients on nightly bow fishing tours on Lake Champlain. When the autumn rolls around, he brings clients along for the early goose hunting season in September, then transitions into duck hunting in early October. Throughout the Fall, he offers duck and goose hunting tours, which run in line with the dates of their corresponding seasons. At the end of December, the cycle begins again, and he heads back out on the ice with his trusted spud bar to blaze a brave new trail.


“The best thing about hunting and fishing in Vermont is that there are so many different things that you can try,” says Vladyka. “Families who book guided tours with me can book multiple adventures for several years in a row and never do the same thing twice. We are so lucky to have that kind of variety here. I take pride in showing my clients a good time regardless of the season—and I go above and beyond to put them on the best fish and game. There’s nothing more fulfilling than seeing the look on a newcomer’s face when they catch their first fish or shoot their first duck. Whether they’re six years old or sixty years old, I know that they’ll keep those

memories with them for the rest of their lives.”



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