Fish Tales

Most of us have seen a photo of the earth taken from a satellite, or space ship of some type.  The earth, from this vantage, appears as a blue globe against a black field of darkness. Water covers eighty percent of the earth’s surface providing the distinctive blue color of our planet when seen from a distance.  Interesting also, is that our own bodies are eighty percent water as well.  This coincidence goes further yet if we compare an embryonic fish and an embryonic human, as they are very similar in shape and appearance. Cousins maybe? In this blog, I  share some of my reminiscences about fish and fishing.

At this point, I must introduce my father, John Frantzen, as most, though not all, of my fishing memories involve him also.  Dad was born in the year 1900 in the western part of New York state.  He was a first generation American with a Swedish mother and a Danish father.  In the depth of the Depression, 1932, he took a NY Civil Service exam resulting in a job offer for a clerical position in the NY Corrections Department at Clinton Prison at Dannemora, NY. The prison was, and is a maximum security facility established in 1845.  This village is in the extreme northeast corner of the state in the Adirondack mountains.  The mountains in this area hold an iron ore that was of excellent quality, but very expensive to mine.  The town’s name is from an iron mining town in Sweden.

At that time in this country, any job was a good job so he accepted the offer.  I remember a conversation we had when I was 10 years old or thereabout Dad stating that his original intention was to take the job until the economy improved and then move out.  Love put a change in this plan when he married my mother in 1934 and I came along in 1936. Dad earned a promotion to become a warehouse foreman in the prison.  He stayed there until his retirement in 1967.

Clinton Prison & Dannemora composite by R.J.F.

Clinton Prison & Dannemora composite by R.J.F.

New York has many lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams resulting from glacial movement in the last Ice Age.  Fishing in all seasons was very possible and popular.  Fishing was a male hobby, I can’t recall ever seeing a woman or girl fishing.  I don’t know why, there certainly weren’t any rules, perhaps this was a present day version of the hunter-gather stage of development where the men hunted ( and fished) and the women gathered and cooked.  This is a surmise on my part, though my own observations themselves are true.

Many species of fish exist as do ways to catch them.  I decided to limit this blog to my memories of ice fishing, as I enjoyed this.  This is a style of fishing  practiced in Canada and the upper Northern states of our country. The time is the late 1940s to the mid 1950s when I graduated from high school and went to college.

The simplest form of ice fishing is on a lake frozen solid enough to safely hold your weight.  The first thing to consider is dressing warm enough to stand the temperatures without undue discomfort.  In that time period this need translated into wearing a lot of wool. Long wool underwear, wool shirts, wool coats, pants and wool hats.

 Of course, you have to make a hole big enough in the ice to fish through. At that time the NY law allowed each fisherman to open 5 holes. The  tool of choice was an ice “spud”.  The spud maker ground a  file about 1.5- 2 inches wide to a sharp bevel and welding that to a 5′ long pipe. Any garage could do it for you.  You used it by banging the tip on the ice to chip away the hole you wanted. Now you can buy manually and power operated ice augers which are more efficient.

Rather than try find words to describe an ice fishing tip-up, I enclose a Flickr photo of a current model.

Ice Fishing Tip-Up

Ice Fishing Tip-Up

As you can see, the tip-up rests over the hole in the ice. To use it, You bait the hook and drop it to the distance wished and then the cock the  little flag.  If a fish bites, the flag tips up and the fisherman takes in the line and removes his fish. Perch and often bass are caught this way.  On a good day, working 5 holes you could go home with a sizeable fish string.  On a not-so-good day the fisherman could find a place to sit, drink coffee in a Thermos, etc.

 On one such day, I became bored and wandered around the pond looking for something interesting.  There existed a small island about 8′ in diameter that I wandered over to. Snow had blown in around the edge of the island and I took a step into this.  SURPRISE, There   was no ice underneath and one leg went thru the snow into the water.  I was able to get out quickly with no harm done other than a soggy pants leg.  Dad and his friend, Harold Wrisley, came to my rescue, I removed my wet pants and they squeezed most of the water out of them.  That was the end to that fishing trip.  We picked up our gear and drove home.

Another variation of ice fishing was in a little building, called a hut, shack, shanty or something similar.  Here is one of many variations on this style.

Ice Fishing Hut - Flickr photo

Ice Fishing Hut – Flickr photo

The purpose of the hut was to give a more warm and comfortable space for, at most, two people to fish.  The downside of having a hut was that, once in place, it was there for the season. Dad rented a spot for his hut, as did  many others, on land until the ice became thick enough to support a small hamlet of  huts. An all male hamlet at that.  Even if a guy did no fishing, he could have a few beers, play cards with buddies, or otherwise get out of his house.

