Ron Chaffee is on the hunt today, not for lunkers, though he would welcome one to his hook. He’s out for numbers, counting more than 30 perch by noon, but aiming for 40 or maybe 50, the legal limit, by dusk.
Often, he gets his 50.
On his bench in the shanty, a 4-foot-by-6-foot structure that he built with plywood, Chaffee peers into a hole in the ice.
He looks expectantly into the opaque water of Lake Memphremagog, hoping for a strike but happy with a nibble, a sign of a good thing to come.
If Chaffee could see down 28 feet, he would note his two shiners on two hooks flitting inches from the sandy bottom. They are, he hopes, irresistible morsels.
Though this is not a fishing derby day, Chaffee likes to compete. Vermont has all kinds of ice-fishing derbies: from Lakes Champlain to Bomoseen to Morey. And one of the biggest and most popular in the state, one that last month attracted upwards of 1,000 participants, was the Wright’s Northeast Kingdom Fishing Derby that’s held on Memphremagog and nearby lakes and ponds.
Chaffee, 65, head of maintenance at North Country Union High School, won second place for the heaviest lake trout of a particular day, a seven and a half pounder, for which he received a $25 gift certificate.
With the help of a friend, he pulled in a four and one-half pound brown trout just a few days ago, which would have been a prizewinner by anyone’s standards.
Today, though, it’s not a big fish he’s after so much as tasty yellow perch.
“How many do you have?” crackles a voice over Chaffee’s hand-held radio. It’s from either Glenn or Danny, who are in their own shanties several hundred yards away. “Thirty-four,” reports Chaffee. “I got 40,” says someone, maybe Leon Moulton, another of Chaffee’s buddies.
Size is important today in one sense: The perch must be big enough to be “keepers.” And Chaffee’s 34 keepers – he’s released a number of little ones — are now flopping in a former detergent bucket on the floor within easy reach.
Most of these fish he will give away or sell. He gets 80 cents a pound at Vista Foods, a grocer in Newport, which in turn sells them to larger markets.
Some of these perch Chaffee may keep, clean and dredge in a favorite coating. He will deep-fry them “until they are nice and crispy” and serve, with fries, to family, including grandkids, “two who love perch and one who doesn’t.”
Chaffee says he gets a special kick out of putting his lake fish on the table; it’s in keeping with a time-honored area tradition, a custom on which lots of guys are hooked.
You see them sprinkled out on the ice in the distance on Memphremagog on this cold bleak day, the first Saturday of March. While some farmers are already sugaring in other parts of Vermont, fishermen here are bracing against snow that’s swirling in from the northwest. The comfort level is low in this spot a mile from shore.
Why does Chaffee do this?
Well, it’s the fish, of course, the thrill of the catch. It’s always that. But it’s also the lure of friendship: the odd paradox of getting away from a daily routine and embracing solitude, while also being close to friends, who share a passion and who also happen to be sitting alone in shanties. They connect with radios and a visit now and then.
For Chaffee, nostalgia also plays a part.
He began ice fishing at age 12, when he and boyhood chums fished off the area in what is now Newport’s elegant little waterfront, a place that in summer is alive with tourists and boaters. Back in the ‘60s it was more of a mishmash of old garages, work sheds and dilapidated boathouses. It was mostly an eyesore neighborhood back then, but kids didn’t mind.
He later fished with his great uncle, an old bachelor who could be stern at times, but whom Chaffee idolized. His great uncle taught him how to hunt and fish.
“He would sit here, and we would talk about anything that came to mind, and it was many, many things,” says Chaffee.
“He did have a hearing problem, though, and he might ask: ‘How many do you have there?’ and I would say, ‘Seven,’ and he would say, ‘You got 12?’”
Despite the handicap they communicated on a deep level. On virtually every Saturday and Sunday for a half century, Chaffee has been coming to roughly this same spot where he and his great uncle fished. (Without being too specific, it can be said the location is north of Newport, about a half-mile from the Quebec border on the 31-mile-long lake.)
Chaffee says he’s tried to coax his wife Gail out here, but she’s not interested. He did take her fishing one summer in the boat, and she caught a three and one-half pound rainbow, but even that didn’t do the trick. She’s happier to stay home and to buzz him up on the cell phone.
Around 1:30 in the afternoon, Chaffee turns restless and decides to walk over to Moulton’s shanty to see how Leon is doing. The two talk about the day’s catch, joke some about who is the better fisherman, mention the eagle that has been hanging around eating the pickerel that anglers sometimes leave out.
They decide that Moulton, who hails from Maine, is a better sea fisherman and that Chaffee is better on lakes, ponds and rivers. In the summer the two go out in the Atlantic on a charter boat to catch haddock and pollock, and even cod, a batch of seafood that crowds any perch in Chaffee’s freezer.
On the way back Chaffee mentions that the lake in winter poses risk for those not careful. A local doctor went out on Nordic skates a few years back, fell through and drowned. Just three weeks ago, Chaffee’s fishing pals helped pull one of their friends and his young daughter from a truck that was falling through the ice. And last Saturday, in late afternoon, unbeknownst to Chaffee, a local farmer drowned while moving his shanty across the ice with his tractor.
Chaffee travels on the lake, not with truck or tractor, but with a “four-wheeler,” and he has a compass pinned to his jacket. The ice on this Saturday where he fishes is 22 inches thick, which is plenty, but in two weeks Chaffee says, he will be calling it quits.
Chaffee and Moulton have plans for the end of the day. After fishing they will use their ice chisels and their four-wheelers to move a friend’s shanty that is now resting in a nearby puddle of water. It’s natural, after a while, for water to form around a shanty: it flows up from the holes in the ice as the weight of the shanty presses down.
“Where’s the guy who owns the shanty?” Chaffee is asked. “Oh, he’s over on Caspian Lake, fishing in a derby.”
Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance writer and reporter.