Warm Moments on the Cold, Crooked Finger

Fishing friends share a warm moment on the ice of Keuka Lake.

I own a Vexilar FL18 Electronic Ice Fishing Sonar which displays the underwater activity of fish in bright, colorful flashes that even a child could learn to interpret in minutes. For me, it took less than an hour. Once I’d figured it out, I realized it would be incredible gadgetry – and it is. I simply drop the transducer into a hole, and with a flick of a switch I can virtually watch perch not bite.

I’d heard all the talk about lake trout in deeper water, and I paid too much for this Vexilar unit to watch perch simply play with it. So last winter, I packed up and headed for the depths of the “crooked finger,” Keuka Lake. I unknowingly embarked upon the wildest winter of ice fishing I’ve ever had.

It’s never been a secret that the Finger Lakes are prolific lake trout fisheries, but I could not have expected such a free-for-all in my wildest dreams. Every hole I drilled seemed to be over a bevy of hungry trout.

After a few days of this, I sat at my computer and posted my exuberance on an ice fishing website, assuming I’m not the only lousy perch fisher that could save face by venturing out to these obliging lake trout. In no time, I received a message from Glen, a fisher in Rochester, seeking more details. I shared willingly. Armed with my local input, Glen made a trip to Keuka the next weekend – and fared poorly. Glen’s sour outing caused some coworkers and fishing acquaintances to suggest an ugly notion that his new pen pal might be a “BSer.” That’s not my word, in fact it’s not even a word, but it’s widely understood to fit a fisher who tends to exaggerate.

Glen and I become Facebook friends and when I returned home one day with a massive nine-pounder and posted its picture, it sent Glen over the edge. He commented on my post: “You’re killing me with all these pictures!” Clearly, the thing to do is invite Glen to fish with me – and he readily agrees.

The following Saturday, Glen and I meet at a parking lot on Route 54, formally introduce ourselves with a handshake, load our gear and take to the ice. We each drill our holes – and it takes less than 10 minutes for me to shed that unwelcome moniker Glen’s friends had given me. I watch as Glen logs pictures of each fish he brings up, and I listen to his animated phone conversations with friends, as he boasts, “I’d like to tell ya how many fish I’ve caught, but I’ve already lost count!” Lightheartedly, I point out that the number of catches would be greater minus all his photo sessions, text messaging and phone calls. If Glen gets more serious about fishing, the trout below are in deep trouble.

By mid-morning, Glen’s grown darned near delirious, and as was bound to happen he ices a trout weighing more than 25 pounds. I want pictures of that one, so I hurry over to join in on his big day.

Glen and I are new buddies now – we joke good-naturedly and still hook an occasional fish, but the action slows down around noon, which is common. Following a quiet stretch, Glen regains my attention when he points out two dots on the horizon that are moving steadily our way. We wonder if they are game wardens, but continue to tease trout while keeping our eyes on the advancing pair.

As the figures come closer, we are surprised to realize that the newcomers are kids. Incoming fishers are often nervous, so I invite the two boys over and they immediately break into broad smiles. They ask if we’re catching anything and I point toward Glen’s large keeper fish (sizable enough to be lawfully retained) lying on the ice. I had kept a nice fish, too, and as they ogle our trout I invite them to catch one.

The boy nearest me reaches quickly for my pole and Glen surrenders his rod to the other. The young fisher now manning my post drops his lure into the hole, and stares at the Vexilar, where his sinking lure appears as a green lighted slash on the screen. I give him a quick demo of how to dance the spoon once he gets it down and he nods his head eagerly. Twenty yards off, the other boy stares at Glen’s sonar and his voice rises excitedly, “Holy cow, those are all fish?”

Captivated by the lively screens, the new fishers lower their spoons into the fray and jig their rods enticingly. It isn’t long before my trainee springs to his feet, his rod solidly arched. “I got one!” he screeches.

