Fri, Mar 22, 2013 10:14 AM
Ron Chaffee is in 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-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
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
"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. "34," reports Chaffee. "I
got 40," says someone, maybe Leon Moulton, another of Chaffee's
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
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
"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, 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
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
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.
he's over on Caspian Lake, fishing in a derby."
Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance
writer and reporter.