 When the ice froze solid,  a tractor towed the huts onto  the ice and set them in place.    The process reversed when the season was over. The name of this location was Gravelly Point, on the shore of Lake Champlain near Plattsburg, NY. A geological name would have been Gravelly Cove, as it was, in fact, a cove. The shoreline at that place consisted  entirely of small stones, many flat enough to skip on the water. This scene was ideal for ice fishing since the water was 100′ deep even at a short distance from shore.

Dad’s shanty was better looking than the one in the photo above.  It was about 6′ long and 4′ wide resting on wooden runners with a peaked roof above, like a little simple house.  The floorboard had four inset covers that, when removed, provided a spot to make the necessary hole in the ice.  We had a kerosene heater for warmth, and folding camp stools to sit and fish upon. The shanty even had a WWII calendar for 1942 featuring pin-up Betty Grable on the wall for art.  We fished  with small wooden “jigging” sticks that held the fish line with two hooks on the end.  We baited each stick and with one in each hand, lowered the hook to the desired depth. Then we sat and “jigged” the line in each hand until we felt a bite. Quickly setting the hook, we raised the line to remove our catch. Sometimes there was nothing, but often a fish.

I learned that in this deep water, different fish favored different depths.  At about 10 feet from the bottom, Smelt proliferated. The freshwater Smelt in Lake Champlain were about 8″ long and travelled in schools.  If we were lucky  being  above a school, we could easily catch a gallon or more to put in our fish pail.  Fishing done,  we would lock up, leave and return home.  There we cleaned the Smelt by removing the head and entrails, no scaling at all needed, and it became Mom’s turn.  She pan-fried the fish while making dinner.  Smelt, living in cold water are very fatty; we ate the fried fish whole, bones and all in about two bites.  Very tasty indeed, especially after a day outside in the winter.

At a water level above that favored by Smelt the Cisco fish lived their lives.  An adult Cisco was about a foot long and weighed from 1 to 2 pounds.  They were a whitefish and if we were not lucky fishing for Smelt, it was worth trying for Cisco as they were a good table fish and three or four was a decent catch.  I can remember on occasion catching and eating them when we got home, if Smelt weren’t biting

An ice fishing tale would not be complete without a Ling episode.  Lings are known by different names in different locations but at Gravelly they are Ling.  I believe they are a member of the Cod family, but not positive. Unlike most fish, Ling are active in winter, and almost inactive in summer.  That is why so many anglers have never seen or caught a Ling. They can easily weigh 2 or 3 pounds each. Neither Dad or I had caught anything one Saturday and the afternoon was getting late.  I said “Why don’t we try to catch a Ling, I never saw one.” Dad said he would go out and ask around and see if anybody else was catching them. He came back with the news that others were catching them and at about what depth.  We baited our hooks and dropped the lines in.  In about 15 minutes I got a bite and pulled in about a 2 pound Ling. What a thrill I had!

We put fresh water in our fish pail and placed the Ling in it.  It was dark when we got home, too late to find the best way to cook the fish, so we saved it until next day.  Our home, like all Northern homes had a cellar, and in our cellar was a special barrel for fish. It had a hole drilled about 6″ from the top with an L shaped piece of pipe as a drain to the little gutter around the base of the cellar.  We would trickle cold water in to keep it fresh. We put the Ling in it as soon as we could. Next day, Mom had found a recipe that looked good and we went down to clean the Ling. Bad News. Mr. Ling had died in the night and was no good for eating.  I’ll never forget catching it though.

Several of Dad’s friends and co-workers had been  sport fishermen as well.  Sometimes he went fishing by himself, sometimes with a companion and many times he took me along.  We would fish on the shore of a stream or a pond, or rent a boat and troll for fish.  On the rare occasions when I did get a bite, it was exciting in that it broke the boredom I was feeling.  I usually resented these outings due to this boredom, though I never complained.   I wanted to do more active things, play with friends, ride my bike somewhere, things like that. I did like ice fishing in the shanty though.

 It was not until after Marge’s death and my sessions with my bereavement counsellor, Christine, that I came to grips with this resentment.  We had reached the point where I was getting though the extreme grieving for the loss of Marge, when we talked of other deaths in my family.