I begin coaching him right away, specifically not to rush things. “Slow down, slow down,” I fret. I’m thankful he hooked a small fish because he’s getting away with one of the most reckless retrieves I’ve ever witnessed. “Okay, I’m trying,” he says, and I wonder how, at any age, one tries to slow down without slowing down.

Adding to his haste, the young fisher has yet to realize a trout’s desperate second wind once it nears the surface. How a fisher plays that moment often determines who wins. That’s the poetic version. In real time, the amped-up young fisher keeps at it until suddenly the small trout erupts through the hole and he holds it airborne. The rod doesn’t break, nor the line – so all ends well. At Glen’s hole, the other boy now hooks up, and thank goodness his fish isn’t large either. “You gotta slow down or he’ll break off,” Glen urges, and I call over, “You’d better back away from that hole, Glen!”

Back at my hole, the trout now flops on the ice, hook still in its mouth, while the thrilled young fisher whips out his smartphone, punches one button and hollers, “Hey! Get out here! We’re catching huge lake trout!” A trout now flops near Glen’s hole, too, where the other boy excitedly yells to someone on his smartphone, “Hey, don’t forget to bring all our stuff!” We ache to see what that might entail.

Quickly, two more dots emerge from the horizon. The hustling kids arrive breathlessly with meager equipment in tow, but enough to catch fish. I ask where they are coming from, and they point to a faint blue house over on the bluff – a summer cottage.  While fishing out in front of their place they noticed that Glen and I hadn’t moved all day, so they decided to come out and see what we were catching.

I had already drilled extra holes and coached the original kids on how to operate the Vexilar. Once the new arrivals are set up, I move off and drill a hole of my own – making sure to choose a position where I can watch all five fishers, none of whom I had met before today. The fish consent by regaining a rapid bite.

I am overcome by the lack of selfishness in these young men. Each time one yells, “I got one, I got one,” to signify a hookup, the rest drop what they are doing and race to the hole to huddle and intently peer down, while offering encouragement to the one in battle. Rousing cheers meet a fish flopping onto the ice, or somber sighs hang heavy as they rise in unison if a fish breaks free. The Vexilar changes hands not by one saying to another, “It’s my turn, it’s my turn,” but rather by one offering to the rest, “Anyone else wanna try this?” and if no one answers he takes  it to another’s hole anyway.

The afternoon flew quickly and the group had promised to be back at the blue house by a certain time. They need to head back, but not quite yet – the oldest boy has hooked up and is tensely engaged. The prolonged huddle draws Glen’s curiosity so he moves over to check it out. He looks my way, stretches his hands apart and mouths, “It’s a good one.” I put my rod aside and head over to help. The young fishers have improved rapidly since their first bouts. The one fighting the fish now knows to adjust his drag during an extended run, and afterward he waits patiently for the right time to resume pumping the fish back up. When the fish eventually glides close enough beneath the hole to offer a quick glimpse we all gasp. A good one indeed!

I expect a final dash or two and worry aloud for the young fisher to be on his toes, but it doesn’t happen that way. He has played the fish so well that he’s able to ease it far enough up for Glen to slickly reach down and grip it by the mouth. As Glen pulls the fish onto the ice, there are no words to suitably describe the scene. The four kids jump around whooping and hollering so equally you’d never know which had even iced the fish. Amid the commotion, one runs to dig up a scale. Our ruckus soars when the trout levels off at nearly six pounds.

By now the group has such a good excuse for running late that another minute or two shouldn’t matter. I hand Glen my smartphone and assemble the four with their impressive catch still dangling from the scale. The smiles on their faces, and especially my own, reflect a feeling not victimized by time.

I trust young fishers to grow into old fishers; I can’t imagine it another way.  When it comes their turn for wrinkles to etch their faces, when their fingers and toes get cold more easily than they used to and when they think to head off the ice in time to drive home while it’s still daylight … I beg for a day like this to return to them; a day to so thoroughly absorb.


by Roger A. Page