There's a contingent of fishing enthusiasts who wait eagerly for frigid temperatures and a thick layer of ice to form on Collingwood's harbour. They are waiting for ice fishing season.
Among them is Rick Baldry, owner of Rick’s Happi Hooka.
Baldry, a passionate and avid fisherman, began making lures in his basement several decades ago. He founded Rick’s Happi Hooka in 1977, opening the doors to his shop on First Street in 2013.
The tiny tackle shop is jam-packed with everything you could ever need for fishing, including speciality items and the necessary equipment for one of the things Baldry, his son, John, and his grandson, Austin, love most: Ice fishing.
“If you light up someone’s face with a smile, they will always remember you,” said Rick. “There is no better feeling than pulling up your first big fish.”
In Rick's opinion, ice fishing is a fantastic outdoor activity that everyone can enjoy. What a lot of people don’t know is that you don’t have to travel far to experience this unique winter activity, and there’s actually a robust ice fishing community that gathers right in our backyard.
Species in the Collingwood Harbour include rainbow trout, brown trout, pike, walleye and sometimes even salmon, among many others. And in recent years, people have been known to pull up some pretty sizable fish of these species — upwards of eight pounds.
But the history of ice fishing in the Collingwood Harbour is a complicated one.
Prior to the Collingwood Shipyards closure in 1986, ice fishing was a common activity celebrated by many in the community. Ice fishing huts were scattered from the shore to the ferry docks as soon as the water froze until early spring.
“Back then, it was unreal,” said John.
The harbour was dredged in the early 1990s, which benefited the community in tax revenue and tourism, but completely eliminated any possibility of fishing in the harbour for several years.
But slowly the fish have started to come back — so the fishermen have followed — and ice fishing has seen a recent resurgence in the harbour and beyond. The Baldry men hope it’s here to stay.
“Ice fishing is coming back, there are pictures to prove it. We just need to get the awareness out there,” said Rick.
The Georgian Triangle Anglers’ Association continues to play an integral part in the conservation of natural resources in the area.
Rick, who is president of the association, said they are committed to involving the community through youth participation as well. The Anglers operate a hatchery and by collecting and raising eggs, they stock several hundred rainbow and brown trout in the local lakes, rivers and streams every year. They also have set up mini hatcheries in a few of the elementary schools in the area to use as a “tool for teaching.”
“It’s so exciting for the younger kids,” said Rick. “It builds that sense of adventure, getting outside and going fishing.”
Rick has been fishing for as long as he remembers. He spent the majority of his summers in Huntsville, fishing at the locks almost every day.
“As a kid, that was the most important thing to me. I would get up and go fishing,” said Rick. While his fishing ability is now limited due to carpal tunnel syndrome, in his prime he was fishing between 150 to 200 days out of the year.
So it’s no surprise John grew up fishing as well. Rick recalls his son “catching” his first fish at just 10 months old.
And Austin — who recently celebrated his 16th birthday — might be a fish himself.
Those in the fishing community call the youngest Baldry boy a few fond nicknames, from “the fish whisperer” to “lucky.”
“Austin was holding a rod at four months old,” said John. “If there is a brown trout anywhere near where we are fishing, he will catch it.”
Although the fishing landscape — specifically in the winter — has changed drastically over the years, then men are increasingly excited about the quality of the fish being caught in the harbour in recent years.
“The quantity might not be there, but the quality definitely is,” said Rick.
“It slowed down for a while for sure, but it’s really starting to pick up again,” added John. “Especially when people see the size of some of these fish being caught.
Scott Fryer, a retired firefighter and a prominent fisherman in the area, also remembers the glory days of ice fishing in Collingwood. He recalls taking care of the hundreds of huts out on the harbour, and used to go out every morning to break the build-up of ice from his friends fishing holes.
“It used to be unbelievable,” said Fryer. “More often than not, if you went out there you would catch enough to take home a meal.”
Fryer used to take his daughters out after dinner, and his whole family would sit in the hut and while his wife read stories to the children, Fryer would mind the rods.
“My daughters still tell me they remember those nights,” he said.
The harbour isn't the only place nearby to drop a line in frozen waters, though. Lake Simcoe is one of the most intensively fished inland lakes in Ontario, with more people fishing it in the winter than any other time of the year. Marnie Woodhouse, from Heathcote, went ice fishing on Lake Simcoe for the first time last year and she was instantly hooked.
"They say tug is the drug," laughed Woodhouse.
Now in her second season of the sport, Woodhouse has purchased all of the necessary equipment and she tries to get out as much as she can. According to Woodhouse, there is a large ice fishing community from here to Lake Simcoe, and she never has difficulty finding somebody to go with. She has participated in a number of fishing events for women as well, and recently spent two nights on Lake Simcoe with 24 women, fishing for two full days.
Woodhouse, who is up for any activity outside, actually prefers to fish in the winter.
"It's pretty amazing to be out in the middle of a lake, sitting on top of 90-plus feet of water," she said. "I like fishing all of the time but there is just something about being out there in the winter."
She recently saw a group of ice anglers out on the harbour, and is excited to try out the local spot for herself soon.
This past Family Day Weekend, Rick’s Happi Hooka hosted the first ice fishing derby in the harbour in eight years. Despite the cold and windy weather, over 20 people came out to enjoy the festivities.
“It was a great day,” said John. “I had a lot of people asking if we could do it again next year.”
The champion fish of the day was six pounds and 12 ounces, caught by Collingwood local Gord Leslie.
“The camaraderie you find in the fishing community, especially with the ice fishing community, is amazing,” said Rick. “Everyone wants to be a part of taking a big fish out of the water.”
Rick said ice fishermen work together, trying to figure out what lure or technique is best.
“It’s like a classroom,” he said. “Everyone is here to learn, and anyone who catches a fish becomes the teacher.”
Although Rick isn’t able to fish much himself lately, he is always out there, helping others learn.
Austin helps out with the Optimist Kids Fishing Derby every year, teaching younger children the best techniques to catch certain fish. In his spare time, he and his friends will head out, chasing the biggest fish they can find.
For John, it’s just about getting outside.
“It’s relaxing, you are out in nature. Even in the bitter cold, people are fishing and laughing and having fun,” John said. “What could be better?”