Winter in Ottawa: A tour of Petrie Island Ice Fishing Village

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“Big Al” Macintyre has been an avid ice fisherman for more than 50 years

Candice So is a freelance reporter who loves to read, write and meet people who are doing amazing things. This summer, she went out west to Edmonton, went further west to Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Macau, and is now back in Ottawa, the city where she was born and bred. On her off time she likes to pretend to cook, to walk her dog and to go for a run, albeit really slowly. 

Al Macintyre tugs on the little fishing line in front of me, poised over a round, freshly drilled frozen hole in the ground.

He smiles as he points to what’s called a tip-up, the piece of wood attached to the fishing line. It tips up and down to show a fish is biting – meaning it’s time to grab the line and wrestle that walleye, perch or pike out of the hole.

Known as “Big Al” to his friends, Macintyre has been an avid ice fisherman since he was a 10-year-old living in Sudbury, Ontario. Now 63 and sporting a greying moustache, red plaid shirt and furry cap, he has all the swagger of a fishing enthusiast enjoying a morning in the backwoods.

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Petrie Island’s Ice Fishing Village has about 115 huts

But we’re not exactly out in the country – we’re actually a five-minute drive from Place d’Orléans Shopping Mall. On Sunday, Macintyre gave me a little tour of the Petrie Island Ice Fishing Village, just off of Trim Road but with the feel of a far-off fishing inlet. 

“I can come down here during the week, and there’s maybe four people. I’ll put my lines in, I’ll bring a book, do a little crossword. I’ll see animals – owls and coyotes, the occasional deer on the ice,” he says.

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Inside Big Al’s hut

Macintyre has been coming to Petrie Island for the past 12 years, when the village was just 10 little shanties, side by side against a background of snow and ice covering the Ottawa River.

The village has since mushroomed into 115 huts of all colours and designs, dotting the bare white expanse of ice and snow with little curls of steam rising from the rooftops. It stays occupied from when the ice freezes in the first week of January to the middle of March, when it begins to thaw.

We walk by one hut labelled the “Bear Den,” its name etched on a wooden sign shaped like a bear paw. Just across the hardpacked, snowy road, another hut is styled after a red barn, and near that one is a hut in a bright, robin’s egg blue.

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Big Al’s ice fishing hut

Macintyre’s own hut is painted cream and hunter green, resplendent with plaid curtains, a bear’s head and moose antlers mounted on the walls. In one corner stands a Coleman oil stove dating back to the 1940s, and against the far wall is a table with pictures of his family tacked up above it.

These huts are like a home away from home to the fishermen who either come for the day or even stay overnight. Many come and bring their entire families, raring to fish and to enjoy some community spirit, Macintyre says.

“A night like last night, we had a couple of hockey games on, and I had some buddies down from Montreal,” he says. “And the guys over there (in the next cabin) are watching the hockey game … And you’ll go in and there are a lot of hunters around here, so someone will offer you a moose steak or something’s cooking on the stove.”

He adds there’s a lot of hockey rivalry on the ice. For example, he’s a staunch Montreal Canadiens fan, but his neighbour, Brian Massé, is firmly on side with the Ottawa Senators.

Massé brought his daughter and son down for the weekend.

“We haven’t caught anything today so far, but we usually get something once a day … But I love the ice fishing, and I love the community here,” Massé says, adding he and Macintyre rib each other about their teams all the time.

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The fourth annual ice fishing derby is tomorrow, Saturday February 16th

Although Saturday’s derby is only open to the occupants of the Petrie Island ice huts, on other weekends, it costs $100 for four people to rent a hut for a day. That includes their equipment, hole drilling, bait and heating.

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Inside Big Al’s hut

Newcomers are already beginning to embrace ice fishing, Macintyre adds. This year, a woman made a reservation because she wanted to celebrate Valentine’s Day on the ice with her husband. And recently, a group of women in pink toques rented a hut for a bachelorette party.

Macintyre says he believes the sport will only grow more and more popular, eventually becoming as entrenched in Ottawa’s wintertime culture as skating on the Rideau Canal.

People just have to be willing to give it a try, he says.

“Some people think ice fishing is just about a bunch of guys getting drunk on the ice. But it’s not like that at all – it’s all families. We borrow things from each other, we become friends with people we know only for two months of the year … It’s a real community.”

Thank you Candice for shining such a wonderful spotlight on ice fishing in Ottawa!