“You can’t have equipment malfunctions out here,” says Doug Oxford.
The 54-year-old Southern Garrett High School psychology teacher—a 2007/2008 Maryland Teacher of the Year finalist—is staring down into a dark hole on an undisclosed frozen swath of Deep Creek Lake.
“You’ve got to have a pair of back-up gloves. Then you’ve got to have the ultimate pair of gloves when your hands are about ready to die.”
Doug’s old college buddy, Boyd Church, 51, is nestled in his shanty, a tent-like shelter made of heavy nylon. Heating a can of chili on a small camp stove, the Boonsboro resident—a senior stormwater engineer with the Loudoun County (VA) Department of Public Works—says he wants to petition Hallmark to get Valentine’s Day moved to August.
Mid February, after all, is the heart of ice-fishing season in Garrett County.
Larry Krupa, a 35-year-old calculus teacher at Southern Garrett, revs his gas-powered auger and drills into 14 inches of ice, while Doug follows behind with tip-ups, which resemble landmines and are placed over the resulting holes. When a fish hits the baited line, an orange flag is triggered.
Fishing a deep channel tucked in the cradle of Backbone Mountain, Doug and his pals set their lines at depths ranging from eight to 18 feet. They’re hunting the big four: northern pike, walleye, yellow perch, and bluegill.
“You always catch on the transitions. You want to go where the deep meets the ripple,” Doug says. “We’re looking for where there is a big drop-off, and then the fish will hang along the side of that drop-off.”
His head capped with a fox-fur-lined hat, Doug scans his flasher, a sonar fish-finder. He opens a wooden box and produces two small, lightweight rods called jigging polls.
“See that green thing? That’s my jig [lure]…and that’s the bottom, the red,” he says. “I’m going to be jigging this jig, fluttering it up and down trying to entice one. A big red blob is going to come up from the bottom and nail it.”
When Doug began “bucket sitting” on Deep Creek Lake more than 30 years ago, his equipment wasn’t so high-tech. In fact, his fishing gear included broomsticks.
“Old school,” Boyd says, laughing. “[Doug] used to come out with a ball-peen hammer and a screwdriver.”
Then, in 2005, Doug and some friends traveled to Devils Lake, North Dakota.
“We went to ice-fishing school,” he says. “The first thing they do is give us one of these rods. We’d never seen them before.”
He adds, “Ice fishermen are gear junkies. We use the word ‘covet’ quite frequently. ‘I covet your heater. I covet your new rod.’”
Layers of Gore-Tex and Thinsulate are the ice fisherman’s best friend, but Doug says the most important apparel is a pair of waterproof pac boots.
And rule number one? Don’t get wet.
Like fish, Mother Nature can be finicky in the Mid-Atlantic. Some years, anglers have waited in vain for the big freeze. During other seasons, however, long stretches of sub-zero temps have provided nearly 20 inches of crystal-clear ice. “Fishing on top of a glass table” is how Doug describes it.
“A good season is when we are fishing before Christmas,” he says. “If you’re still fishing [on] St. Patrick’s Day, you’ve got it good.”
Although it’s been a good season for ice, on this particular morning, there’s been little action. Doug continues to do the “dance,” but has only had nibbles.
Then Boyd calls out, “Doug, flag!”
Hurrying gingerly to his tip-up, Doug pulls the line from the slushy water. On the other end is a shiny 22-inch olive-colored northern pike, a mean snake-like little monster.