Lake Report: 2/17/07

A Wolf in Jiggerman’s Clothing A woefully late start to the jiggering season. During the first two weeks of January we had chipmunks, grackles, a hermit thrush, a spotted salamander (squashed) and, at Scott’s place in southern Connecticut, SPRING PEEPERS. One 72-degree day, and not even prayer ice till mid-January. After that ice came fast and hard. My first jiggering outing--latest ever, on Wed. Jan. 31, 2007--was so uneventful and unproductive that it didn’t rate a Lake Report, only this entry in my fishing journal: Cold, sunny, got windy. To lake at 9:15 with Westy. Dropped clothes, vacuum fish packer and pans off at camp. Looked for slip-on crampons but found only strap-ons. To Dave Schneider’s by truck. Ice very hard, slick and about ten inches thick. Strap-ons worked okay. Took about 17 or 18 cranks on auger to get through ice. Not a hit all the way down to beginning of narrows. Got a few at narrows. Released some marginals. Got a nice white. Released and lost quite a few pickerel. Released about four largemouths, including a big one. Had lunch on cement steps across from narrows. Westy very good. Not wandering far and not whining much, despite cold. Had about 9 perch by the time I hit Turtle Island. Only one there. Zip at Parking Lot. Back to narrows. Got a very nice 11-incher and several other good ones. Not doing well. But last hole by Dave Schneider’s point produced seven fine perch. Left at about 4:00 with 18 yellows and one white. Saw only one set of tiltmen by German Town. Not much snow. Easy driving. Now for the first Lake Report of the winter of 2006/2007: Sat., Feb. 17 was the first decent day in more than a week. There had been hard snow, freezing rain and horrendous winds; but amazingly enough, Cindy reported that we had power. We left Grafton at 10:00 a.m., followed by Capt. John McMurray, a New York fly-fishing guide and officer at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation. Accompanying him was his beautiful wife, Danielle--one of two jiggerwomen in the United States, who, with her husband, received matched, custom-built jiggersticks as a wedding gift from Donna and me, and who is the newest member of the WASP Anti-Defamation League (founded by Richard Reagan, Capt. David Blinken, and me). Skip had kindly shoveled out the gate and bridge for us. And Cindy had opined that we’d have an easy time driving in--which would have been the case, had we been mounted on snowmobiles. With much gunning, spinning and sashaying we mushed our way to camp. Luckily for the mice, EFW’s better mouse trap contained solid, aquamarine-colored ice. So did the toilets. But I am delighted to report that, finally, I have found a use for the non-toxic antifreeze that mysteriously accumulates in our camp and which we have taken to calling simply “freeze.” I poured it down onto the subterranean nut that had frozen shut, thereby making a slushy stew that, for the necessary minute or two, made it possible to turn on the submerged water faucet with the long wrench. We flipped on the heat, fed the birds, made lunch, donned jiggering gear, and headed north via the lake. The snow cover made walking easy. “Why don’t they get killed?” asked John of the many snowmobile operators traveling in excess of 75 mph all around us. “They do,” I reassured him. The stretch from Dave Schneider’s cove to the narrows produced only eight or nine perch. Barely more than two weeks earlier the ice had required 17 cranks to penetrate. Now it required 30. I judged it to be 2.5 feet thick. We moved to the narrows where the jiggering was scarcely better. It improved slightly when we went from Powerbait (and, for me, the bead) to the eyeball. John and Danielle caught several short pickerel. Donna caught a semi-cow. John iced a big pumpkinseed, an almost unheard-of catch for a jiggerman. Off the big rock I hooked a huge fish, and fought it for five minutes, loosening the drag and backpedaling. Since discarding the chisel for the four-inch Finlander auger three years ago this was the only fish I’ve not been able to fit through the hole. With some trepidation--because I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a pickerel--I removed my right glove, rolled up my sleeve and reached down the hole to get a good liphold. (The only thing worse than getting a good liphold on a pickerel is getting a good liphold on a bluefish, and I have done both.) Fortunately for my thumb and the ladies’ ears, this fish turned out