When Kenneth Gerhardt of Peekskill, N.Y., a manufacturer's representative who sells pollution control and efficiency equipment to power plants, was asked last winter to include the frozen tundra of upstate New York as part of his sales territory, he was overjoyed. Gerhardt could hardly wait to get up to Oneida Lake, 10 miles northeast of Syracuse, where the average temperature in January and February is 18° and where the average snowfall each winter is 112.3 inches. A dedicated ice fisherman, Gerhardt was well aware that Oneida has the reputation of being the finest walleye lake in the East and perhaps the entire country. "Walleyes might fight with all the dash and abandon of a wet cardboard box," Gerhardt says, "but they are delicious."
Fishermen who know Gerhardt consider him the best ice fisherman they have ever met. Christopher Letts, a 46-year-old naturalist and educator who now lives in Cortland, N.Y., says, "I grew up in Illinois and Michigan, the heart of ice fishing country, and by the time I was 16, I thought I knew it all. But Ken has changed me. He has influenced me more than anyone else ever has. He's showing the way in ice fishing. He's the driving force."
Not everyone is so impressed. Gerhardt laughs and admits that when his three daughters were younger and still living at home, they and his wife, Janet, would send him off on his midwinter angling expeditions with comments like "You're insane. You're a sick man."
Gerhardt's specialty is going after panfish—yellow perch, white perch, crappies and sunnies. "Contrary to what many people think, ice fishing for panfish is more effective than summer fishing by a factor of 10," says Gerhardt, who averages two to three dozen fish a trip. "The fish school tighter in the winter, you can hold right over them, they don't move around much, and once you find them, they stay in the same general area for three or four days. And for eating, there's nothing like panfish from an icy pond. In the summer I wouldn't walk across the street for a yellow perch, a crappie or a blue-gill, but in the winter I pursue them with devotion."
Gerhardt is the kind of fisherman who attracts a crowd even on a day when the wind-chill factor is —20°. Not surprisingly for a salesman, he is a talker; stories, quips, jokes, limericks and fishing tips pour out of him nonstop. Gerhardt isn't just interested in entertaining or instructing the crowds that gather around him, he wants to have company, because ice fishing can be extra productive when other fishermen are nearby. The panfish down below often go into a feeding frenzy, Gerhardt theorizes, because all the lures simulate a school of bait.
Gerhardt also fishes through ice for trout. One winter afternoon a few years ago, a news producer at WNET-TV, the PBS station serving metropolitan New York, decided to send a crew up to the West Branch Reservoir, 15 miles northeast of Peekskill, to videotape all the dopey ice fishermen suffering in the subzero cold. The producer figured the footage would be good for a lot of laughs. No sooner had the crew arrived at the reservoir than fishermen began gathering at a hole and shouting. The crew scampered across the ice and taped the episode, which began with Gerhardt playing a fish as other anglers frantically chopped away at the hole to enlarge it. Finally Gerhardt pulled the fish through the hole and plopped it onto the ice. It was a 14-pound, 6-ounce brown trout.
That night the tape was shown, but if there were any laughs, they were at the expense of WNET. In the rush to get the tape on the air, technicians did not have time to edit the sound track, which came on laden with admiring but unbleeped obscenities from the crowd.
Gerhardt, 62, took up ice fishing 45 years ago, before winning seven battle stars while serving with the Army in Europe during World War II. He also took up fly-fishing to occupy himself during the warmer months. Though he was a superb flytier and a graceful caster—he could effortlessly send a heavy lead-core line 100 feet across a stream—he abruptly abandoned fly-fishing 15 years ago. He had become smitten with deep-sea fishing for cod, pollock and the occasional halibut 25 to 40 miles out in the Atlantic off Cape Cod. His trout-fishing friends were aghast. When one of them. Colonel Henry A. Siegel, chided him for giving up trout in favor of "coarse fish," Gerhardt replied, "Hey, Henry, the fish I catch are wider between the eyes than yours are long."
Gerhardt, who earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, says, "My approach to fishing is that of an engineer. When I go fishing I define the problem, and then I solve it." Ultraprecise and systematic, he makes (and occasionally invents) his own lures, rigs and rods, and he keeps detailed fishing logs that note even the stomach contents offish he has caught. For the record, bluegills taken through the ice often have wads of daphnia—water fleas—in their stomachs, while yellow perch prefer to gorge themselves on dime-sized baby bluegills instead of minnows. Says Letts, "Ken will empty out a stomach, put the contents in a glass of water and then swirl the glass around and inspect it as though it were Dom Perignon."
Gerhardt often writes about his findings in The Fisherman Magazine, a weekly regional that caters to hard-core anglers from Virginia to Maine. "Gerhardt has an incredible following," says Harold Berkowitz, the proprietor of Midland Tackle in Sloatsburg, N.Y., one of the busiest mail-order operations in the nation. "If he writes a story recommending this rod blank or that reel. I'll have at least a hundred orders within a week. And I'm talking about $150 items. Fishermen believe in him."
