fly fishing (not ice fishing) !
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, you got to read this!
Crack! As loud as a bullwhip, the line flails front, back, front - each false cast sends shavings of ice skittering off across the surface of Ox Toe Pond in northern Pennsylvania, like tiny glass crabs chasing each other across a magically frozen beach.
“We call them line chips” Lenny Currow, Jr. tells me through a plaid scarf. “The line will ice up on a really cold day, and the flexing makes the chips shoot off during a cast. But that’s when you know conditions are really right for fly fishing the ice.”
Fly fishing the ice? I admit, I had never heard of it either, until a few days after this past Thanksgiving - Thanksgiving being that bittersweet holiday when I put away my fishing gear for the season, eat a lot of turkey, and rake a lot of leaves. Oh for a world (like Florida, I guess) where a man could fish whenever he wants! But I don’t live in Florida (or Texas) and so, Saturday after Thanksgiving, year in, year out, up goes the fly rod onto its rack in the garage, and I am faced with the long wait until April. Or I used to be, anyway.
“I’m betting that in a year’s time, fly fishing the ice will be in popularity where saltwater fly fishing is today” Lenny Currow is telling me back at the lodge, where we have retired for lunch after a morning of working over a few small ponds in this remote county. “The thing about it is, it’s the next logical step,” he tells me as he rubs his red hands together before a cozy fire. “You fly fish the streams in spring, then the salt water all autumn. Why not the ice all winter?”
Lenny is not alone in his enthusiasm. From every sign, fly fishing the ice is preparing for the same kind of groundswell that saltwater fly fishing has gotten in the last few years, and trout fishing got after the release of A River Runs Through It in 1992. Manhattan now boasts two separate clinics giving lessons to would be fly-icers, and tackle shops all over the East Coast are starting to stock folding ice saws in their fly rod section. Orvis is even bringing out a solid brass ice drill with leather handles for next season, “for those who like to keep the traditional elegance of fly fishing as part of the new sport,” says Linus Caldstone, Orvis’s East Coast spokesperson.
Ice saws and drills are not the only new tools that the sport requires. De-icers, hand warmers, waders with cleats, ice axes, and the strangest selection of flies that you’ve ever seen round out the fly-icer’s gear. Some of these things are part of the traditional kit of the ice fisherman, those staunch, retirement age die-hards who crouch in custom-insulated outhouses over a hole in the ice breathing kerosene fumes and catching a few sluggish fish while their wives join support groups (or so I’ve always thought).
“That was for the last generation, fly-icing is for the new!” Lenny asserts, his slight frame shivering despite the heavy parka and mad bomber’s hat he has fortified himself with for our return to Ox Toe. “Why should you sit around and freeze your tail off for a few fish? There isn’t much sport in that compared to this. Besides, we’re out here moving around!” So you mean, I ask, the activity keeps you warmer than you would be when ice fishing? “Well, no.” He admits. “I mean, they have little houses and everything. But they tend to put on a lot of weight from all the beer and rich food.” Lenny’s final words are muffled by a snowdrift that he has dislodged from an overhead branch with an errant cast. There are several moments of hopping (of the snow-down-my-back variety), accompanied by cussing (same variety, but even more so).
Curls of ice are flying from Lenny’s flexing line as he pumps the rod forward and back, forward and back. Ice settles on his hat and into his slightly droopy mustache, which he grew, he tells me, to help him keep warm while he fly-ices. Thirty-five feet in front of Lenny, there is a hole in the ice which I helped him make with a folding ice saw and an ice drill (plastic handled). It took us about twenty minutes to cut, and now Lenny is trying to drop his fly, which looks like a quarter inch hex nut painted blaze orange, into the hole before the water skims over. He has false-casted ten or twelve times, but the line is stiff, and falls like a swooning cobra to the right or left each time he lets the cast go, rather than unfurling into the hole. “This is half the sport right here - mastering the frozen loop cast. This fly is made out of steel, which you need to turn the line over, and also to bust through the skim ice. Very difficult to cast a steel fly.”
Boring or sawing a hole in the ice and casting to it are just two of the fly fishing methods that are at the disposal of the knowledgeable iceman (as they sometimes are known). There are also ways of fishing that involve finding natural holes, or faults in the ice, and casting to them, or using a brazier fly, which is a bronze fly that holds a small lump of coal, which you false cast over the same spot on the ice until a hole is melted. “That one’s a lot harder than this.” Lenny tells me, still throwing beautiful, crackling arcs of frozen line through the sharply cold air. “I mean this is really hard,” he says through chattering teeth, “but that’s probably impossible, and when the hole is finally melted, there better be a fish there. The equipment is beautiful, though,” he muses.
