BEREA, Ohio - It was not the most comfortable of days. There was a definite chill in the air, those Cleveland grey clouds which are so much a part of Northern Ohio were set heavy and appeared as if they would be around for the next several weeks. The cold which swept through the trees empty of leaves painted a frosty picture for the day.
So when I passed by a lake in the Cleveland Metroparks, a system of connecting parks which form a u-shape around Greater Cleveland, I was surprised to find people standing on a frozen-over lake with fishing lines in their chilled fingers. They were ice fishing. They didn't seem to care about the cold.
My friend, Mike Durkalec, aquatic biologist with the Cleveland Metroparks, invited me to take a look at ice fishermen. I hadn't expected to see several people on the ice, all enjoying themselves, and none of them shivering from the cold.
Mike suggested I step onto the ice with him. "Any time the ice is over four inches thick and clear, you're relatively safe," he said. The word "relatively" caught me a little off my guard, but with several people already on the frozen Wallace Lake in Berea, I figured the ice could bear the weight of one more man.
"Hey, Leon," shouted one of the fisherman, recognizing me and my television news cameraman, Jim Lentz. Jim stepped gingerly, carrying a video camera on a tripod. With the ice underneath our feet, he used the tripod like a walker, sliding it across the frozen Wallace Lake.
Lance Masarik showed me the minnow with which he had baited his hook. We dropped it in a hole he had cut into the ice. "Okay, little fish, you go get us a bigger fish," I suggested to the two-inch minnow as it disappeared into the deep.
"Saturday we did okay," said Lance. "Yesterday, was little iffy, but we came out again to give it another try," he said as he held his fishing rod barehanded. I wondered how he could withstand the cold, but he said it didn't bother him at all. I pulled my scarf tighter around my jacket, trying to ward off that north wind which pushed its way across the lake.
Mike Durkalec and I slid across the ice, checking with several of the fishermen. They all stood within 20 yards of each other. They were far enough from each other to stay out of each fisherman's area, but close enough to have a conversation. Voices seemed to travel easily across the frozen waterscape.
I told Mike he knew a lot about the ice and about fish. He told me as the aquatic biologist for the Cleveland Metroparks, it was his job to be knowledgeable about freshwater fish. After a few minutes on the ice, I had actually forgotten I was walking the ice easily.
"The lake is about 26 feet deep in some spots," said Mike. "It reaches varying depths in different parts," he added. I noticed a straight tree limb someone had tossed on the ice. I dropped its approximate 12-foot length into one of the unused fishing holes; it went almost to the bottom. Jim and I realized we were standing on top of about 11 feet of water. That gave us a shiver, but we continued our mission of interviewing fishermen and taking video pictures of what they were all about on Wallace Lake.
Steve Nytrae of Middleburg Heights said he has been fishing for about 60 years. With a broad smile on his face, he stood quietly over the hole he had chopped in the lake. His line was the water, but nothing was biting. I asked him what a good ice fisherman has to keep in mind. "Not to fall in," he laughed. We even had stand-up comedy on the frozen lake.
But I guess he did have a point. However, the frozen lake was almost as smooth as an ice rink. A couple of times, my rubber boots did not stay the way I had planted them as I walked, but I didn't fall. Neither did Jim, who still held on to his tripod as he pushed it walker style.
Mike told me Cleveland Metroparks stocks Wallace Lake with 1,800 pounds of fish, mostly trout, each winter. So the fishermen know there is fish to be caught. Still, fish have minds of their own, I guess. Maybe they know they are always the invited guests for dinner. The day we were on the ice, every fish declined an invitation to come to dinner.
Joyce Smith of Parma was the most colorful fisherman on the lake that day. She was dressed in a bright pink parka. She said she was a regular at ice fishing, figuring if she could catch a couple of trout, they could be in the frying pan before nightfall.
However, the surprise I found was no one was truly troubled they had not caught a fish or even had a nibble during the time we were there. Ice fishing, maybe any kind of fishing, is about the friendship which is found at the fishing hole. All the fishermen talked with each other, cracked jokes, and talked about their lives.
"When you're on the ice, it's so quiet and the people are near
you like my friend, Lance, over there," said Joyce, pointing to Lance. "So I can yell at him and we can have conversation the whole time," she added, while she checked the line she had dropped through the ice into the water below.
That's when it hit me. A different thought. It really doesn't matter if they catch fish. What these fishermen like is the idea of being on the ice and being with family. Yes, they are family. None was blood-related, but the several people who were on the ice had found each other and discovered they shared the same passion.
They also found a peacefulness at being together. It was the ice which brought them together. If they catch fish, okay. If they don't, that's okay, too.
Jim and wrapped up our story and put our camera in the back of the truck. Before we pulled away, we told the fishermen at Wallace Lake in Berea, part of the Cleveland Metroparks string of recreational areas, that we would be back. Maybe I won't even bring a fishing rod. I'll just bring myself and step out on the ice again. I know I will find my friends there.