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Fish and Chips

And I kept jigging, and jigging, and sometimes I wished I had a Valiant to sit inside. When the wind gusted to about 30 mph, blowing streams of snow like frozen phantasms, all I could do was huddle over my hole.

With ample time to think, it occurred to me that this sport is an apt metaphor for life and death. In the depth of winter, under 18 inches of ice, in water that would kill us in minutes, perch and bass were traversing the lake in schools, swimming, feeding, surviving. And from this hole in the ice, life could emerge. Ice fishing seems akin to the ancient tradition of bringing evergreens home in winter as a reminder that, through the coldest, darkest times, life persists.

A fisherman pulls a cold one from Maryland's Deep Creek Lake. After a slow start to winter, outfitters now report one to five inches of ice on the lake and lots of fishing, uh, action. (Tom Darden)

So there I sat in this frosted landscape, jigging, pontificating and waiting. Now and then I had to stand, when the pail I sat on felt as if it were siphoning all the cold of Deep Creek Lake up through my body. But I stayed at my hole, standing or sitting, and I jigged. I really wanted that fish.

Then, after almost two hours, I finally heard the words that anglers have uttered in some form since the invention of the fishing rod: "I got something!" Brent felt a nibble, saw the telltale bend of the pole and, with the dexterity of a veteran fisherman, set the hook with a gentle tug. Then slowly he reeled in his fish.

It was a yellow perch, about nine inches long, which Brent held admiringly after pulling it from the ice. "She's a fat one," he said. This time of year, he said, the female perch is filled with eggs, which she lays in the shallows after the ice breaks in the spring.

It was a handsome fish, too, with dark stripes on a yellow body, an arched fin above and reddish fins below. The largest yellow perch catch recorded in Maryland was 2 pounds 6 ounces. Brent's was almost a pound.

Not bad for his first winter fish in 30 years. He had persevered, I started thinking, like all the great protagonists who overcame adversity and found redemption. Hemingway's Santiago catches the marlin. Oliver Twist claims his inheritance. Luke Skywalker blasts the Death Star.

Damn, I was cold.

Finally, the 1 p.m. tournament deadline approached, and soon the fishermen were packing up their poles. So Brent and I pulled up our lines and headed to Bill's, where everyone's catch would be weighed.

There were prizes for the largest bluegill, the largest crappie, and -- because yellow perch were so plentiful -- the greatest quantity of perch by weight. The yellow perch champion managed to reel in 12 fish. That was nearly nine pounds of perch. Some fishermen returned to the ice to cast their luck.

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