to be a largemouth bass. With a mighty heave I popped it through the hole. Popping it down again was out of the question, and its ribs were broken anyway; so I killed it. It measured just under 20 inches. On the sun-washed but snow-covered cement steps across from the big rock we dined on cheese-turkey-lettuce-and-paper sandwiches (because I had neglected to peel the paper from the cheese). We then proceeded to Turtle Island where John killed a 20-inch pickerel. We caught a few more decent perch, bringing our total to about 25--an exceedingly poor showing for Big Island Pond but ample for a good fish fry. At the “Parking Lot” Westy was greeted by a large, fierce-looking husky who turned out to be a playful pussy cat. To Westy’s dismay Jim Cannon has moved out of ML’s house by the bridge and taken with him his two labs--Chase and Cassey. Linda Williams is madly redecorating and disinfecting. At the bridge Donna, Danielle and Westy retreated to camp, while John and I pressed on. Apparently the recent absence of Lake Reports and the commentary they occasionally contain has allowed tiltmen to bootstrap themselves from their snit and return confidently to the ice. We encountered two more groups of tiltmen on the far side of the bridge--one in the middle of the big cove, another loitering Deliverance-style around a bobhouse near the island side. John and I caught only two perch here before moving to George’s Rocks, where we caught only one. With darkness fast approaching we headed back to camp, via the lake on packed snowmobile tracks. Off Sweeney’s point Skip appeared on his four-wheeler. He offered a piece of good news--he and Cindy would be joining us for the fish fry. And a piece of joyous news--he would be providing single malt. John and I shucked off our coats and boots, popped beers, and sank into the green-leather chairs by the pine fire. It was reassuring to see that young McMurray was also sore and stiff. Soon we were cleaning fish with the only thing that works well--ancient L.L. Beans knives which, of course, you can no longer buy and whose blades are now no wider than a three-penny nail. In the wise words of Ezra Pound, “a tawdry cheapness shall outlive our days.” John scaled the bass, apologizing profusely for festooning sink, counter, stove, walls, floor, and windows with sticky scales. “C’mon John,” I intoned. “Remember whose camp you’re in.” “Oh yeah,” he said, visibly relieved. The Lanouettes and Chutney showed up just as we were finishing the last of the perch. After carefully inspecting the single malt--12-year-old Glenfiddich, the best of all possible choices--I greeted Skip and Cindy, asked how they’d been, and introduced them to John and Danielle. I cooked the perch as usual, but Danielle--a gourmet chef--took charge of the bass. She applied some of this and some of that, covered everything with a thick layer of kosher salt, and baked it at 300 degrees. Despite having sampled Danielle’s incredible cooking many times at the annual “Fall Blitz” party at Montauk, New York where Trout Unlimited hires her to cook for about 20 of us, I expected the bass to taste like, well, bass--id est, vaguely reminiscent of the unwrapped, refrozen mystery meat I used to excavate from ML’s refrigerator in my distant youth. My expectations were not improved when Danielle used a knife handle to smash through the rock-like layer of salt. But the bass turned about to be white, flaky and absolutely superb. I am sending the recipe to Martha Stewart so that she may brighten the bleak lives of her fellow tiltmen. We finished off the scotch, listened to Willie and Emmylou on my laptop, and discussed lake and island news. At about 11:00 several people accused me of falling asleep, but--in the tradition of my grandfather, E.V. French--I explained that I was “merely deep in thought.” While I can’t recall exactly what I was thinking about, I expect it was the elegant bass repast. It made this old, scarred, jaded jiggerman feel like the yearling wolves of the Rocky Mountain West who have not yet learned to be proficient hunters but, in order to assist with the feeding of new pups, desperately try things wolves don’t normally do, such as preying on cattle. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s brilliant and embattled western gray wolf recovery coordinator, Ed Bangs, quotes one of these young canids as follows: “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’ve been walking by these things all my life.” - 30 -