The Greensboro Ice Fishing Derby on Caspian Lake this past weekend was a story I’ll be telling for a long time. A good friend was visiting me from out of town, I was reporting for the local newspaper, and neither of us could have imagined a better way to spend our Saturday morning than tromping through the snow, over the ice, from shanty to shanty.
We met fishermen and firemen, dads by their stoves and drunks by their tailgates, teenagers with snowmobiles, 10-year-olds ready to sit by a hole in the ice from 4am until 2:00 in the afternoon. We learned the language as we traveled the lake – tip-ups and jigs, flags, augers, lakers, shiners, smelts. We learned the rules of the game, the hours, the baits, and the best times for biting. We saw the clean aquarium look of a live well, the red bubbles on fish with the bends, the black tint of the second and third feet of ice below our feet. For the hundredth time in the last four months, I wondered what I would be like, if I had been one of the kids we met there, growing up in Vermont. Having grown up in Massachusetts, California, North Carolina, Italy, and Brooklyn….I’ve had a good life. But until this weekend, I’d never gone ice fishing. Nor eaten venison, nor even heard of a deep fried turkey.
At least, for that matter, I’m growing up here now.
When we arrived at 7am, John showed us how a tip-up worked, how the flag whipped up as the wheel turned because the line was being pulled. He showed us how the power auger drilled, in his case, an 8-inch hole in the ice, big enough to fit any fish, small enough to catch a toddler from falling through. His son played in the snow while his daughter warmed water on the stove for oatmeal. He told us how people had arrived for the derby long before the 4am start time.
Russell cooked up pounds of venison sausage at the grill in his shanty, placing the cooked meat beside a plate piled high with bacon from the morning. He handed us a few hot patties in paper towels while Peter showed us how their car had gotten stuck the night before (when they arrived on the lake, straight after work), and how the ruts had conveniently forged their live well. “Come back at noon!” he and his buddies offered as we began to walk away. “We’ll be deep-frying a turkey!”
Chuck, who had plowed the snow on the lake (and who plows the snow everywhere, will pull your car out of a ditch anywhere within a 10-mile radius, do your logging, mow your lawn, and come to your barbecue) gave us little Snickers bars as he drove us across the lake to a few fishermen who in time handed us beers and cleaned a trout for us to have for lunch. They were the only real fishermen whom we met, not just out for a day, for the party, the competition, or the family time. They were out to fish, and had caught seven trout by the time we met them at 10am (at which point we indeed found ourselves drinking beer). They could tell you what bait to use, what time to come, what spot to choose on the lake. They had just come from a 4-day ice-fishing derby on Lake Memphremagog.
Around 11:30, we brought the laker home and baked it in the oven according to the fisherman’s mother’s recipe. A splash of milk in the pan, butter, onions, and garlic in the cavity, heavy salting. We warmed up, over our break from the derby, at home, eating the trout, with fresh bread and salad. Try and tell me the story of a better Saturday.
We returned by 2 o’clock, to learn that the best fish of the competition was a 27.5-inch brown trout caught in the Black’s Cove section of the lake at about 7am. We learned the largest fish ever caught at a Greensboro Derby was a 34-inch laker in 1989. We learned that one of the firemen’s sons had caught the first legal fish of the day, an 11.75-inch perch. We were reminded to write in the local paper that this was a catch-and-release event, and always had been. Amidst the primarily male crowd of green camouflage and black carhartt jackets, baseball caps and furry hunting hats, and the occasional neon orange scarf or royal blue beanie, little boys shared their triumphs of the day with the old-timers of Greensboro, who knew all of their names. One loud-mouthed two-foot tall redhead couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “I caught a pretty big perch out there!” he announced proudly. “And he was plenty alive!”
The only publicity I saw for the derby was a note with the details in marker taped to the outside wall of the local general store, and a small blurb in the proceeding week’s local paper. The cash prizes and the equipment raffled off at 2pm were funded by businesses in Greensboro and surrounding towns. The Greensboro Fire Department organized the event, taking over for a family that had put on the derby for the past 37 years. Three generations of that family were there, fishing. If there is a more beautiful, low-key, locally supported event, anywhere, I have yet to see it.
The derby was not an agriculture-related affair. It was not the kind of event an essay here might have covered in the past. But it was the kind of thing I’ve come to witness, having visited and lived in a few rural places, just in the past year or so. The derby made for the kind of day that I crave – one based on a mildly crazy concept (to sit out on a frozen lake for ten hours), which doesn’t cost a lot of money, and doesn’t explicitly represent any world-changing effort, and yet which generations of people appreciate and enjoy, together. I’m not quite sure what to compare it to. The atmosphere at the derby fit right in with the questions and debates of the annual Town Meetings that took place in each town across the state last Tuesday, and with the basketball game in Plainfield this weekend where three generations of women watched their daughters, granddaughters, and older sisters play at the local high school. The derby was one more ridiculous, colorful day that built upon the white landscape where I have come to farm. It was one more event that reminded me, after the millionth inch of snow fell and the temperature dropped below zero yet again, that life in Vermont can be plenty alive.