We trumbled out of Gerald Almy's brown cabin by the Shenandoah before dawn. The snow crunched and squeaked under our boots as we plodded up a ribbon of path beaten out of the icy slick that coated Almy's acre.
The radio crackled as we rolled along under an incredibly clear sky. The word from around Morgantown was below zero - as low as 14 below in the valleys and hollows of the Blue Ridge. Ice coated the windows of the little pickup long after the heat was up.
We were well up Interstate 81 on our way to a day of ice fishing in Pennsylvania before Almy remembered he'd left behind the maps we'd pored over back at the cabin.
"That's nothing," said Almy. "Once I drove three hours to do some fly fishing before I realized I forgot my rod."
How dumb can you get, I thought. All you need to go fishing is a rod, some bait and a license. Pretty hard to . . . Omigosh, a license.
Well, we had maps in Woodstock, Va., and a license in Washington.The two stooges go ice fishing.
We got lost once and almost ran ot of gas before we found the pond we'd picked out, Letterkenny Reservoir in Franklin County, where trout are stocked yearly just before the ice sets in.
The pond sits between two ridges near the Letterkenny Army Depot. It's a long narrow, flat expanse of white and gray edged by undulating hills. Almy had been there a year before and found success pulling brook trout from an inlet lined with scrub trees. We were all alone.
We made out way noisily down the quarter-mile of steep slop that led to the ice. We carried three little three-foot rods, two "tip-ups" (five-legged devices specially designed for ice-fishing) and a spud, a four-foot steel shaft with a sharp edge to cut the holes.
The only thing we forgot was the thermos. Lord, was it cold.
Almy wanted to try his spot from the year before, even though the only set of tracks we could find from other set of tracks we could find from other ice-fishers led the other way. "The brookies love these inlets," Almy said.
We set to work with the spud, careful ly running a hand through the strap at the top so when we broke through the spud wouldn't take a permanent bath. The ice was more than a foot thick in this western corner of the lake and digging one hole could spark a powerful thirst. The icy water was a swift and pleasant refresher, insant reward for one's labor.
We quickly had five holes dug and two rigged with tip-ups. Four tip-up legs straddle the hole and one stands vertically in the middle. At the bottom of the vertical leg is a simple spool of line with a hook and a minnow; at its top is a red flag on a spring. When trout hits, flag pops up and two fishermen knock each other down racing to retrieve trout.
At the third hole we rigged a minnow on a pole and left it with a bobber to warn us of strike. We used the two remaining rods to jig lures near the bottom. The lures we were using were called, I kid you not, Swedish Pimples - little silver spoons with black-dotted red circles attached.
There must be a better way to spend sub-zero days than jigging Swedish Pimples for brookies at Letterkenny.
We fished the inlet for three, maybe four hours without a nibble. We'd bend down over the holes and blockout the sun and watch the minnows darting about in the bright clear water. Then we'd get up and beat our frozen hands on our frozen knees, trying to get the feeling back in either.
Finally we gave up. We though of trying another lake but we had no maps. Disconsolate, we gathered our gear and trudged across the ice, still undecided on where to go. The sun broke from clouds and reflected off the deep part of the pond, where our predecessor's tracks led. "Let's give it a try," said Almy.
We dug and rigged onew, and within minutes we felt fish lazily bumping at our lures.
Suddenly a strike, and I found myself hauling widly hand-over-hand at the eight feet of line, my rod tossed carelessly aside. Instantly the concave hole was filled with a surging thrashing trout.
He fairly leaped out of the hole, and Almy raced over and happily bopped him once on the head. We set the 11-inch rainbow on the ice and grinned like bums in an empty liquor store.
Rainbows! We'd been fishing for brookies and they'd stocked raibows. These fish liked the deep water and we'd wasted our time in the shallows.
It wasn't long before we added four more of these delicate tusslers to our creel, one on a minnow rig that had sat hooked on the bottom, immobile, never even tripping the warning bobber. We found him when we hauled up the line to make sure the minnow was still alive.
Joyously we stuck it out, shivering and puffing until the sun set over the far ridge and the wind picked up. We strung over five handsome fish on a twig (Almy even caught a little sunfish, and hurriedly slipped it back in the hole), gathered our gear and trudged wearily back up the hillside.
At 25, Gerald Almy ranks as one of the more intriguging figures in the intriguing world of outdoormen.
Almy lives alone in the prefab cabin he and his father finished handsomely over the last several years. It sits smack on the bank of the Shenandoah and Almy can walk out his front door in spring to one of the finest small-mouth holes he's seen, and he's seen many.
Almy's life is hunting and fishing and writing about it. He favors challenge, and left to his own devices he'd probably fly-fish and hurt the difficult grouse and woodcock almost exclusively.
His cabin is nestled at the bottom of a ridge on the edge of the George Washington National Forest. For six years he has hunted and trekked those woods. This year he took his first shot at a deer in those six years, and brought it down clearly.
"I just never got close enough before to take the kine of shot I would take. I won't crippled a deer."
We ate vension from the deer in a simple meal before our fishing venture. It was delicious, perhaps more so for the years that went into the getting.
Earlier that day we'd taken a stroll through Almy's woods. "No point in talking a gun," Almy had said. "The show's too crisp to sneak up on a grouse. But I like to walk the woods evey day, whether I'm hunting or not."
He showed me grouse tracks in the rough brush along the hillside. We followed them, tracking a grouse without guns through stickers and briars in the frozen snow.
We found a nest it had used a day or so before - a tiny hollow under a fallen oak, barely big enough to shield the beautiful bird from the harsh winter winds.
Gerald Almy may someday shoot that bird. Or he may see it and not shoot it. He takes only three or four grouse a year from the woods near the cabin, for fear of depleting the stock.
If he does shoot it, he'll carefully clean it, saving the plumes to tie flies for trout fishing.
Then he'll fix himself a plain meal of breast of grouse, and sit down alone to eat it in his quiet world by the Shenandoah.
He'l enjoy it. He will haveearned it.