On my way up to North County to join Lenny at his Icy-Bug Lodge, I stopped in at a meeting of the Still Ice Fly Fishermen’s Association (STIFFA), which meets in a pine-panelled VFW lodge in Elkmount, NY, not far from the heart of traditional Eastern fly fishing in America. There I met Bruce Van Patton, the founder and president of STIFFA, and one of the grand old men of the sport. “Last Friday, we had over two hundred people crammed in here - people who two years ago had hardly heard of fishing. Why we had one lawyer in here, wouldn’t so much as take off his coat or eat a donut. But you can bet he hung on every word I said about fly-icing.”
From Bruce I learn that while fly-icing may have been rediscovered by low-landers and country folk alike in just the last few years, there is plenty of evidence that the sport has roots that go back at least one hundred years, and perhaps much further. It likely started as a method of fishing employed by the Iroquois when the ice was too thick to fish from shore, but not thick enough to walk on.
“My Daddy first learned it from a few old-timer Indians.” Bruce continues. “ They would get fish from the holes out in the middle of the ice by flipping line out with a willow branch. They were real artists at it, and could feed their whole family with a good trip. This is a great sport! In fact, I’ve heard that with an orange macaw feather, you can tie a carrot pattern on a number 8 hook and fish for snow hares.” This catches me by surprise, and I try to see if Bruce was pulling my leg, or maybe plain out of his mind. Wouldn’t that be against the law? I ask, and in what way does it constitute fishing? “Well, I would never do it,” Bruce tells me somewhat defensively, “but if the snow hares are out on the pond… I guess it would be fishing. You know, it’s an awful long winter.”
This is not the first hint I have gotten that ice fly fishing is not always limited to fish, but sometimes extends to terrestrial creatures as well. “Oh, it would be strictly illegal.” Senior Game Warden Sandy Carter tells me over steaming coffee at the Northern County Park Service Building when I follow up on this strange new lead. “But we have heard rumors, and personally, I came across a few flies tied in carrot, and even radish patterns last spring.” He leans back and strokes the head of a stuffed badger which is part of a diorama behind his desk, obviously choosing his words carefully. “Of course, I don’t believe the stories about fly fishing for bear. Makes no sense - where would you get strong enough line? Now that seems crazy to me.”
The sun is falling into the bare treetops across Ox Toe Pond as Lenny and I decide to call it a day. We are cold enough to talk very little, each perhaps relishing the private contentment of a good day’s sport, or trying not to let our teeth chatter. It has been a mixed day for Lenny. Although the five holes we cut contained no fish, he did cast successfully on a number of occasions, and thinks he may have gotten a bite. “This isn’t Florida,” he offers with a toothy, shivery grin, “but we can still fly fish if we want to, right?”
Back at the Icy-Bug, as we let our boots thaw before the fire, Lenny tells me that our outing was typical, demonstrating both the best and worst aspects of the sport. “At least the line didn’t crack today,” he points out, “And no one fell in. I’m pretty sure that bite I got was big too - probably a brownie, maybe trophy size.” As for me, I have to content myself with the few beautiful casts I got to see Lenny unfurl into the ice hole. My luck was somewhat worse; I lost seven flies and never got one into the water. Guess I need practice down at the farm pond next year. Oh yeah, there will be a next year for me. I guess you can call me an brand new iceman.
Are Lenny Currow and Bruce Van Patton really onto the next big thing, or is fly fishing the ice just another passing fad, like scuba skeet or squirrel roping ? (I admit, this old cowboy fell for both.) It seems like a contender to me, despite the cold and the difficulty. One day spent out on a pond, watching the reflection of clouds glide across the surface with the rhythm of casting ringing in you ears can be a strong persuader. One day spent in a goose down fly vest with line chips raining down you back can also nearly freeze you, too. But when the line drops like a frozen boa constrictor, and the steel fly makes it into the hole, which hasn’t frozen over, and the beer hasn’t frozen yet either, fly fishing the ice can seem like a pretty cool idea.
SO WHAT DO YOU THINK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
(GOOD LUCK GOOD ICE FLY FISHIN )