Commentary: Zen and the art of ice fishing

The ice on the lake felt like a snow cone, but people were assured it was safe. A veteran of the ice warned wanderers: "Don't step on anything that's black." STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Jason Nark is a staff writer

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 and stood 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 on Lake Ladore, about 150 miles north of Philly in Wayne County on Presidents' Day, his reaction felt laced with doom.

"Good luck with that."

I'd envisioned a cold 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, a waterways conservation officer with the Pennsylvania 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 Presidents' Day was a tradition for her and her husband, Jerry Czech, and other families. My kids were off from school and their mother told me they could go.

My older 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 I've spent half my life in because I've divorced and need to move. I've held small shoes and reread 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 of them 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 the date approached, I imagined myself alone on the ice, missing them, with a dozen kids around me. Luckily, my ex convinced Zen to take the trip.

On Presidents' Day, the two of us drove up the Northeast Extension, the same road that's carried us to dozens of vacations and Thanksgiving weekends.

Zen slept some of the way and when he woke he did watch video-game tutorials on YouTube. But we talked too, about camping and sports and how he could share a room with his brother without warring in our new house. 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 on it, but Dave Kaneski, another waterways conservation officer 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 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 setup called a tip line, and our arrival brought fish. Kaneski let my son haul up a chain pickerel, a toothy predator that will eat whatever can fit in its mouth. Our 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.

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

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

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

One kid on the ice is better than none, I told myself, and we ate gummy bears and debated future camping destinations on the long drive home. I dropped him off to his mother at the house we all 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, is impermanent too, though, and I didn't mind.

215-854-5916 @JasonNark