Zen and the art of ice fishing

Ryan Czech, 16, from Cheltenham using an auger to drill a eight-inch hole in the ice on Lake Ladore in Wayne County.

Ice is impermanent, subject to the seasons that roll around us, and I worried about this on a sweaty Saturday last month as I dragged my kids through Philly, looking for a fishing license.

The temperature hit 68, gorgeous if you ignore climate change, and fishermen had thawed out, annoyed at the Walmart clerk unenthused about fixing the license printer.

At a bait and tackle store in the Northeast, ice fishing gear was 50 percent off. That seemed ominous. When I told the clerk I’d be ice fishing Presidents’ Day on Lake Ladore, about 150 miles north of Philly in Wayne County, his reaction felt laced with doom.

“Good luck with that.”

I’d envisioned a classic winter tableau — greasy eggs and steaming black coffee in the darkness, a spread of mountain stars reflecting off the smooth, flat ice. Colorful characters would haul in lunkers and lies, busting on me for not knowing the difference between a chain pickerel and a northern pike, while taking sips of cheap whiskey.

My story would detail a quirky and fun offshoot of one of Pennsylvania’s biggest hobbies. After all, there were 878,445 licensed fishermen in the state last year.

Erin Czech, the Waterways Conservation Officer with the PA Fish and Boat Commission, asked me if I had kids. There’d be kids all over the ice, she said, including her four. Ice fishing on President’s Day was a tradition for her and husband, Jerry Czech, and other families. My kids were off from school and their mother told me they could go.

My oldest son, 15, said no before I could finish my pitch. My daughter, 12, had a better offer at an indoor water park. Zenon, 10, mulled it over, but said no because of the three-hour drive.

I told Czech I’d be coming alone. That’s too bad, she said, and it felt like a reminder of some new season of fatherhood I was struggling in.

Lately, I’ve been cleaning out the house where I’ve spent half my life because I’ve divorced and need to move.  I’ve cradled small shoes and re-read preschool projects, looking at pictures with a flashlight in the basement, three little faces and a mother I can’t always remember.

The camcorder reminded me how much voices have changed, how I haven’t heard “Daddy” in years. There were videos of camping trips and random Saturdays, the three kids staging talent shows and counterattacks to my tickling. In one, Zen had a thousand questions for his mom about the Easter bunny. It felt like a thousand years ago.

As Presidents’ Day approached, I imagined myself alone on the ice, missing them, with a dozen kids around me. Then my ex convinced Zen to go with me.

That morning the two of us drove up the Northeast Extension, the same road that’s carried us to dozens of family vacations and Thanksgivings weekends.

Zen slept some of the way and when he woke he did watch some video game tutorials on YouTube. But we talked, too, about camping and sports and how he could share a room with his brother in my new house without warring.  We held our breath through the Lehigh Tunnel because we always do.

The ice on Lake Ladore felt like a South Philly snow cone. It rattled me to step out onto it but Dave Kaneski, a waterways conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission and veteran ice fisherman, was in charge and assured us we were safe, for the most part.

“One quick tip if you’re going to wander,” he warned my son. “Don’t step on anything that’s black.”

Kaneski told me 18 people fell through the ice in Wayne County alone last year. He was one of them.

Using a gas-powered auger, Kaneski drilled a dozen holes, each one with a basic hook and string set-up called a tip line, and our arrival seemed to summon the fish.

Kaneski let my son haul up a chain pickerel, a toothy predator that will eat whatever can fit in its mouth. The crew caught a bigger pickerel, 25-inches long, that could have swallowed the first one whole.

Zen shuffled over to every tip line when a flag went up, helping Kaneski rebait the hooks with squirming “medium shiners.” He caught more fish and lost a big one. His feet cold and wet, he asked lots of questions and watched me ask them, too.

“You like deer jerky?” one fisherman asked him. Zen shrugged.

Turns out, Zen loves deer jerky. He went back for seconds.

Camera icon STEVEN FALK / Staff Photographer
My 10-year-old son, Zenon Nark, pulls out a pickerel.

Erin Czech took him on a long walk across the ice, to check on another group of fisherman, hundreds of yards away. He grew smaller and smaller, dressed in black on the ice.

Watching him that day was meditative for me, so much that I nearly wandered onto a black patch of ice myself.

One kid on the ice is better than none, I told myself, and we feasted on Gummy Bears and debated future camping destinations on the long drive home. I dropped him off with his mother at the house we used to live in and in the morning, I realized he’d left his gloves in my car.

The smell of fishy gloves, like ice across a lake or random Saturday mornings, are impermanent too, though, and I didn’t mind.