fishers, icers and bucket
"I have laid aside business and gone a-fishing."
Izaak Walton, 1653
By John Manikowski
Between Breckenridge, Minn. -- my childhood home -- and Wahpeton, N.D., is the confluence of two rivers, the Bois de Sioux and the Red River of the North, creating a border between two states. On that spot, to this day, icehouses spring up at the first sign of hard ice -- as they do on nearly every lake in the Midwest. Smoke billows from portable woodstoves. As a 10-year-old, I was puzzled as to why a stove didn't just burn a hole through the ice.
With blustery southwest winds banking snowdrifts, under an overcast Dr. Zhivago atmosphere, I ventured upon a cozy set-up on Pontoosuc Lake in Pittsfield: John Lander Sr. and John Jr., accompanied by John Jr.'s 7-year-old son, Marcus, his 3-year-old snowmate, Jacob McNeice and his father, Marc, all standing -- or playing -- around a warming fire on the edge of the frozen lake. All vigilantly keeping watch over their tip-ups, stretched 20 to 30 yards out on the ice. Numerous 10-inch holes had been drilled (five per adult, using a gas-powered auger, each wooden tripod supporting a bright red flag perched above) in anticipation of "tipping up," indicating a fish is on the line. Marc McNeice's black Lab, Seiger, dove for a tossed stick. Every creature basked in the New England outdoors. Venison stew, cooked over a wood fire, had been lunch du jour. I had expected fillet o' fish sautéed in butter.
I got the feeling that it didn't matter if any fish were the end result of six hours of fishing in this January blow. Rosy red cheeks and a hearty New England attitude indicated the real reason to be out here. As I rubbed my hands over the fire, the sun momentarily slipped out from behind a lacy veil but, then, cruelly retreated behind low-slung clouds. It was humbling, cold.
Fishing had been slow, "last year was better," John Jr. said. This day they had landed, and returned, two largemouth bass, one perch, and one northern pike -- about 25 to 26 inches, under the legal limit. "Pike is a good game fish," John Jr. continued. "But, if you put them back, they'll get bigger," a gentlemanly notion, geared for the betterment of healthy fisheries. I heard similar comments from nearly all of the dozen or so fishermen I spoke with on four different lakes over two days. Catch and release seems to have, well É caught on.
Hardwater fishing. A man's fraternity? Not necessarily. Ineke Leer is featured on a recent cover of In-Fisherman's Ice Fishing Guide, the first woman ever on the cover. Traditionally, ice fishing is thought of as a male sport, so the decision to put a female on the cover of the In-Fisherman Ice Guide is proof that ice fishing is enjoyed by everyone, not just the guys.
Doug LaPlante, who works at Dave's Sporting Goods in Pittsfield, won't venture out onto ice until it is 5 to 6 inches thick. I knelt beside a fisher, Carl Phillips of Pittsfield, as he measured 13 1/2 inches through a hole on Pontoosuc. I felt safe, considering I was walking in slush, "the results of freezing, then rain, then all that snow." (Beware, however, many a shanty, even truck, have disappeared into the dark abyss.) Phillips was idly mentoring his 6-year-old companion, Jesse Marusarz-Foley, who had just pulled up a 6-inch yellow perch, his third of the day.
Carl "fishes more during winter months than in the summer," trying to get out every weekend until ice out, generally around April, depending upon the weather. It was obvious Carl truly enjoys hardwater angling -- and well-prepared he comes: donning toasty warm boots, manufactured by Rocky, developed for minus 125 degrees; at a cost of $250, a good investment in my book. Carl appeared unaffected by the cold, his boots nestled into a slushy mix of ice and snow, perched on his overturned 5-gallon bucket. Jesse, whose job appeared to be keeping a watch out for strikes, keenly spotted a tip-up tip up. Generally, hooks are loaded with 4- to 6-inch shiners, bait for large fish, such as pike, and which sell for upwards of $7.75 a dozen.
Mealy, wax, mousy, spike and grub worms are also tasty tantalizers, but most anglers I visited, used minnows.
