By CAROLINE MURRAY
For the Express

Without the promise of snow, proper ice or frigid temperatures, winter tourism numbers were down in December, according to the Fulton County Tourism Department.
And, with a multitude of ice-fishing contests around the corner, both local businessmen and fishermen hope the lake makes enough ice before the games begin.
“Basically, if we don’t have snow or ice it is hard on the lake area at this time of the year,” tourism director Gina DaBiere-Gibbs said Monday.
DaBiere-Gibbs said visitor center numbers were significantly lower last month compared to years past. December realized in a few more than 100 visitors, which is half as much as the center usually sees at this time of year.
Two of the largest ice-fishing contest of the season are scheduled Jan. 31 – the seventh annual Walleye Challenge Ice Fishing Tournament and the Great Sacandaga Lake Fisheries Federation winter fishing tournament.
DaBiere-Gibbs said these events draw thousands of participants, and 54 percent of the competitors come from out of town.
She said the last slot was sold Dec. 1, making a total of 1,700 ice fishermen expected to participate this year.
Thousands more journey to the lake just to watch the fun.
The cold front that planted itself on top of the region Monday should help with the ice making, and Fishing Federations President Randy Gardinier is seemingly calm about the lake’s current condition.
He is confident the surface of the Sacandaga will be thick enough to hold the participants and their gear before the end of the month. He said at this time of the year, it is important to pay attention to the lake level. If it increases, then the water has a more difficult time freezing over.
Another characteristic that can help or hinder ice formation is the wind. Wind whipping across the water makes it choppy, but “once the lake has a coating of ice on it the wind won’t cause wave like activity,” Gardinier said.
The week of the contest, Gardinier said he keeps in contact with owners of Mayfield’s Fuel and Food, Lou and Nancy Stutzke.
The Stutzkes organize the Walleye Challenge, and ensure the ice is safe for the thousands who take part in the activities.
“I will talk to a lot of people between now and then. Lou knows which spots are the last to freeze. He goes out the week before to check,” Gardinier said.
DaBiere-Gibbs added they are also out the day of the contest measuring to make sure there are no hazardous spots on the ice.
Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce helps organize and sponsor the event.
In the even the ice does not thicken in time, the contest is canceled. However, DaBiere-Gibbs said the chamber still holds a raffle which includes a host of winter sport-related prizes. They includes a snowmobile, ice-fishing equipment, and other door prizes. Additionally, those who have already enrolled in the actual ice fishing contest will still be eligible to win monetary prizes. Instead of winning the money based on the size fish they catch, however, their tag number will be entered in a drawing.
Gardinier said the last time the federation had to cancel an ice fishing contest in 2007, due to the lack of ice.
“That was a weird year because we had ice and then the ice deteriorated and it froze up later on. So it was a couple of contests that got canceled,” Gardinier said. “It was a weird year and it happens. The main thing is to use what information you have and make your best judgment.”