Some people would consider Dave Erlanson an optimist since he uses an eight-inch auger to cut his ice-fishing holes.
Six-inch width is the norm but Erlanson goes for big fish, so he likes to be sure.
On New Year's Day Erlanson learned that one can never be sure. He saw the red flag on his tip-up rig flip up and raced to the hole to find out if a fish had taken the bait.
It had. It was a monster, he knew as soon as he grabbed the line. He could feel its great weight.
How much of a monster he didn't realize until he had the fish at the hole and saw its mammouth head.
But the glimpse was brief because when Erlanson saw the fish it saw him, and it was big enough that it could depart in a hurry.
"That's the most dangerous time for an ice fisherman," Erlanson said from his home in Ridgeway, Pa., last week. "When you get them to the hole the first time. They don't fight much in the winter. It's just like hauling in a log. But when they see you they take off. That's when a lot of fellows lose a big fish."
Erlanson was ready. He let the fish go and it peeled 30 yards of 50-pound line through his gloved hands. Then it stopped. Erlanson brought it back to the hole and off it went again.
The third time the fish was played out. That's when Erlanson, 25, realized how big it realy was.
"I couldn't get his head through the hole," he said.
He called on a pair of nearby ice anglers for help. They drilled a second eight-inch hole, then chipped out the bridge between the two holes. Erlanson and one of the others grabbed gaffs.
The two men sunk the gaffs and both heaved and hauled until the fish was out on the ice. The tape measure told them what they already were guessing -- it was a state record great northern pike.
The fish measured 46 1/4 inches, almost four feet from snout to tail. It weighed 29 pounds 2 ounces. It exceeded by a little more than an inch the old record pike, which had been caught in the same area in 1977.
This is ice fishing at its best. Erlanson was in an area of northwestern Pennsylvania where some people don't even get out their fishing gear until the lakes freeze.
He had drilled his holes on the Chappell Fork of the Kinzua Reservoir, and on the same day he watched another angler catch a 34 1/2-inch walleye that weighed about 15 pounds. A week later Erlanson caught a brown trout through the ice that weighed 10 1/2 pounds, and saw another fellow catch a 44 1/2-inch muskellunge that weighed about 20 pounds.
Last week Erlanson went back again. He got two strikes all day, and both fish broke the line -- 50-pound test line.
"I'm telling you," he said, "the new state records for walleye, trout, pike and muskie are all going to come out of this lake."
Erlanson is lucky. He has supreme ice fishing within a reasonable drive. Washingtonians are not so lucky. It is a rare winter indeed that gives them even a brief shot at this calm, solitary and occasionally rewarding sport.
And yet there are ponds in the southern tier of Pennsylvania, within a two-hour drive, where ice fishing predictably is good. The season is starting now, and from reports last weekend there is adequate ice on most of the nearby lakes.
John Hoffman of the fish commission said lakes in York, Franklin, Fulton and Somerset counties all had some good ice last weekend and ice fishermen were doing their wintry thing.
Hoffman, an ice fisherman himself, said he picked up a few bass, some bluegills and a nice pickerel on Gifford Pinchot Lake just outside Dillsburg, where he lives. Tom Snook, who operates the water plant there, caught a 15-pound northern pike on a dead smelt in the same lake.