Cold rewards: peace and quiet - and fish


McHENRY - You won't see Harold Hupe on Deep Creek Lake in the summer, but winter is another story.

A couple of times a week you can find him working his way around the lake, jigs and tip-ups in hand, looking to land the monster walleye and behemoth perch that the lake is known for.

"Just because the lake's frozen doesn't mean you stop fishing," says Hupe, 48, of Lavale. "You get to explore a lot more water than you do when the ice is out."

Ice fishing is not a big sport below the Mason-Dixon line. Moderate temperatures most winters keep both ice and local blood thin.

However, this winter has been terrific for hard-water anglers like Hupe, who's been pounding the ice for 35 years, with only a four-year break when he lived in Florida.

Hupe is hardly a tropical picture this January day on the lake. He's swaddled against the cold - four layers on the bottom and five on top - and his feet are enveloped in big, insulated boots. The payoff for enduring the cold is the quiet and wide-open spaces that winter brings to Garrett County's biggest tourist attraction.

"It's too crazy here in summer, too crowded," he says of Deep Creek. "I stop fishing it Memorial Day and start up again Columbus Day."

Instead, when the weather is warm, he fishes smaller nearby ponds for panfish and trout.

But with the lake completely frozen and ice nearly a foot thick in spots, Hupe is tearing them up, working holes near the Subway shop, in front of Johnny's Bait House and in McHenry Cove near Wisp. Fierce walleye, portly perch and a 20-inch trout lay on the ice around him.

"My freezer's packed," he says. "We're getting ready for a fish fry. One more good day of fishing and we're ready."

When feast day arrives, Hupe and his buddies will coat the filets with "Frying Magic" bread crumbs and cook them up. With a side-serving of fries (and an attending cardiologist), they have a banquet.

It's funny how ice fishing always reminds me of food, too.

I spent more than a decade in New Hampshire and even had my own bob house, as the little shanties on skids are called up there.

We'd pick a weekend in late December when we figured the ice was thick enough and drag it out on Lake Winnepesaukee to sit with the hundreds of other shacks. The joke was that a bob house was the only way we'd ever have waterfront property.

Firing up the Coleman stove, my one buddy, a former Army sergeant, would start the coffee and bacon while another friend would get the gas-powered auger running to bite holes into the two-foot-thick ice. As the owner of the best fingerless gloves, my job was to scoop ice from the holes, bait the tip-ups with minnows and set the flags.

To figure out the water's depth, we'd drop a plumb bob and set the bait just off the bottom, where the fish hung out.

We worked fast, driven by the smell of eggs and bacon, hash browns and coffee. Sometimes, we'd finish eating uninterrupted. Other times, someone would yell, "Fish on," as the orange flag snapped, and we'd be off to the races.

After breakfast, it was time to rig the jigging rods - short poles with ultra-light spinning reels filled with 2- or 4-pound test. Small jigs tipped with a minnow or waxworm were lowered until they, too, were about 10 feet from the bottom.

Then, it was just a matter of waiting and remembering not to set the hook but rely on a smooth line lift and steady retrieve.

When it got too cold to jig, it was time to retreat to the propane-heated bob house for a hot game of hearts and a beverage.

In New England, ice fishing is a given. But in Maryland, mild winters like last year's make a chilly one like this the ideal excuse for an outing. If you go, here are some safety tips:

Don't go out alone.

Keep a minimum of four inches of ice between the bottoms of your boots and the liquid below. Look at the color of the ice and remember the old saying, "Thick and blue, tried and true. Thin and crispy, way too risky." (Who makes this stuff up?)

Tie two screwdrivers to either end of a length of rope and hang from your neck. If you fall in, you can use the screwdrivers to help get you back on the ice. Or ...

Extend both arms onto the unbroken ice and kick your feet to raise your body. Then try rolling onto the ice.

Snow job

Remember the rain last March that made the Susquehanna Flats look like chocolate milk and washed out much of the catch-and-release rockfish season?

Well, this year's snow runoff could turn the Flats into fudge sauce, gumming up the March 15-May 3 rockfish season and playing havoc with the shad run.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather maps of the upper reaches of the Susquehanna Basin show up to 30 inches of snow pack, which translates into nearly 5 1/2 inches of water. Making matters worse is that the river is almost completely iced over.

"The water gets backed up behind big chunks of ice and when it breaks you get a wall of ice and water coming down," says Susan Obleski, a spokeswoman for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

Anglers should start keeping an eye on the flood forecast issued every other week by the National Weather Service's Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center (

The hydrologist who writes the forecast, Scott Kroczynski, says that while it's a little too early to be canceling fishing trips, he does see the potential for trouble.

"It's going to take a catalyst to start it off, but it's pretty safe to say we're going to have a significant amount of water coming down the Susquehanna and we'll see a larger than typical volume of water entering the Chesapeake Bay," he says.

Either a quick thaw or warm rain on the New York snow pack would trigger a deluge, Kroczynski says.

Biologist Marty Gary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources says rockfish, which are sight feeders, may move out of the Flats until the water clears. Luckily for anglers, the season lasts almost eight weeks, maybe enough time for waters to calm.

But murky water could delay migrating shad from staging below the Conowingo Dam and ice chunks could foul the machinery that lifts the fish 90 feet to the top, warns DNR's Rich McLean. As the water clears, the fish will surge toward the lifts.

"When it happens, it will happen big and it may overwhelm our ability to move fish up the river.

"We need the water," says McLean, "but we don't need it all at once."

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