Fish and Chips

By Don Beaulieu
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Samuel Johnson, legend has it, once likened fishing to a stick on a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other. I shiver to think how the British author would have described ice fishing. The mere idea might have completely confounded his literary sensibilities.

And with good reason. Ice fishing seems to belong in a chapter from a 19th-century frontiersman's handbook -- chop a hole in the ice, drop a line, and hope the lake's abundance secures your survival. Would anyone do this just for fun?

"Ya, you betcha" is what they'll tell you in Minnesota. There it is a statewide pastime. But ice fishing attracts a hardy following even beyond the northern tier. As far south as Maryland, even. Drive past Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland on a winter day, and you'll see fishermen dotting the ice like sprinkles on a vanilla cone.

The secret is this: Maryland's panhandle is a virtual corridor to another climate, rising well into the Allegheny highlands, beckoning with the promise of relief from summer heat and winter slush. Here, cooler temperatures mean a downy blanket of snow usually covers the ground by New Year's, and the ice can stay thick enough to fish through the end of March.

Last winter I tapped my inner Inuit at Deep Creek Lake. Twelve miles long, the lake is one of the state's largest. With much of its shoreline surrounded by forest and parks, and Wisp ski resort descending right to the lakefront, this place has to be the winter sport capital of Maryland.

Most Februaries at Deep Creek, an ice-fishing tournament attracts seasoned competitors. (Plans for this year's tournament were uncertain at press time, given the late arrival of freezing temperatures. But outfitters now report one to five inches of ice on the lake and fishing has begun in earnest.) I decided to sign up, although I don't even own a rod and I know less about ice fishing than Snoop Dogg knows about NASCAR. This was not an act of sheer hubris; I was just hoping to learn among pros.

It was a good instinct. On the lake's edge at Bill's Outdoor Center, the tournament's sponsor, I met up with Brent Nelson of Columbia, who kindly agreed to help me catch a fish. Brent is a bear of a man and, judging by his camouflage gear, an ardent outdoorsman. He started ice fishing while at college in Indiana, 30 years ago. To stay warm, he told me, he would drive out on the lake in his Plymouth Valiant, drill a hole and then fish out the car door. "I nearly flunked out of school," he said, "because I kept skipping class to go out ice fishing."

After college he managed to suppress his obsession. He's still an avid angler, but he hadn't gone ice fishing since -- until that day. He missed it. "You've got to be half crazy," he said, "but it's a lot of fun."

The weather was certifiably frigid as I walked onto the lake with Brent at 8 a.m., clutching a five-gallon bucket and a borrowed rod. The temperature was in the 20s and falling, and a snowstorm cast an opaque haze that nearly obscured the other fishermen, who were already fanned out across the ice. Good thing I was dressed like someone attending a late-season Packers game at Lambeau Field. Layers, lots of layers.

When we reached our spot, we drilled holes in the ice with an enormous hand drill, or ice auger, and following Brent's instructions I cleared slush from my hole with a scoop, baited my hook with a small bee larva, sat on my overturned fish bucket and lowered my line until the hook hit bottom. Then I reeled in the line just a bit and started jigging it up and down slightly to attract fish.

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.

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