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A frigid reminder that ice fishermen are a special breed

(This column was written in 2004. To this day Bob DiCesare, although an avid fisherman, declines to fish on hard water but maintains a deep respect for those who do.)

Once I believed that people who ice fish are out of their minds. Now I know better. People who write about people who ice fish are out of their minds.

The temperature was 10 degrees on the bank thermometer as I set out for the area adjacent to the Small Boat Harbor Saturday morning to answer a question that burned like frostbite: What compels a person to ice fish?

First off, let the record show that it wasn't really 10 degrees. The weather bureau, which has more credibility on the matter than the sign outside Evans National Bank, reported it was actually 5 degrees.

But even that figure is misleading because the weather bureau noted that gusts of 17 to 22 mph made it feel like minus-13.
Of course, the weather folks don't take their reading on a harbor covered with 12 inches of ice while walking 400 yards into the wind from one fishing site to another.

What that made the temperature I cannot say, but I felt a kinship with Ted Williams.

The first fisherman I met up with was Don Steltz, who immediately introduced me to his buddy, Mark Martin. "That's Mark Martin like the race-car driver," Steltz said, "only he isn't."

That potential mix-up averted, Steltz and Martin proceeded to explain the allure of drilling holes into the lake, setting up shop in a canvas tent and spending 10 hours praying a school of hungry perch is craving fast food.

"It just gives you something to do in the wintertime," Martin said. "Deer season's over. We're not out chasing deer. So we're fishing.

"Yeah, I'd rather be hunting but there's nothing to hunt right now," Steltz said.

A bobber danced inside one of the four 8-inch-wide holes Steltz and Martin have augered into the ice. Martin grabbed the stunted pole and hauled up a smelt barely bigger than the minnow it attacked.

"Have you ever smelled a smelt?" Martin asked.

How does one answer that question?

Sorry, not while I'm working?

What are the known side effects?

"Smells like watermelon, I think," Martin said while offering up a sniff of smelt.

This was no fisherman's tale. Either smelt smells like watermelon or Martin perfumes his gloves.

So where you guys from?

"Outside Wilkes-Barre," Steltz said.

Wilkes-Barre? That's 3 1/2 hours away.

"Four," Steltz said.

"Down home we might have to wait all day for a bite," said Martin, a relocated former Western New Yorker who works construction.

Don't people tell you guys you're nuts?

"Yeah, they do," said Steltz, a retiree. "This isn't the smartest thing."

Steltz unzipped the tent door and an unbearable gust of frigid air invited itself in, a ridiculous blast of cold.

"Judy in the hut over there said she just turned off her heater because it was getting too hot," Steltz said.
Who's Judy?

"My wife," Steltz said.

So this is the secret to 44 years of marriage. Separate ice fishing huts.

"Don made a hut we could all fit in," Judy explained. "But one day a gust of wind came up and blew it apart."

Judy, who's fishing solo, has stopped over to bum a light so she can re-ignite her propane heater.

"The heater made it so bloody hot in the tent I couldn't stand it," she said. "But the holes started freezing back over so I have to do something."

Judy looks cozy in her, oh, 47 clothing layers topped off with a "Lehigh Valley Anthracite" baseball cap.

"Can you feel how warm it's getting in here already?" she asked.

And what can you say to that, except, you mean the heater's on?

The temperature in Judy's hut rose to a comfortable level, and there's no telling what Erik Tout and Ernesto Rondon would have paid to rent it for an hour.

The two rail yard workers got an early quit when a train didn't show and now they're ice fishing on Lake Erie, Tout in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, Rondon in a three-quarter-length jacket, no structure to shelter them from the wind.

"This is just how I dress when I'm unloading the cars," Tout said. "What was the wind chill that one day, Ernesto? Minus-20?"

Tout is an ice-fishing regular. Rondon, a first-timer, is a native of balmy Puerto Rico. Makes you wonder how Tout got him out here.

"I showed him videos from In-Fisherman and BSed him a little bit," Tout said.

"I like fishing. I don't mind," Rondon said. "But next time I'll come a little more prepared."

The wind is picking up, erasing footprints across the harbor left 15 minutes before. How long can these guys last?

"Maybe another hour," Tout said. "My son (Cody) expects me home to watch the hockey game with him. I'd rather stay out here and get aggravated."

Two minutes later . . .

"Did I say another hour?" Tout asked. "I don't know. Maybe 10 minutes. I know one thing. I've been doing this 20 years. I got to get me a hut."

It's a lean morning of fishing. Steltz and Martin have three keepers between them, perch some 7 inches in length. Tout and Rondon have two. Judy's best catch, iced for an hour, suddenly flipped back into the hole and swam away.

"Some days you catch 'em, some days you don't," Judy said. "As long as I don't freeze to death, I'm fine."

That's not funny.


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