It's 8:20 a.m. and 10 degrees outside. My fingertips are beginning to numb inside my new Isotoner gloves. I wear long underwear and jeans, but a frosty wind rips through them as if they were fishnet stockings. My pen freezes and I can't take notes. At such an extreme temperature, my digital voice recorder's display is hardly functioning and my camera shutter won't click. I believe my tools and I are suffering from the early stages of hypothermia.
I'd certainly be doomed on Mount Everest. Fortunately, I'm standing on 4-inch-thick ice in the middle of the northeast corner of Irondequoit Bay, and my car is about 200 yards away if I'm really desperate. It's quite cold, but my alter ego keeps telling me, "Stop complaining. You're writing about ice fishing, what did you expect? Of course it's quite cold."
My alter ego and I begin to argue, and now I'm certain of hypothermia. I don't see the Grim Reaper yet, but even he probably waits until the weather warms.
My wife told me before departing this morning, "Are you going alone? What if the people there don't like you? If you fall in, would they help? You better take the cell phone."
The dangers of ice fishing occurred to me, too. I just wasn't sure about the cell phone: "Jill? Hi, I'm drowning in Irondequoit Bay. Could you give me a hand? Oh, you're sleeping?"
In reality, the ice is plenty strong, and the water in this part of the bay is just four feet deep. It's completely safe. As a kid, I played hockey on much thinner Erie Canal ice, and occasionally somebody's skate would puncture the surface. But nobody ever died, which soothed my mind on this day.
I'm watching two Webster outdoorsmen in their early 50s, Bob Gascon and Dave Bareis, ice fish. Gascon says he prefers standard fishing, but ice fishing is a good way to pass the time, particularly when he lives just down the street.
Gascon grabs his hand auger and easily drills a 6-inch-wide hole through the surface. I figured that would be a greater challenge.
In fact, I had a few preconceived notions about ice-fishing culture, partly gleaned from the movie Grumpy Old Men. I thought there would be numerous shanties out there, protecting people from the elements. I thought the whisky and beer would be flowing too.
But Gascon has no shelter except for a fluorescent orange hunting suit, a hat, some serious-looking winter boots and gloves with hand-warmer packets inside. He looks toasty. And he has a V-8 for later.
I could use a whisky right now.
It's about 8:30 a.m. and I ask Gascon, "So, how long do you usually do this for?"
Bareis cracks, "Until the bar opens."
Evidently, the Bayside Pub just next door on Lake Road opens around 11:30 a.m., and that's when Gascon and Bareis plan to leave the ice behind. The Bayside gets a healthy ice-fishing patronage for lunch. Gascon says between late January and early February the restaurant sponsors an ice-fishing derby that's a family event filled with fish, food, and fun. It sounds good to me.
I haven't seen Gascon catch anything yet. He sits on a self-warming seat cushion on the top of a plastic bucket, holding one pole while monitoring another one sitting in a tip-up contraption.
The poles are much shorter than standard fishing poles because people can't cast out in ice fishing. A person drops his line through the ice to the bottom and hopes for the best. There are lures and bait, of course, to give an advantage over the fish, but they're nothing extravagant. Bareis's brother comes over and shows us a box of new lures he brightly painted. They are tiny, and I think, "Man, the huge fish on some of those ESPN fishing shows would have no problem taking out one of those lures. Exactly how big are the fish they're getting here?"
Soon I find out. Gascon and Bareis catch perch, about five to 10 inches long. They were nothing like the bass and trout I envisioned before I came. But then I don't know much about outdoor pursuits such as this. I remember once talking to then-Bills backup quarterback Alex Van Pelt about hunting with his teammates, and I admitted to him that I didn't know that much about it, to which he laughed and replied, "Yeah, that's obvious."
Look, I'm not Ted Nugent.
Bareis mentions that the day before, somebody walked away with 48 perch from the Bay --- apparently quite a haul. Gascon tells me that perch has an excellent taste and that you can bake it, deep-fry it, do just about anything to it, and it's usually good. Bareis's brother, for instance, makes a delectable perch chowder. Gascon uses a Magic Vac to prepare the perch for his freezer, and he'll sometimes eat it up to eight months later.
But the guys don't always take everything they catch. Some perch are just too tiny. Gascon catches a five-incher, and throws it back.
"That's one I'll get next year," he says.
"They don't learn from their mistakes, do they?" I ask.
Bareis chimes in from about 10 feet away: "No, I'll probably catch that one over here now."
My mind momentarily wanders. I think about the thousands of years that man has fished, and wonder why evolution has never written in the fish genetic code to watch out for lures and bait, when in just 50 years, viruses have apparently become stronger against our anti-bacterial measures. Are viruses smarter than fish? Perhaps man, ever evolving, just stays one step ahead of fish. But then viruses seem to stay one step ahead of man.
Hmmm. Ice fishing is so peaceful and contemplative, I'm producing intensely creative thoughts. I ought to do this more often.
Rochesterian Rick Inzero, who's ice-fished for more than 30 years, says the sport is a great way to introduce fishing to kids because they're almost guaranteed to catch something. The sport is not costly, he says. For under $50, a person could get started with a pole and a basic tackle box. Beyond that, the biggest expenses would be warm clothing and an auger, which is not even initially necessary because beginners could probably use holes that other fishermen left behind minutes before. Inzero says they typically don't mind that.
People over 15 need to buy a fishing license at the town clerk's office or at a store with hunting and fishing gear. According to the state department of environmental conservation, an annual license costs $19.
Inzero says his favorite places to ice fish are Irondequoit Bay, Braddock Bay in Greece, and the north end of Conesus Lake. He also suggests Fairport Reservoirs in East Bloomfield, but non-residents must be accompanied by at least one area resident. Of course, there are so many lakes and bodies of water in the region, there are seemingly endless ice-fishing possibilities.
So people should try it out. I'm glad I did. It enabled me to conclude that viruses are the smartest living creatures of all, and you just don't arrive there by sitting in front of the tube.