According to Gerhardt's records, the time of day is very important in ice fishing. "The best time is from first light to about eight or nine o'clock in the morning," he says. "The second-best time is from 3 or 3:30 until dark. Where to fish is important. In most cases, panfish will be in water 10 feet deep or less, except for New York City reservoirs, where huge perch, 16 inches or more, are taken in 60 to 70 feet of water."
When exploring a frozen pond that he does not yet know well, Gerhardt drills a five-to eight-inch-diameter hole 10 to 15 feet offshore, preferably off a point of land. He used to make his holes the traditional way, with an ax or a big hand auger, but nowadays he uses a power auger, not unlike the kind that phone company workmen use to install telephone poles. The machine goes for $250, but it can bore through 24-inch-thick ice in 30 seconds. Gerhardt doesn't fish a hole immediately, but instead works his way along the ice, drilling nine or 10 more holes every 10 yards. "Fish are very sensitive to sound," he says. "When I've finished drilling all the holes, I go back to the first one and start fishing there because the fish near it have had time to calm down."
Gerhardt uses a three-foot graphite jigging rod of his own make and design. The guides are extra large so they don't ice over, and at the tip is a spring "strike indicator." Essentially it is a sensitive metal spring that will flex at the slightest nibble by a fish, which is important because winter panfish, especially crappies and yellow perch, generally have a very soft strike. To make certain that he can see the softest of strikes in dim light, Gerhardt paints the eye on the tip fluorescent orange.
Almost inevitably, the first lure Gerhardt clips on—he uses quick clips so he doesn't have to tie knots in frigid temperatures—is a small ball-head jig with a gold-plated hook and a soft plastic grub. "The gold adds a little flash," Gerhardt says, "and before I add on the grub I put a drop of Krazy Glue behind the head of the jig and push the tail into it. Bluegills have a nasty habit of stripping the tail off, and there's a certain cost in comfort in putting a new tail on in the cold. This way there's no problem. Finally, I add a moussee—the larva of a fly—to the hook point, just for scent. The motion of the jig attracts the fish, but the moussee triggers the biting.
"This whole system has been years in the making. It is based on utility and efficiency in catching fish, even on very cold and windy days. I fish the jig at three levels: first just off the bottom, then 18 inches above the bottom and finally 36 inches above the bottom, or three reel turns. The motion I use with the jig is just a slight jiggle, jiggle, jiggle. I do six jiggles, pause 10 seconds, do six more jiggles and then give the jig a slow lift-up before letting it descend to the bottom again. I let it sit for about 10 seconds and then repeat all the jiggles. I do this about eight or 10 times at each level. After I've gone through one cycle, I'll repeat the whole cycle once, maybe twice. If I catch a fish at the hole, I'll keep fishing there until there are no more bites. Then I'll move to the next hole out from shore. A lot of fishermen make the mistake of drilling just one hole and staying there even if they don't catch fish."
Gerhardt has found that in small ponds, panfish feed in pulses. The fish will feed avidly for five or six days and then stop for 14 to 18 days. Gerhardt keeps years' worth of detailed records on four such ponds, and says, "The fish feed and stop feeding at the same time, almost to the day, year after year." He knows this because he has purposely fished those ponds on days when his records said the fish wouldn't hit, and he was delighted to come up empty. "Ken can catch a lot of fish," says Letts, "but he really is more interested in finding out about fish behavior. He's always probing."
Gerhardt reasons that in a small pond, panfish feed the way they do because of population booms of daphnia and other organisms. Then, after gorging themselves, they spend 14 to 18 days digesting their food because cold water temperatures have slowed their metabolisms.
When Gerhardt's logs tell him that the panfishing will be poor, he often switches technique and goes for trout. "Jigging for trout is a different story," Gerhardt says. "You should be fishing in 30 to 50 feet of water, and you need a rod with a bit more backbone. The lure is a flat silver jig with a treble hook and a half-inch to three-quarter-inch-long piece of minnow tail hooked on one of the prongs. I let the lure down until it hits the bottom, I lower the rod tip to almost the water surface, then I snap the rod up four feet and let the lure flutter down. I do this 10 or 15 times. Then I take in four feet of line and repeat this until I've worked all the way to the top. Trout can be anywhere in that column of water, although 90 percent of the ones I've caught have been within 18 inches of the bottom.. The 14½-pounder that I took in the West Branch was 40 feet down, on the bottom. Just two minutes before I hooked that fish, I had landed a 2½-pound trout."
Gerhardt employs a similar technique when he is fishing for walleye. But instead of a solid jig he prefers a lightweight spoon about two inches long that he will jig just off the bottom in 10 to 20 feet of water. He also has found that painting his spoons fluorescent green or orange is an improvement over their standard metallic finish.
In looking at his fishing objectively, Gerhardt says, "My ice fishing and my deep-jigging for cod are under 95 percent control. Every time I go out it's a learning experience. No one can ever say they know everything about anything, especially fishing. I'm constantly changing. Not everything comes up roses. But I always keep trying to find a better way." Which is hardly good news for the walleyes of Oneida Lake.