Other species such as largemouth bass, trout, crappie and yellow perch are also sought after, including a world record set by Pittsfield native Jim Lambert, a year ago Dec. 31, when he successfully landed a 27-pound tiger muskie, about 200 hundred yards from where we stood. This icer understands technique: Continuing a blockbuster tradition, just over two weeks ago on Jan. 7, he took a 23-pound pike from Onota Lake.
(Biologist Richard Hartley of MassWildlife says that Onota Lake is probably the No. 1 producer of legal-sized northern pike in the state.)
Tiger muskie is a hybrid cross between a northern pike and a muskellunge. Tigers have been stocked in Pontoosuc Lake for a decade now, at between 3 to 12 inches, and need to grow to a minimum size of 28 inches -- 5 years old -- to be legal keeping size. Lambert's was 47 inches in length.
Broodstock Atlantic salmon are stocked, and caught as well: two 10-pounders in Onota and isolated reports of others from Windsor and Goose Ponds. Broodstock are upwards of 5-year-old fish that have lost their fertility; too costly to maintain in state or federal hatcheries in Palmer, Mass., or Bethel, Vt. Up to 1,000 fish are stocked in Massachusetts' lakes throughout December for anglers.
This scene from "Grumpier Old Men," with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon: A camera pans dozens of icehouses, dotting the horizon of a snow-covered lake. Wooden structures, falsely resembling outhouses, are equipped with not just stoves but bunk beds; some occupants never getting out of their pajamas for days. Also, color television sets, propane stoves and a David Maas print hanging on the wall; all part of the accouterments.
Onota, Pontoosuc, Buel, Stockbridge Bowl, Goose Pond: Where are they, these wooden shanties? I found mostly bucket sitters, but finally came across several structures: portable shelters made of rip-stop nylon or polypropylene, easily assembled within minutes. For extreme conditions, fishers need only the 4-person Shappell shelters that Tom Dailey sells at Dailey's Marine Services on Onota, or the two-person Clam, model No. 5600, that David Quennedille, from Ashley Falls uses, along with his son, Rene, from Southfield; either model is available for around $300. "Worth its weight in gold," Quennedille Sr. claims. The Quennedilles were pulling the 6-inch-thick "carrying case" shelter behind them with a rope, the sledlike structure folded down, stacked with cooking equipment, and various paraphernalia used to fish Lake Buel in Monterey, where I met them late one afternoon, the hearty icers having been in place since dawn. And having kept toasty warm all day because of their new-age shelter.
Did they cook fish for lunch? No. "Don't care much for fish," Rene said, surprisingly. "Besides," he expounded, "it's just a good way to spend time with my father." Father David added, "and a good reason for a cookout." Indeed, if I had arrived sooner I'd have been offered a venison sausage grinder, he said. Venison seems to be the meal of choice for hardwatering. Meaning, perhaps, that many icers are also hunters who look for another excuse to extend their outdoor activities.
While perusing Internet ice fishing sites, I came across this posting on a chat room's bulletin board, a notation from an eager soul in early winter: "While waiting for the ice I get out my old icehouse and gear and set up in the garage, until my wife caught me in the icehouse sitting on a 5-gallon pail drinking beer looking down the hole at concrete. I think she is going to put me in a home soon."
Some informative Internet sites: firstname.lastname@example.org (buy your 2003 license online here), basspond.com (online guide to Massachusetts fishing), New England Game & Fish Magazine at http://gameandfish.about.com/library/ (just type it in, it will come up), www.onicetour.com and www.fishandgame.com.
Ice fishing derbies coming up:
Sunday Feb. 2, Jimmy Fund Derby at the Conroy Pavilion at Onota Lake from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., with food and prizes.
Also on Feb. 2: Stockbridge Sportsman's Club at Echo Lake (tentative).
Saturday, Feb. 15, is the Great Barrington Fish & Game's fishing derby, at Mercer's Pond from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Also Feb. 15: Locker Room Sports Bar's 11th annual derby at Laurel Lake, from dawn to 3 p.m., a fundraiser for Lee junior football. Pasta dinner afterward.
Sunday, Feb. 16, and Monday, Feb. 17, is the Glezaick Derby also at Onota.
Also on Feb. 16 on Stockbridge Bowl is the Berkshire Chapter of the Wild Turkey Federation's annual derby, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
All derbies require a small fee, around $5 to $10; offer prizes and, usually, food and hot drinks.