Deep Freeze

Finding serenity—and one unlucky fish—on the ice of Lake Hopatcong.

A lucky angler pulls an unlucky crappie through the ice.

Five makeshift wooden steps lead down from a concrete bulkhead at Dow’s Boat Rental to the frozen surface of Lake Hopatcong. The gray sky hangs low, and a temperature in the low 20s stings our faces. At least there is no wind. Except for the occasional snowmobile, all is quiet.

I pull the Flexible Flyer that carries our equipment over the foot-thick ice as we trek toward the center of Great Cove.

“How far out do we go for muskies?” asks Matt, my 8-year-old son, now getting his first taste of ice fishing, a sport I’ve enjoyed since I was a teenager.

“I’ll cut 200 feet ahead, over about 20 feet of water,” I say. “But I’ll open the last hole way out toward the middle, 30 feet deep.”

This section of Lake Hopatcong, from Nolan’s Point to Chestnut Point, is renowned for its muskies, or muskellunges,  a frequently pursued but difficult freshwater game fish. Arriving at what seems like a good spot, I set down my shoulder-strap tackle bag (displaying my freshwater fishing license) and begin the half-hour ordeal of cutting holes with my chisel-head splitting bar. A power auger is easier, but I prefer the exercise I’ve known for years.

Next I set the tip-ups, special contraptions that are supplied by Dow’s and other fishing outlets. Tip-ups—you can use up to five per angler by law—replace rods.  They typically consist of two crosswise pieces for a base that goes over the hole. A 20-inch wooden upright extends above the crosspiece and below it into the frigid water. A spool of line is attached to the bottom of the upright and submerged into the water (so it won’t freeze in the open air). If we get a strike, a small orange flag will spring above the top of the upright, alerting us to lift the whole contraption out of the water and start pulling on the line to haul in the fish.

Before I submerge each spool into the water, Matt brings me the bucket of live shiners, the 4-inch long fish we are using as bait. Taking off my gloves, I grab one from the bucket’s water, hook it near the dorsal fin and lower it nearly to the lake’s bottom. I do the same for the other nine tip-ups.
All that’s left is to set up our folding chairs and wait for the thrill of a raised flag. We are hoping for muskies—which may reach 40 pounds—but a few pickerel or bass would not displease us.

I have spoken to Matt from an early age about the awe of being on a frozen lake. The still expanse evokes serenity like nothing else I know. Immediacy slips away. Thick, warm clothing removes ice anglers from the harsh environment. Sun is less direct, even when overhead. Surrounding trees are distant abstractions. This world demands an inner response, which is what ice fishing is mostly about. 

After two hours of talk and contemplation and hot cocoa from a thermos, evening approaches. Our clothing has shielded us from the raw cold, but nothing can stave off the darkness. I lift and reset the tip-ups a last time to keep the bait active; oddly, our solitude is broken by a man riding a bicycle over the ice. 

Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, Matt sees a flag spring. He races over and begins lifting the tip-up from the water, pulling in the fish, hand over hand on the braided line.

“It’s not big,” Matt says, as the 10-inch crappie breaks the surface. Matt whisks it from the hole and declares his desire to take it home, a foretaste of greater catches yet to come.

Bruce Edward Litton is a freelance writer and a columnist for Recorder Community Newspapers. He lives in Bedminster.

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