Mention ice fishing and many anglers conjure up images of crazy Midwesterners with icicle-bedecked boards pulling tiny perch from holes in the Great Lakes.
That's one way, but not the only one. For the past two years many lakes and a few rivers in Virginia and Maryland have frozen solidly enough to allow safe and productive ice fishing. Add to that the fine ponds and lakes in southern Pennsylvania that have for years offered top ice fishing and you have a whole new angling world.
Ice fishing doesn't require a great deal of new or expensive equipment.
The only essential item that most anglers will not have is an ice-cutting tool. Spuds - long, heavy chisels - work well; sharply-bladed hand-augers are quicker, neater and easier. In a pinch you can use a crowbar, ax, or if you're really hard up, an ice pick.
The freshly chopped hole will be clogged with ice chips. If you are hairy-chested enough, use your hands to clear the slush. Most fishermen prefer ice-strainers. They cost only $1, or you can make your own by drilling holes in an soup ladle.
Ice rods are favored by many for their maneuverability and sensitivity. They are short poles, many of them homemade jobs salvaged from the tips of old fishing rods. But five-or-six-foot spinning or spincast outfits work perfectly well for getting started in the sport.
On essential in ice fishing is using light line. The water in winter lakes is strikingly clear; fish are skittish and leader-shy. For panfish and trout, two-to four-pound test is best. For pickerel, bass and pike six-to 12 pound test is adequate.
Special ice-fishing lures are available at the same sources as the tackle. Most popular are compact spoons and small jigs from Scandinavian countries. The Swedish Pimple is a top producer. Regular jigs, spoons, spinners and wet flies with spilt shot will take fish if you can't drum up any of the specialities.
But the most sucessful anglers generally use natural baits, with golden-rod grubs, mealworms and mousees excellent choices for panfish. These can be used either by themselves or as dressings on jigs. Minnows get the nod for crappie, yellow perch, pickerel, northern pike and bass.
The best way to break into fishing is either to go with someone who knows what he's doing or to go to a lake where ice fishing is done regularly and talk to some of the locals.
Lacking this instruction, visit a lake you've fished during the warm months and try the same spots that produced then. Feeder creeks, points of land and sharp drop-offs are all potential hot spots in the winter as well as the summer.
For one person, ice should be at least three inches thick; four is better if the water's deep. Rivers and tidal bays are especially dangerous because there may be unseen flaws beneath the surface from the eroding action of current and tide.
The following spots can offer good ice fishing for local anglers unless a warming trend makes them unsafe.
VIRGINIA: A.P. Hill Ponds on the A.P. Hill military reservation southeast of Fredericksburg on Route 2. Ice thickness varies from pond to pond, Pickerel, crappie, bass and bluegill are main attractions.
MARYLAND: Deep Creek Lake. It's long drive from Washington to Route 219 in the west corner of the state, but Deep Creek offers good ice fishing. Pickerel, yellow perch, bass, northerns and some crappie are taken.
PENNSYLVANIA: Codorus Lake. This large body of water offers exceptional ice fishing for yellow perch as well as good crappie action. Bass, northern pike and muskies round out possibilities. Located east of Hanover on Route 216.
Letterkenny Reservoir. Top choice for trout through the ice. Brookies and/or rainbows are stocked prior to the first freeze every winter. Minnows, grubs, spoons and wet flies score well. This lake is located in Franklin County, west of Roxbury on Route 641.
Finally, don't overlook the farm ponds.