Hard Water

by Wayne Heinze

On February 23, 1977, the ice on Bear Pond was eighteen inches thick. Now the only way you would know that, is if you stood out on that frozen body of water and cut through the ice, measuring it’s thickness at that point. And that is exactly what I did that day nearly forty years past. Not for a random sounding, but to go ice fishing.

Ice fishing was the last of the types of angling I pursued, beginning a dozen or so years before the date noted above. Before that, I, like the rest of my family and friends, pretty much began the fishing season on Opening Day of the trout season, usually the first Saturday in April, 8:00 AM sharp, come fair or foul weather (most usually the latter). But on various other winter outings, most often into the northwest counties of New Jersey, Pennsylvania’s Poconos, or the Appalachians in New York State, strange happenings on frozen lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and even rivers were observed. This curious young angler soon eventually engaged enough ice fishermen in direct conversation, poured through what little was mentioned in the angling tomes in the local libraries, and elicited and listened raptly to any outdoorsman I stumbled over who knew a whit, or thought they did, about ice fishing. Appetite whetted, shortly after high school graduation, my career, and eventually the careers of other family and friends, as disciples of hard water, began. And mine for one, has continued, and is one of my favorite ways to spend time outdoors in nature, period.

But back to the beginning, a day I chose because it incorporated much of what makes ice fishing the uniquely wonderful pursuit that it is. According to my records (I have kept a fishing logbook / journal of every day I have wet a line for the past fifty years) the temperatures had remained low enough since before the New Year to crease the thickness of the ice from six inches on my initial outing New Year’s Eve ’76, to its current thickness of eighteen inches. Ice thickness is the most crucial concern of ice fishing, which sounds too obvious to state, but nonetheless is too often ignored, sometimes with fatal results. The usual number cited for supporting a single angler on a solidly frozen body of water is four inches. Now I have bored holes through that thickness and fished with peace of mind: WHEN IT WAS WATER I KNEW INTIMATELY FROM OPEN WATER EXCURSIONS. Other than that, I liked an inch or two thicker, especially if I was fishing along with someone else. Most winters, sufficient ice was not hard to find.

Bear Pond is located a short distance from Lake Hopatcong, the most popular lake, summer and winter in New Jersey. In winter, ice boats (sailboats with sled runners) snow mobiles, sledders, cross country skiers, hockey teams, ice picnickers, snowman builders, and hundreds, sometimes thousands of ice fishermen turn Hopatcong’s frozen span into a literal Mardi Gras. It’s shoreline is packed with marinas, cottages, eateries, a state swimming beach, an amusement park. Some fun to be sure, and I’ve joined in, catching my fish amongst the community there, sharing cocoa, brats and lentil soup, But, more often than not, I eschewed the happy throngs and sought out a more natural experience on Bear Pond. Other than a few scattered lake houses, and a small boat livery, Bear Pond offered a wooded, rocky shoreline, with islands, coves and boulders offering shelter from the harsh winter winds in which to set up base camp. The base camp for me in those full days on the hard water would consist of propane stove, charcoal grill, and camp cooking utensils, canvas bag of vittles, water (crucial), spare clothes, bucket seat, ice fishing gear, etc.

One of the reasons I chose to write about this particular day in 1977 was that it incorporated an unusually high amount of what I love about ice fishing. The water on Bear Pond had frozen quickly and steadily this winter, leaving not only a safe layer to recreate on, but literally “hard water.” When ice freezes and melts and re-freezes, you get a medium that is more difficult to cut through, whereas a quick freeze and consistent low temperatures left thick ice that cut well with the proper device. There are essentially three devices you can use to cut through ice approaching this thickness: a spud, a cup auger, or a spiral auger. I’ve always been a hand tool guy, so I’m axe vs chainsaw, and no power augers for me. I began cutting holes in the ice with a device called an ice spud, a chisel welded to a heavy iron bar. An effective tool to get through the hard water, but extremely hard physical labor and learning curve to wield efficiently, and the hole created is aesthetically challenged. A cup auger has a single metal cup shaped cutting surface and makes a cleaner, less splashy entry through the ice, but requires quite a bit of muscle still, and the blade edge is difficult to hone. As I worked through these stages over several year, I finally settled upon a spiral, two-blade auger that bit in and drove through the ice maximizing your muscle effort. To be sure, the cutting is never easy, but it is doable, and part and parcel of the experience.

As you apply pressure and begin the the steady rhythmic churning of the auger, the glass-like surface of the lake begins to transform into glistening shaved ice which rises up the auger blades with a slightly metallic, tingling sound that echoes across the frozen expanse of the silent pond surface, and begins to form a silvery berm around the hole as you cut deeper. When you perceive the subtle hints that you have conquered the ice thickness (the way your body leans, the slight final increase in binding of the auger blade) you push down and drive into the pond beneath the hard water. The silvery slivers and shards that remain float in a kaleidoscope on the perfectly scoured hole,inviting you to use your ice skimmer to clear the chips. But I never do, not on the first hole. Kneeling over the hole, I remove a glove and scoop and skim the ice chips from the hole barehanded, reveling in the first shock of the icy water, and the perfectly sculpted sides of the hole as you swirl your hand and gently toss each floating handful, of ice aside and scoop the next until the hole is clear.

I wipe my hand dry under my left armpit and keep it there until the feeling moves back into my fingers,as I peer beneath the surface of the ice, pressing my face as close to the opening as possible. I thus block the light and reveal the environment below the ice surface, an otherwise hidden world of green hued silence, marked by strands of spatter dock and pickerel weed growing from the bottom five feet below. Putting on my glove once more I take the ice skimmer, and clear the hole completely before sliding the skimmer down the side of the hole until the edge of the perforated cup slips to the right, catching the bottom edge of the ice where I hold it upright and read the inch scale on the skimmers handle where it marks the surface of the ice. On this day, as you know, that number is 18 inches.

This data is then entered in my pocket field note pad along with earlier observations, time, meteorological info, gear being used etc. On this day I was fishing for pickerel, targeting them with five tip-ups baited with lively golden and emerald shiners. My tip-ups were devices made up of three 24-inch pieces of wood, two cross-pieces that lay on the ice to keep the upright piece centered in the hole, the upright piece sitting with one end submerged in the water, the other reaching above the ice. A rudimentary spool held your line and had a small pin on the side plate that would engage a metal shaft that was fastened to the tip-up upright. It was designed with an opposing dog ear configuration so when the spool engaged (a fish swims off with the bait) the shaft rotates and on the top of the shaft a thin metal spring with a red piece of cloth, the flag, is released and the flag springs free signaling the angler that a fish has taken the bait. As soon as you see the flag, you rush to the hole and peer down below the ice to see if the line is coming off the spool. If it is, you are in business, and so it was that February long ago, when an even dozen fat pickerel were slid onto the ice.

The second flag sprung that morning resulted in a run off of some line, but no fish. As I retrieved the line to re-bait, I sensed I wasn’t alone. Slowly looking up and scanning the cove, I was startled to see an enormous whitetail deer buck, with a rack of antlers I’d only seen on elk. He was at the first hole I had drilled, and was bent over drinking from the icy pond water. I stayed as quiet as I could, enraptured by this singular event, but eventually the deer seemed to catch my scent and went bounding off the ice, over a boulder, and disappeared into impossibly dense thickets. My tip-up was sprung and tossed on the ice by the sweep of his antlers, and oddly that hole was the only one that did not yield a pickerel that day. Can’t complain though, it yielded a once in my lifetime experience, and added another reason to be out in freezing weather on hard water.

© Wayne Heinze
January 2015