My eyes blink open moments before the alarm clock goes off, set for 5:30am. A cold North wind blows through the window in the bedroom circulating crisp clean Arctic air over the layers of down blankets. I turn off the clock one minute before it rings and scuttle out of bed, down the stairs, and put a few new logs on the woodstove to take the tinch out of the kitchen. First things first. Coffee, my last remaining vice. Other men struggle with alcohol, tobacco and internet intrigue. Me. It’s coffee. Give me a robust french roast with a splash of maple syrup and I will drink a half gallon thermos throughout the day.
Next, I scrummage through the refrigerator to find some goose sausage links and the container of scrambled eggs with habanero Tabasco. I gently place these in my soft-side cooler. I double check to see that my propane cylinders are full and the heater/cooker is situated in the camo backpack.
I reach for my down parka and my favorite fleece balaclava, pack my rubberized Norwegian ice-fishing mittens in the pack and out the door I go. The gang is all waiting in the driveway. Two trucks are running, their parking lights illuminating the styrofoam-crunchy snow. I proclaim loudly “Heading North boys! Roll ‘em out!” and fire up the truck to form a caravan of hardwater revelers.
First stop, Dockside Outdoors in Colchester on Route 2. The proprietor, Ben Sullivan, greets us with a smile and gives us the latest news on where the best ice is and what’s biting, what color bibbits, spikes (maggots in a vial full of sawdust, for those un-initiated to the sport) and how far down the perch are piling up. Ben seems a little more content these days, and we tease him about taming a woman previously known as “Wild Fisher Woman” who was an outdoorsman’s dream girl until Ben finally landed her. A round of chuckles goes through the shop and out the door we go, trucks blazing north again.
We roll into Dillenbeck Bay in Grand Isle as a reluctant sun peeks over the horizon of the distant mountains. The temperature is -10 degrees and we are grateful that there is no wind. I breathe in and the hairs on the inside of my nostrils clatter together. My lungs tell me to cover my mouth immediately before taking another breath. I look around me at the other hardy souls dedicated to this seemingly insane sport and grin under my balaclava. We are crazy in love with this sport.
Our crew is composed of Chris “Dot.com” Thayer, Chris “My alarm clock didn’t go off again” Holwager, Eric “I’m on my way” Ovitt and Zack “What about crispy tails?” Gregory. We all laugh at each other and unload sleds, shanties, buckets full of tip-ups and micro rods, heaters, backpacks full of donuts, thermoses full of coffee and one cooler full of goose sausage and scrambled eggs. And now the long drag to the drop-off begins. Like a lost wagon train of renegade ice cowboys we trudge in a line 400 yards out to the drop-off where we have pinpointed our previous successes with GPS coordinates.
|A Traditonal Tip-up|
Arriving at our “destination” according to the latitudinal and longitudinal vectors, we begin to set up camp for the day. Ovitt immediately marches off to drill hole after hole for tip-ups. Five fishermen with 15 jacks per person on Lake Champlain means we can legally set out 75 traps. The rest of us begin setting up the shanties. One pop-up snaps quickly into place. The second, a sled-type with a floor, has to be constructed using aluminum poles that expand telescopically. More holes are drilled with the Mora hand augers for jigging for perch inside and outside the shanties. After Ovitt has drilled tip-up hole number 50, Holwager finally finds compassion and offers to help with the remaining 25 holes. We laugh at his generosity.
As is the way of youthful enthusiasm, Zack is the first one to wet a line. He begins jigging vociferously, intent on claiming the title we all vie for by announcing “One!” after catching the first fish. At this point we all laugh and reminisce about our dear friend, Rudy Castro, who now, unfortunately, lives in Michigan and is bound to his newly started business, Great Lake Auto Rescue, another “harassed slave of commerce.” We miss him dearly, but in some small way, I know that when he is not around, I actually stand a chance of being the one to call out “One!” before anyone else. If we fish with Rudy, he is always the one to announce the first fish.
Soon, a school of 8-9” yellowbellies ventures into our area and we begin “bailing” the fish, catching one after another, some two at a time on double set jigs. About half of them have distended bellies and are full of eggs. It looks like we’ve come into the first mating run early this year. We begin to fill buckets (there are no longer limits on perch in Lake Champlain after the creel limits were repealed about a decade ago.) We will fillet the majority of these fish for a fund-raising fish fry later this winter to help support the mentoring program that Sacred Hunter.org runs, called Traditions Outdoor Mentoring.org. (For more information on our efforts please visit our websites and Facebook pages).
|The Boys Working a Flag|
All of a sudden, as if the Great Spirit turned off the perch spigot, they stop biting. No one is getting even a nibble. We are sitting around in our heated shanties wondering what the heck just happened. That’s when Zack looks out the window and yells “FLAG!”…Two flags!....3, no 4 flags!...Holy cow! What’s going on out there?” Tip-up flags are flying into the frigid air like prairie dogs popping up in the desert. Everyone runs for one. Each of us sprints to the best of our ability. Thayer and I, the “older guys”, shuffle quickly. It’s comical and the young guys burst out laughing at us.
We all get to our prizes in time though. Ovitt calls out “This one’s got some beef to him!” Zack replies “Mine too!” Holwager quietly reels steadily, not revealing any emotion. Thayer gets one near the hole and claims “It’ll never make it though this!” Me, I try to keep my expectations to a minimum and set the hook on what seems to be nice fish. Zack scores the first “gator” through his hole and ices him. Thayer pulls in a nice one, squeezing its major girth through the 7” cylinder of ice. Holwager loses his to a sharp edge on the underside of the ice and Ovitt’s pike gets free by biting through the 20 lb mono leader. Mine, the smallest of the bunch, I release quickly at the hole. We all stand about 50 yards from one another and collectively shout a string of superlatives about how that was the most incredible wave of action we’ve ever seen. “No wonder the perch all disappeared! That was an entire army of pike!” I proclaim.
|Zack's Prize Pike|
Cameras are pulled out and cell phones are thawed. Flashes of light go off around the lucky ones in the crowd. “What a day!” I bellow. “And it’s only 9:00! Time for breakfast boys!”