Will Freeze for Fish

by Niki Kourofsky | February 2010

There were a surprising number of vehicles on the road one bitter Saturday morning last January—if an hour that hasn’t cracked five a.m. can really be called morning. “Fishermen,” my husband said as we passed another set of headlights. Idiots, I thought.

Still, it was hard to throw stones. I had willingly set off into negative-five-degree weather to sit on a wind-battered patch of ice in little more than a tent. For me it was a temporary lapse in reason. For my husband, and for thousands of like-minded Adirondackers, it’s normal behavior.

Through the darkest days of winter, when the vitamin-D deprived are looking for any excuse to break out of the house, you can’t swing a dead pike inside the Blue Line without hitting some kind of fishing tournament. A handful are huge, like the Northern Challenge on Simond Pond, in Tupper Lake, which hosts bumper-to-bumper shanties every February. Others are simply a couple of holes in the ice, a pack of beer and a fiver on the outcome. Our endeavor fell somewhere in between: we were headed to a best-of-the-hour derby at the Owlyout Tavern, on the Chateaugay Lakes, in the northernmost tip of the park. Around 250 compete in this fish-off each year, not to mention the dozens of hangers-on who come out to enjoy the show.

Despite what the uninitiated may imagine—an old hand on a lonely bucket—ice fishing is not a solitary sport. And it’s not just a grizzled veteran’s game, either. Tournaments attract men of all ages, of course, lots of them, but there are plenty of women, and even families with young children toddling around in oversize ski suits.

What’s the draw? The promise of a plateful of deep-fried perch, for one, or a chance to take in some fresh air and blue skies. My husband, Derry, and I joined a group that was more likely there for the tailgate-party atmosphere: 20- to 40-somethings with thick hides, a taste for brew and nicknames like Gum­my, Shorty and Little Joe. Among us there were three pop-up shanties, poles, au­gers, minnow buckets, coolers, heaters, chairs, ra­dios, a grill, a turkey fryer (and turkey). All of this and more, plus our crew of eight, was carted onto the still-dark lake by a caravan of ATVs.

Standing in a subzero predawn is a bit like childbirth: it’s hard to remember how bad it was once it’s over. I do recall thinking that, even with my layers upon layers of woolies, even with the coffee coursing through me, even with my anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better attitude, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to eight o’clock, much less through an almost 12-hour tournament.

The sun did eventually appear, bringing the temperatures out of the negatives and re­vealing pockets of shantytowns across our little corner of the 12-mile lake system. Anglers jigged for perch in their shelters—some elaborate wooden structures, some a patchwork of duct tape and tarp—or braved the elements in clusters to monitor their tip-ups (hands-free contraptions with orange flags that are tripped when a fish bites).

All around us pennants flew skyward, followed by the shouts of our neighbors as one after another raced to pull up a Northern pike. Only 100 yards away, Jason Ashline, of Plattsburgh, grinned as he held up his first catch, but played down his luck. “I’m just here to have fun,” he said. “If I get a fish it’s a bonus.” He landed three bo­nuses before lunch, one an 11-plus-pounder that won him the hour.

Meanwhile, my guys were skunked. True, our tip-ups leapt to life a few times, but the only haul turned out to be a giant hunk of weeds. At least without the distraction of landing fish the crew had time to school me in the sport.

First Derry demonstrated proper jigging technique. “Do the dance of the dy­ing minnow,” he coached, wiggling the pole to simulate a peaceful death scene. Since my rough jerks were closer to a grand mal seizure liable to scare away everything in the vicinity, I turned in­stead to Brian Gumlaw, of Sar­a­nac, for an etiquette lesson.

The biggest sticking point, it seems, is drilling a hole too close to the other guy or gal. What’s an acceptable distance? “That goes to the wind in a tournament,” he said. “People will fish right next to you.” Gumlaw added, “Well, farther than that,” smirking at a group over his shoulder. “But they’re from Au Sable.” The cold often drove me to one of the shanties, a five-by-seven-foot space that paired the hazards of gaping ice holes and fishline trip wires with an open heater. The risks weren’t enough to keep me away, though, or 22-year-old Bobby Le­Fevre, the only other newbie in our circle. “Have you found a new hobby?” I asked as we huddled near the tiny warm­er. “No,” he said.

At noon I called it quits and caught a ride to the Owlyout, leaving my fellows to their own devices. I reasoned that the bar was the epicenter of the tournament anyhow, the end of every hour promising the excitement of another winner—prize eight- to 13-pound pike a growing string along the porch eaves. (Although the derby was open to all species, Northern pike, the biggest fish in the lakes, dwarfed the competition.) The place was packed.

“Cold weather and good ice are good for business,” explained Geta Valant, who, along with Dave Vondell, owns the Merrill tavern. “More people come to the tournament when the ice is good, and people stay in the bar longer when it’s this cold.”

The crowd compared layers and traded rounds. They also worked me over with fake names and every line in the book—as in, “I can be anything you want me to be.” Then there were the tall tales: “He’s had a 13-pounder waiting in his bathtub. Hasn’t showered for a week.” Or, to the question of polite fishing distance, “I take 22 steps with my left foot.”

Derry later claimed that, after I left, he pulled up a beautiful five-pounder. But he couldn’t produce the fish, and I had spent enough time with fishermen that afternoon—I knew better than to believe one.

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