Every year, on New Year’s Day, thousands of men toting only the bare essentials — a sleeping bag, fishing rod and booze — trek to Northern Ontario for a ritual they wouldn’t miss if hell froze over.

In fact, they’re counting on freezing temperatures: Ice fishing season is open.

Derek Young, who calls -8 C weather “comfortable” and -15 C “very nice,” has been doing it since he was five years old.

“Once you get used to the cold weather, it’s not bad at all,” says the 39-year-old. “We’re used to -30 C and we’re out there doing our stuff just the same. It’s never too cold.”

These days, he and his wife Diane welcome the hordes to their idyllic swatch just off the south shore of Lake Nipissing, about a four-hour drive north of Toronto, with their business Lake Nipissing Ice Fishing Charters.

Groups are invited to settle in for a day, or several, in the cosy, colourful aluminum and wooden huts that have become the trademark of the Canadian pastime.

Add the Youngs’ 11 huts to some 2,000 vibrant shacks erected on the lake’s ice-covered surface in peak season and a veritable village rises almost overnight. It won’t be disassembled until March.

“Men get so excited about ice fishing, it’s not funny,” says Michelle Thibodeau, who operates Idle Tyme Fishing Camp with her husband Warren. “They’re in very good moods, they’re up, they’re normally all ready to go at 7 a.m. — even if they’ve been out drinking all night.”

Scores of ice fishing entrepreneurs own facilities on Lake Nipissing, the fifth-largest lake in Ontario — excluding the Great Lakes — that’s known for superior sunsets on its south shore and at least 16 species of healthy fish. A prized catch among anglers is the golden-coloured pickerel — commonly called walleye in those waters.

“It’s just the best tasting fish that I think you’re ever gonna taste out of fresh water,” Young says.

Tourists can rent cottages on land and then be whisked by sleigh or snowmobile to the shacks, as offered by Idle Tyme, or opt to actually sleep on the lake inside fully equipped bunkers, such as those offered by the Youngs.

Operators use picks or ice augers to drill holes that match those inside the shacks and often supply minnows as bait. Then it’s up to the fishers to take a seat, drop their line and wait for a bite.

“Generally, most fishermen are happy-go-lucky people,” says Warren Thibodeau, who notes a male to female ratio of about 9:1, mainly because women say they don’t enjoy the cold.

“They’re happy to be out there, they’re happy to be away for the weekend. It’s a get-together for the guys. It’s bonding time.”

When tourists aren’t hunkering down with any particular company, it’s highly recommended they check ice safety with the locals before setting up shop. A general rule of thumb is that ice must be at least 20 centimetres thick to erect a shack and 30 centimetres thick to drive on.

Other essentials include obtaining a fishing licence and wearing warm, loose-fitting clothes, quality winter apparel and several pairs of mitts.

With drinking such a big part of ice fishing culture, Ontario Provincial Police frequently patrol the lake to ensure there’s no drunk driving. Tourists who spend the night in their shacks, or are transported there by hosts, help ensure the merriment stays legal.

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