Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Give a man a fish, says the old saw, and you feed him for today; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. When the man is very small, however, the lesson had better be pint-size, too. Most kids haven't learned the patience inherent to angling; to them, five minutes watching an unmoving bobber is a lifetime. We found a way to beat their fidgeting deadline at central Pennsylvania's Arrowhead Springs, a catch-every-cast destination, and ended up revising the proverb: Visit a trout farm to fish and you'll end up feeding the multitudes.
Around Arrowhead's one-acre pond, hand-tied flies and waders are scarce. More standard gear includes juice boxes, coolers and cameras. You can bait your hook anyway you choose (marshmallows work well, if anglers don't eat them all), and the Ludwigs, who own the place, will rent you rods, clean your catch and send it home with you for dinner. The only real challenge is getting the youngsters to bait the hooks.
That's why the instant-gratification gang flocks with parents and grandparents to this manicured commercial hatchery in Pennsylvania Dutch farmland. Its sparkling spring-fed lake, stocked with more than 5,000 pounds of rainbow and golden trout, offers a Grandma Moses setting in fall-painted farmland. Corny? Well, yeah. But family fishing is a throwback thing. (Except you can't throw back here. More on that later.)
It was a throwback for me to join a high-energy small-boys expedition, as our convoy of six -- two nephews, parents and a pair of aunts -- arrived at Arrowhead on a brilliant Saturday morning. My nephews, Trae and Bryce, ages 8 and 3, respectively, were eager to show us the mad skills they'd learned on previous expeditions here. As we paid the buck-a-head admission and grabbed a basket for our catch, they confidently hurtled ahead to the rushing raceways that carry the trout to their destination.
If the cows in the surrounding fields were golf carts, Arrowhead would pass for a country club. South Mountain edged the Lebanon Valley horizon with an orange and ocher border, and the lawns around the ponds glowed bright green. A flag snapped briskly, accenting trim, whitewashed outbuildings.
"Cleanliness is important," Mike Ludwig, vice president of the 400-acre family farm, said proudly. "We groom it like you would a golf course, and we protect the watershed and water." (Arrowhead also sells its spring water overseas.) "It takes about 14 months to raise fingerlings from egg stage to market size, so we need to stay two years ahead."
Staying ahead of the boys was proving difficult. As his younger brother climbed directly onto a picnic table to sample the snacks, Trae marched to the water's edge, motioning me forward. "Look," he said firmly. In the clear shallows a few inches from our sneakers was a motionless 10-inch rainbow trout. Trae ignored it and cast toward the center of the lake. Within 10 minutes, straining backward as if fighting a prize marlin, he had reeled onto the grass the first two of four trout he would catch.
His smile was almost as long as the fish he caught, but he quickly adopted a manly, all-in-a-day's-work swagger. I begged for his secret. "Be quiet and reel in slowly," he answered seriously.
Ringing the shoreline, on hands and knees, adults were getting similarly grave advice as they untangled their youngsters' lines (except for the guy talking on his cell phone as he landed his catch).
Blond-haired Justin Walker of Harrisburg, Pa., celebrating his seventh birthday at Arrowhead with a dozen pals, reported his haul to his mom. "My fish weigh 5.2 pounds," he said. Francine Walker, the stag party supervisor, whistled respectfully while she stuck wiggling bait on a hook. "The other moms bring sandwiches," she said with a laugh. "I bring the worms."
Arrowhead is in the business of getting as many fish out of the pond as possible. Catch and release, the conservative approach most trout fishermen favor, is barred here during busy summer months, when it's catch-and-keep only. In spring and fall, fly fishermen who want to polish their technique can carefully release their catch, but the majority of the weekend crowd is casting for dinner, at $3.50 a pound.
As a lifelong angler, fishermom Francine prefers catch and release, too. But she indulged the party-favor mentality: "A 6-year-old just doesn't want to give up the prize that he's caught." She was right. Even little girls seemed intent on reeling in the big ones. Sisters Morgan and Mackenzie Alspaugh, ages 3 and 5, using their dad as both backrest and shade, defied the macho stereotype, however, in their long pink skirts and bare feet, accessorized with chic lime-and-purple fishing rods.
The Arrowhead lawn started to bake as the sun climbed, and our submerged creel bulged with a half-dozen beauties. Though it was barely noon, Trae and Bryce were fished out. It was curtain time for this short-attention-span theater. Accepting our heavy plastic bag of fillets from a farmhand, we headed out along Route 419, introducing the city kids to low-key local life. In the quiet, a syncopated trot heralded a horse-drawn buggy before it came into view.
While Lancaster County to the south hawks its "real Pennsylvania Dutch" attractions with ferocity, Lebanon County treats its Amish neighbors with greater deference. The farms around Arrowhead, on some of the richest soil in the country, sport immaculate barns and flourishing gardens. Stern Bible quotations flank mailboxes.
The region's German dissenter roots still flourish. In Schaefferstown, bright signs painted with distelfinks, the folk-art icons of the region, adorned adjacent museums. The Gemberling-Rex House and Brendle Museum display 250 years of village history; to our nephews' relief, they were closed. The boys were much more enthusiastic about the Revolutionary soldiers who'd fought nearby and used St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church as their hospital.
After a late lunch at the nearby Franklin House, a 1746 crossroads tavern, the boys' power officially faded. We separated into homebound and history-bound cars. (Though the Cornwall Iron Furnace, about five miles away, would later prove to offer thoughtful displays about the region's development, the site was definitely geared to those of us who could already read.)
We divided our catch among coolers for the ride home and said our goodbyes as the kids sank into car-seat comas, no doubt dreaming proudly of the ones that, well, couldn't get away.