I commented about my feelings for my Dad, his distant personality, and his want to spend his time off in lakes, woods, and streams.  Christine  shared with me that my Dad’s behaviour was very similar to that of policemen, and military men on active duty.  While working, they always were constantly  aware of possible serious trouble.  In Dad’s case, in his workday a fortress-like prison with high concrete walls surrounded him.  Naturally, when possible he enjoyed being able to relax his guard, and enjoy just existing within nature with no concrete walls. Christine’s explanation really opened doors of understanding for me.

I had no idea as a child what the stress of his work life produced and how he reacted to that.  He was also doing his best to share with me his only sports activity, that of fishing. He was slowly introducing me to men’s world and helping me grow up, but I didn’t realize it then. It has taken me forty years to fully appreciate my father, how in his quiet way he was nurturing me,  and to rid myself of resentment that had long been hidden.

My family and I moved to Coopersburg, PA in 1970.  About a mile from our house was a pond of water covering maybe 2 acres.  It featured a little hut with a sign advertising Sure-Fire Fishing. Farm raised trout stocked the pond and the entrance fee covered the charge for a pole and some bait.  The fee guaranteed one fish or your money back and a nominal charge for more than one.  One nice Saturday, I asked my daughter Louise, about 8 then, if she wanted to go down and try fishing. She thought that was a good idea so down we went, got the fishing equipment, I baited the hook and showed her how to cast it into the pond.  Sure enough, in about 10 minutes she caught a 10″ trout.  She was delighted in her childish way and I was very happy for her.

We took the fish home to show Marge and younger sister Louise what Ingrid had accomplished.  I agreed to clean the fish (Louise did now want to learn that) if Marge would fry it and we could each have a bite or two.  This was a big concession for Marge, as she hated the look, smell, and taste of anything at all fishy.  We had a trout dinner that evening and made a fuss over Ingrid’s accomplishment.

Thanks Dad, for taking me fishing with you.



About R. F.

I am a retired Professional Engineer who spent my working life in the electric utility industry. I am now a volunteer instructor at the University Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV).
This entry was posted in Dannemora, NY, Relationships and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Fish Tales

  1. Allan T says:

    Interesting, growing up in the Bronx, I never had the chance to try my at fishing of any type.

    • R.J.F. says:

      Alan, didn’t you even go to the fish market? Just kidding. I was a lot wordier this time, if that is really a legitimate word, since many people don’t fish, much less go ice fishing. I wanted to share what it was like, what I felt at the time, and as I look back, so many decades ago, how I feel now about that time. Take care and Hi to Janice.

  2. Scott Hammond says:

    I loved the story, Uncle Bob!!! One thing I wish my dad and I had done more often is to go hunting and fishing. I don’t think dad and I had ever gone hunting, but we did go fishing once or twice that I can remember. My co-workers often talk about their expeditions of hunting and fishing. I’d love to go, maybe even take my sons with me, but so far nothing. I will always try to make the best of the situation at hand. Thanks for sharing, Uncle Bob. I love you and miss you, Scott.

    • R.J.F. says:

      Thanks Scott, very much. My dad did not hunt though he did have a .22 rifle which he used to shoot tin cans with in the field behind our house. Of course, there were no houses behind us and a wooded hill so safe enough. To tell the truth, I enjoy the memories, and the renewed appreciation of my Dad more than I did when I was a kid. But what do you know then? Not much really. I love you too Scott, say Hi to your family from old Uncle Bob.

  3. ingridmg2014 says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your “fish tales.” I am so glad to hear that Christine has helped you to reconcile–if that is the appropriate word–with your father, lo these many years after his passing. As for the fishing trip at the end of your post–are you sure it was me? I have no recollection of that event and I always thought that Louise was the one who went fishing with you that day. Credit where credit is due. We’ll have to get her to weigh in.

    • R.J.F. says:

      Ingrid, at least now, as an “aged R” as I think your sister put it, I have more empathy for my father and how he kept plugging along on a job that must not have been all that fun. He was the family provider and that is what he did. As to the fish story in Coopersburg, I really think it was you, but I am not positive about the date, and it could have been Louise. I do remember taking her to riding lessons where the barn temperature was colder than the outdoors. Get her side of the story and I can easily update the post to, as you say, give credit where credit is due.

      • Louise says:

        I do remember going fishing at least once at the little stock pond, and being so proud of “my fish” that I caught. I was *not* interested in any of the cleaning that came after, though. Only the eating!

      • R.J.F. says:

        Ingrid said that as well, I will have to go back and change the names to keep the record correct.

  4. ingridmg2014 says:

    P. S. – I also love the composite photo you posted. That’s one of your own creations, right? You’re so clever and talented!

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